A Vision for STEM Education
Updated: Apr 29
Why did you first want to become a teacher? It is a noble profession, and our guess is that you were drawn to it to share your love of learning, inspired by one of your teachers, and/or because you wanted to have a positive impact on the lives of young people. But the realities of the job quickly force teachers to be very efficient, and that often leads to lectures, taking notes, simple worksheets that are collected at the end of the period, and too frequent summative quizzes and tests.
Innately, students actually crave to conduct investigations, solve problems, and engage in conversations with teacher guidance. But the time it takes to plan and create those activities is so immense that individual teachers cannot do it all themselves. Even if they could, there is a reasonable chance they may be assigned to teach new courses the following year. It’s overwhelming.
Science Outside was founded to advance excellence in science education by making it more engaging and authentically equipping young people to tackle many challenges in the decades ahead and beyond. You can see it in our mission statement found on our homepage:
“Inspire students to explore the natural world in profoundly engaging ways that expand and apply content knowledge, deepen analysis, and spark thoughtful, respectful, and robust dialogue.”
We’ve drawn our vision from a rich diversity of resources, including NSTA’s New Vision for Science Education, Project 2061, the Framework for K-12 Science Education, the Next Generation Science Standards, the BSCS 5E Instructional Model, the American Modeling Teachers Association, the PISA 2024 Strategic Direction and Vision for Science. Then we distilled the common themes that flow through those works and infused a few uniquely effective instructional elements that we’ve identified.
What do truly highly-effective STEM classrooms look like?
Inspirational teaching begins with teachers that have a passion for their subject. Goals without passionate teachers are lifeless and uninspiring. Passionate teachers are the foundation.
It is still common for many teachers to address a set of learning objectives during one class period and start a new set of learning objectives the next time the class meets until all of the learning objectives for a course have been covered. Every week or two, they might be reviewed just prior to a quiz or test.
We believe excellent science teaching infuses more robust conversations and hands-on activities that persevere with the same set of learning objectives over a multi-day learning cycle, increasing the depth of understanding each day. The research we rely on indicates it is more effective to engage the same learning objectives over the course of 3 - 4 class periods and to revisit them again from time to time throughout the rest of the school year in other contexts.
The Case Study Method empowers teachers to stop delivering information and allows them to facilitate students actively acquiring information on their own and with their peers. In other words, to transition from “the sage on the stage” to “the guide by their side.” Students regularly revisit topics and move from basic to sophisticated and nuanced views. They have many opportunities to practice being close readers, critical thinkers, evidence-based writers, and confident speakers. Case studies help students engage in probabilistic thinking by forcing them to make decisions when they do not have all of the information they’d like to have. They gain confidence in taking this risk as they develop a greater understanding of probability and recognize that some level of uncertainty is always present.
I had the high privilege of observing master physics teacher Christian Horner as he led a group of students through a topic. He utilized the Modeling Instruction Approach. It’s a guided-inquiry way of teaching science that organizes instruction with a well-planned sequence of observations. Student understanding expands and becomes more nuanced as each model is built and observed in action. There are abundant failures that precede successes. Students unexpectedly encounter discrepant events and continually revise their understanding. Students are immersed in the process of doing science. They perform math calculations to make predictions. They derive equations as they go along. Explanations get increasingly complex and detailed as more data is collected.
“We stigmatize mistakes. And we're now running national educational systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make - and the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.” - Ken Robinson
This Modeling Instruction Approach helps students learn that mistakes and failures are exciting opportunities to be curious and learn, and discover that never giving up is far more important than being successful the first time you try something. In fact, being successful the first time you try something is a mark of not trying something difficult enough. Instead of stigmatizing mistakes, we need to highlight that if you are not willing to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original. Creativity can’t be taught with direct instruction.
Mathematics is an essential tool for everyone, especially for science students and teachers, and a vital component of every science course. In 1788 Nicolas Pike authored Arithmetic, the first American mathematics textbook for schools. It recommended that teachers utilize the following strategy when teaching mathematics:
State a rule.
Demonstrate the rule with an example.
Have students practice the rule.
Pike’s method of mathematics instruction may have been an effective way to teach students math skills, but it didn’t effectively teach math concepts or offer clear connections to other disciplines or the world. Yet it is still a common approach in many classrooms. In order to be successful in the course you teach and beyond, students need to practice solving problems that require them to reason and develop the confidence to know they can solve problems they have never seen before. What should excellent teaching of mathematics look like? We surveyed a small group of very successful science teachers and this is a summary of the processes they report using to teach math in their classrooms.
Project a positive attitude about both mathematics as a tool to answer interesting questions and the ability of your students to perform mathematics.
Pose interesting and challenging questions that relate to the real world.
Model an example calculation as you discuss the connections between concepts and skills. Both concepts and skills are foundational to learning mathematics and complement each other. Even include some interesting history if it is relevant.
Cultivate perseverance by providing students time to struggle and actively do mathematics. Embrace a classroom culture of making mistakes and learning from them.
Encourage curiosity and teamwork. Allow students to share their mathematical ideas and receive peer feedback while actively working in groups of 2 - 4 students. This reduces the likelihood that students will get caught in a procedural dead end.
Provide encouraging teacher feedback and when necessary, help students rethink their solution pathway. Continually emphasize that learning math is a formative process. Delay giving students the answers until they have had time to struggle, incorporate feedback into their attempts, and have arrived at a reasonable answer.
Review the answers.
The single most effective teaching strategy that I have personally seen used to teach mathematics concepts is the Concrete Representational Abstract (CRA) Approach. I observed an algebra teacher in Dallas, Texas grab students’ attention with base ten blocks and lead them through solving a series of progressively more challenging calculations utilizing those objects. This is the Concrete Phase of the approach. After students gained consistent success solving math problems with physical objects, they were given similar math problems with visual representations of the physical objects they were using. This is the Representational Phase. Finally, students were asked to perform the same type of calculations with only the abstract (ex: numbers, coefficients, or symbols). The process helped these students better understand the relationship between numbers and the real world. In fact, data has shown that the CRA Approach dramatically improves long-term retention of challenging math concepts. I had never before witnessed a group of students demonstrate such consistent mastery of a math process in the Abstract Phase.
Every well-designed investigative sequence or case study utilizes the same principles. Engage, Explore, Formulate Explanations, Explore More, Explain in a more sophisticated and nuanced manner, and Evaluate understanding. It’s more or less the Biological Science Curriculum Study (BSCS) Blueprint that’s been around since the 1980s. It’s not a new vision but today’s unprecedented access to high-quality teaching materials puts us in a better position than ever to implement this vision of STEM learning.
As you begin to practice these techniques, it’s vital to keep in mind that a multi-day learning cycle may not at first glance appear as “clean” to a school administrator as a traditional one-class period lesson, and it might require some explanation. They may not have previous experience with the time it takes to facilitate.
“We have sold ourselves into a fast food model of education, and it's impoverishing our spirit and our energies as much as fast food is depleting our physical bodies.” - Ken Robinson
It requires 3 - 4 days to work through a more effective learning cycle, and authentic and fair teacher observations should follow the multi-day lesson from the beginning to the end. While observing, supervisors should take note of the ratio of teacher work to student work because students won’t gain command of the content if teachers are doing the vast majority of the work.
If we adopt the fundamental principles of thoughtfully planned, intentionally sequenced lessons and teacher-guided but student-driven learning activities, our students will develop deeper conceptual understandings, retain them longer, and be able to effectively transfer their learning to new and novel contexts. They’ll also master the skills needed to authentically participate in the scientific process. It’s worth the investment.
A New Vision for Science Education.
American Modeling Teachers Association – Transforming STEM Education. www.modelinginstruction.org/.
Bybee, Rodger, et al. BSCS 5E Instructional Model: Origins and Effectiveness. 2006.
Ferlazzo, Larry. “Four Teacher-Recommended Instructional Strategies for Math (Opinion).” Education Week, 11 July 2021, www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/opinion-four-teacher-recommended-instructional-strategies-for-math/2021/07.
National Research Council (É.-U.). Committee On A Conceptual Framework For New K-12 Science
Education Standards. A Framework for K-12 Science Education : Practices, Crosscutting
Concepts, and Core Ideas. Washington, D.C., The National Academies Press, 2012.
National Research Council. (2015). Guide to Implementing the Next Generation Science Standards (pp. 8-9). Washington, DC: National Academies Press. http://www.nap.edu/catalog/18802/guide-to-implementing-the-next-generation-science-standards
PISA 2024 Strategic Vision and Direction for Science. 2020.
“Project 2061 | American Association for the Advancement of Science.” Www.aaas.org, www.aaas.org/programs/project-2061.
“Vision for Science, Mathematics and Computing Education | Royal Society.” Royalsociety.org, royalsociety.org/topics-policy/projects/vision/.
“What Is Math Modeling? | Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics.” M3challenge.siam.org, m3challenge.siam.org/resources/whatismathmodeling.