Why do I need to learn this? It's a question every teacher has faced at one time or another. So, how do we convince students that what they are doing in the classroom matters? It's simple, really. We stop creating a gap between the "real" world and the "school world." What does that even mean? Which world are we living in if not the real one? Doesn't it make more sense to empower students to see the connections between their learning and the world outside of school?
This approach eliminates the conceptualization of two distinct and separate worlds and builds in students an understanding that their learning is immediately applicable and necessary. Our role as STEM teachers is to help make the classroom environment look and feel more like the external environment, so students can move between the two comfortably.
So, how do we blur — or even erase — that invisible line between the "real" and "schools" worlds? We could go about this by making connections in two directions: into and out of the classroom.
Into: Bring the "real" world into the classroom using one of the approaches described below.
Current Events: Situating content-specific study in current events — rather than treating our areas of study as siloed, historical, and out-of-touch — is a surefire way to set a purpose for student learning. For instance, what if students read scholarly articles and opinion pieces about the controversial aspects of animal and human cloning before beginning a unit on genetics and reproduction? Instead of memorizing definitions for DNA and RNA and dubiously practicing the methodology of Punnett squares, students would internalize these terms and concepts and how they fit into the much-debated world of cloning. Even more exciting, students could add their own voices to the cloning debate after having armed themselves with evidence from their studies.
Guest Speakers: Sticking with our cloning theme, consider the possibility of having a geneticist speak to your students about the challenges and pitfalls of genetic research and practice. Your students could get real-time answers to some of their most pressing questions and hear answers connected to current and timely research. Don't have the connections to bring in a geneticist? There is a multitude of resources available to help connect educators with experts in the field. Check out Skype in the Classroom or Nepris. TED Talks are another option to bring current voices into your classroom.
Career Spotlights: Decades of research in the area of STEM career interest have concluded that students lack a clear understanding of what scientists do. Allowing students to make visible, concrete connections to careers across the areas they study makes these fields relevant and accessible to students. Instead of being something ambiguous and vague, science careers become a real possibility in students' futures. In fact, showing career videos to students has even been showed to positively impact their career interests.
Out of: Take the classroom outside and into the "real world" to ensure the two worlds collide. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
Field Experiences — What if you took your students in your engineering class to a construction site where they could see engineers in action to ensure the safe construction of a bridge? (Bonus points if you can get the engineer to provide some background information or a play-by-play of the process!) How much richer would a lab experiment on bridge building be if students were first aware of the real-life ramifications of shoddy bridge building? Can't get to a bridge? There is a multitude of virtual field trips available for STEM educators that allow for an immersive experience — without the budgetary issues that arise with traditional field trips.
Service Learning — Community volunteering, such as cleaning up around the area of the bridge, is another powerful way for students to link their learning to the world. A clean worksite provides engineers and builders with a clear view of the land surrounding their project, giving them eyes on the types of soil, rocks, trees, and other environmental factors that affect the project. This is also eye-opening for students, as they begin to understand how the natural world can affect the constructed world.
Presentations — Rather than have students stand in front of their classmates to present their findings, think how powerful it could be to put them in front of a school board, city council, or community group. Give students the opportunity to explain their learning and conclusions or issue a call to action based on data, all while developing the 21st-century skill of communication.
Let's also not forget the power of allowing students to connect their learning to their own devices. This collision between the "school" and the "real" worlds can also be achieved in two directions.
Into: Bring students' personal lives into the classroom to create authentic connections. Here are a few suggestions.
Activate background knowledge — First, we can bring students' personal lives into the classroom by asking about past experiences during class. Studying the bones in the body? Most kids love to share stories about their broken arms and legs. Then, you could even talk about the amount of force and pressure it takes to break a particular bone. Venturing into plants and life cycles? Ask students if anyone helps a relative with a garden or waters plants at home. They will be able to give you tons of real-life details that naturally incorporate the instruction.
Hands-on activities — Consider using hands-on activities to help kids see the link between schools and their lives. Teaching about percentages? Ask kids how often their parents will buy them something if it's on sale. Then, let them create a wish list for a birthday or holiday on Amazon and calculate how much the items would cost based on certain percentage discounts. Incorporating financial literacy into your instruction? Give kids a budget and some grocery store sale papers and have them "grocery shop" for a week's worth of food in their college apartments. (Take a step further by having them place their food choices on the food pyramid to see how healthy they will eat that week. Then, they can do a cost comparison analysis of whether it's really more expensive to eat healthily.)
High-interest areas — Do you know what students like or care about? Link instruction to the direct interests to help them understand how "school" life can prepare them to be consumers of the "real" world. If you have several students interested in cosmetic and hair products, then you could link that to an exploration of animal testing and ethics. Any students a vegan or vegetarian? Use that as an opportunity to explore nutrients the body needs, how much, and why.
Out of: Now that your students have made all these life connections, completed hands-on activities, and explored their interests in new lights, it's time to share their knowledge. What about allowing students to take their learning out into their personal lives?
Public presentations — What better way to bring the school into students' personal lives than to invite people from the families to school for a presentation? Many districts host STEM festivals and science fairs that give students a chance to showcase their learning for their parents. Bringing school into their personal lives really validating their learning!
Class publications — As much as we would like to have Family Science Night or Math with Mom and Dad every week, it's not always possible. That's why giving your students time to create newsletters written entirely by student authors, blog posts sharing their findings, and websites showcasing their work is another fantastic way to help them share their knowledge. As a bonus, you are also teaching them how to use the digital world (in which they are growing up) responsibly and purposefully and enhancing their 21sct century technology skills.
Apprenticeships/internships — Helping students secure apprenticeships and internships gives them a chance to use their knowledge from school in actual applications, rather than fictitious (and controlled) settings. As a result, they no longer wonder why they are learning something because they are actively using that knowledge.
School should not be a carefully constructed world of learning but rather a bridge between what students have learned and what they will encounter outside the walls of the building. This approach provides an authenticity to instruction that, in many cases, eliminates that moment when you've spent days covering a specific topic only to realize your students have retained very little information. It also anchors for students what they have learned and how it applies to life. The world is real, whether you are walking down a hallway lined with lockers or a sidewalk surrounded by roadways. Let's help our students understand how one works with the other, and we will benefit in the end.