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Redesigning Education: Building Schools for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math

The four disciplines, known as STEM, have been deemed crucial to American competitiveness. How can we design our schools so students want to learn about them?

“It is the tension between creativity and skepticism that has produced the stunning and unexpected findings of science.” –Carl Sagan

Not since the Soviets launched Sputnik into Earth’s orbit in the 1960s has there been such urgency for America to redesign science and math education programs. Now, in the third millennium, the initiative takes the form of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education. Research demonstrates that interest among American students in STEM subjects has greatly declined, a major issue given that the STEM labor force is an indicator of a nation’s ability to sustain itself. The new STEM initiative will launch with a bold mission: to reengage students in the joys of learning science and mathematics at all levels of education.

The launch is well underway. In January of this year President Obama announced that $250 million would be invested in training and recruiting 100,000 new science and math teachers. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made STEM a prerequisite for states applying for Race to the Top funding.

Workshop image courtesy of the American Architectural Foundation

In lockstep with the White House announcement, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in conjunction with the American Architectural Foundation, conducted workshops as part of a national summit on how design thinking and the design process can help to foster creative new models for STEM school development and create a framework for scaling up the STEM knowledge network. Using design thinking, workshop participants also investigated what a STEM educational environment would look like. America is investing in STEM education with money and with human capital.

Now is the time to reflect on the reasons for students’ disengagement from science and technology subjects. We need to treat STEM as a pedagogical approach and design an environment to support this new way of teaching. Brian Greene, a best-selling author and theoretical physicist best known for his work in string theory, talks passionately about how we have educated the curiosity out of the math and sciences. Greene says that we have paralyzed our children with the fear of being wrong. Risk-taking and making mistakes are critical to the scientific process. This fear of being wrong has resulted in disengagement from science and mathematics: learning science and math is a drag! He makes a convincing assessment of the problems with our current science education system and stops just short of demanding a new pedagogy to bring excitement and relevance back to the learning of science and math. 

Watch Brian Greene’s talk from a recent Aspen Ideas Festival on recapturing children’s innate spirit of exploration. The collision of the arts and sciences–right-brain thinkers collaborating with left-brain thinkers–helps spur new knowledge and innovation. So why are the arts left out of the STEM discussion? I would argue we need to modify STEM to become STEAM to encompass the inventive, creative characteristics embodied in the arts. By including the arts in the discussion, we also have the possibility of increasing engagement with students.

For example, at the University of California, Santa Barbara, JoAnn Kuchera-Morin, a musician, collaborated with her scientific colleagues to create the AlloSphere–an entirely new way to visualize and hear scientific data. The Allosphere is a massive, echo-free sphere with large projection screens and surround sound that is connected to a super computer. It enables scientists to employ all of the human senses and completely submerge themselves in their most complex data and models. As Kuchera-Morin describes the phenomenon: “imagine seeing and hearing the music of the electrons spin.” Words alone cannot explain the AlloSphere, you have to watch it in action.

crayon physicsCourtesy of crayonphysics.com and Kloonigames Ltd.

Combining the arts and sciences can take a much simpler form as well. Crayon Physics is a free Web-based game that introduces children to Newton’s Laws of Motion. The simple goal is to design a contraption that knocks a star off various platforms. Kids can experience, in real time, the interconnected relationship of Newton’s laws as their contraption is activated and unfolds. The bigger idea is that the game allows the kids to solve puzzles by designing contraptions that are innovative, functional, and beautiful. 

What Does a STEM Environment Look and Feel Like?

It’s critical to create an environment that promotes rather than hinders the collaborative human dynamic and the collision of mathematics, the sciences and the arts. To promote this collision, spaces should flow into each other to encourage children’s natural tendency to explore. Do away the self-contained laboratory and let the lab atmosphere pervade a school’s every nook and cranny! We should promote project-based, rather than subject-based, curricula to enable inquiry and discovery. Tinkering and prototyping rather than repetitive experimentation and testing should be the goal.

Some of the best examples of dynamic learning happen outside of school. At the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, the “Science Storms” installation captures the sensorial, experiential joy that children discover in science. At the ground level, the space is anchored by an immense vertical installation that allows children to feel a tornado spinning. The perimeter of the installation is lined with smaller lab spaces for group learning. The labs’ glass walls and sliding doors provide a visual and tangible connection to the adjacent stimulating, hands-on experiments. It is ironic that we create such amazing interactive science exhibitions that we bring our children to on special occasions rather than just building them at the schools.

For designers invested in educational spaces, the challenge is obvious: We cannot simply hammer the round peg of this STEM initiative into the square hole that is the 19th century school model. Educators, scientists, architects, engineers, artists, technologists, designers, and kids can collaborate to re-envision the pedagogy and the learning environment needed to support STEM. Through this design journey we will rediscover the spirit of playfulness and fun in learning science and meet the challenges of the Race to the Top.

Top image, the new “Science Storms” exhibition at Chicago’s Museum of Science and

Read Trung Le’s blog Design

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Trung Le is a principal education
designer at Cannon Design. Over the past two years he has helped lead an
interdisciplinary group of designers and educators from the U.S., U.K.,
Canada, and Germany, to collaborate on a research project that resulted
in the publication
The Third Teacher: 79 Ways You Can Use Design
to Transform Teaching & Learning. The term “the third teacher”
is derived from Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the Reggio Emilia approach
to learning and who wrote about the three teachers of children: adults,
peers and the physical environment. Environment, said Malaguzzi, is “the
third teacher.”

About the author

Trung Le is a principal education designer at Cannon Design. Over the past two years he has helped lead an interdisciplinary group of designers and educators from the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Germany, to collaborate on a research project that resulted in the publication The Third Teacher: 79 Ways You Can Use Design to Transform Teaching & Learning.



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