The Chalk Blog

STEM, STEAM and Inquiry- What's in it for me?

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This week's blog post co-writer, Nancy Lindfors, currently serves as the Manager of Evaluation and Degree Programs at Learners Edge. Nancy has experience in K-12 education as a Middle and High School science teacher, and has worked in Faculty Development and Academic Affairs in Higher Education as well as Community Education and Corporate Training and Development.

This week's blog post co-writer, Barb Istas, is currently a Learners Edge Curriculum and Instruction Specialist. Prior to joining Learners Edge, Barb was a language arts teacher for 25 years in a large suburban Minnesota school district where she integrated the arts in her daily classroom instruction.

STEM, STEAM and Inquiry- What’s in It for Me?

The goal of education is not to increase the amount of knowledge but to create the possibilities for a child to invent and discover, to create [people] who are capable of doing new things. ~ Jean Piaget

Google “student-centered learning” and you’ll get over 3 million hits!  Teachers across the country are working tirelessly to create engaging and relevant learning experiences for their students.  The shift toward STEM and STEAM with a focus on inquiry learning is in high gear!  Many educators believe these strategies will deepen student understanding, improve academic performance, and prepare students with 21st Century Skills needed in tomorrow’s workforce. The brain science is clear; but we’d like to focus in on another compelling factor to this equation – teacher engagement and passion! How can STEM, STEAM and Inquiry help to recharge your battery and benefit you as “lead thinker” in your classroom?  Find your flow zone!

Have you ever experienced that holy grail of teaching- you know the one; time flies by and even the students are surprised when the day or hour comes to a close?  It’s that “zone” or “flow,” as it is sometimes called - the mental state of operation in which you are so immersed, so engaged and focused, that you get lost in the enjoyment of the process or activity. It’s that special place between boredom and frustration.  It requires time and skill, and won’t be easy, but the benefits are worth the investment. 

image_flow-300x213.pngImage credit: Image designed based off Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experiences by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pg. 74)

We think there are 5 BIG ways you can use STEM, STEAM and Inquiry instructional approaches to find that flow regularly in your classroom. 

1. The brain loves novelty.  STEM, STEAM and Inquiry approaches create opportunity for teachers to keep it fresh not only for students but for themselves. 

Inquiry, STEM and STEAM can be “fluid” forms of teaching.  While planning is key to the success of any lesson, the elasticity inherent in models that promote student exploration and ownership can require more flexibility in how teachers guide students from point A to point B.  A non-linear path to a learning objective might mean going off script at times and herein lies the opportunity for us as teachers to experience the fun of authentic learning – even learning alongside our students.  Why does this excite us?  Brain science can help us better understand.

Did you know that part of your midbrain, called the Substantia Nigra/Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA in the diagram below) responds to novel stimuli?  It ensures that anything that is “new” attracts our attention.  When we say that we have “shiny object syndrome” – it’s really true!  This makes sense because we wouldn’t want to be distracted by the usual and ordinary parts of our day or we might never get anything done.

brain image.png

Image credit: NIDA, Quasihuman (Derivative work of File:Dopamine Pathways.png) via Wikimedia Commons

Research shows that novelty can positively impact the plasticity of the hippocampus: translation = the ability to create new connections between neurons.  This holds true during the process of exploring something novel and for 15-30 minutes afterward.  Additionally, novelty can improve memory – check out these research study findings:

Researchers Bunzeck and Düzel tested people with an “oddball” experiment that used fMRI imaging to see how their brains reacted to novelty. Separate behavioral experiments were also conducted. Their memory of the novel, familiar and very familiar images they had studied was tested after 20 minutes and then a day later. Subjects performed best in these tests when new information was combined with familiar information during learning. After a 20-minute delay, subjects’ memory for slightly familiar information was boosted by 19 per cent if it had been mixed with new facts during learning sessions.

You have probably experienced this increase in student motivation and excitement when you have presented them with something new.  You might even make a conscious effort to incorporate novelty into your teaching practices.  When you introduce something new or present “old material” in a new way, students are naturally excited! But, have you really ever considered what novelty does for you?  It excites and motivates you too!  Adult brains respond to novelty in exactly the same way. 

2. To engage, we must empower! Designing student-centered integrated lessons like those found in Inquiry, STEM and STEAM helps students shift role from passive learner to active learner.   Providing students with opportunity to control their learning can make the difference between compliant and engaged students.  When students are engaged and share our passion for content – it’s invigorating!

Learning alongside students reduces pressure on the teacher to have all the answers.   Have you ever heard of the Buckminster Fuller Knowledge Doubling Curve?  Until 1900, human knowledge doubled approximately every century. By the end of World War II, knowledge was doubling every 25 years. Today, on average, human knowledge is doubling every 13 months.  According to IBM, the build out of the “internet of things” will lead to the doubling of knowledge every 12 hours – WOW! 

John Cotton Dana once said, "Who dares to teach must never cease to learn.”  Our role as teacher continues to shift from "sage on the stage” to “guide on the side” as we embrace a focus on helping students to ask the right questions.  And studies show it’s working.  Decades of research reveals there are many benefits to empowering students via learner-centered education strategies like Inquiry, STEM and STEAM.  They can include:

  • increased motivation for learning
  • greater satisfaction with school
  • personal involvement
  • intrinsic motivation
  • personal commitment
  • confidence in one’s abilities to succeed
  • a perception of control over learning leading to more learning
  • and higher achievement in school

Imagine a classroom full of motivated students who like school and are intrinsically motivated and confident in their ability to succeed.  We would argue that many of the benefits listed above will also ring true for you.  How do you think an empowered, engaged and intrinsically-motivated student body affect your motivation and attitude toward school?

3. We learn best in context.  Integrated STEM and STEAM lessons connect concepts from several disciplines starting with a “whole” instead of the pieces provided when concepts are broken down by subject.   

Once the brain has stored basic curriculum concepts, the storing-by-association system of the brain attaches new information to those basic concepts, building new ones as students have learning experiences that involve them in integrated subject matter. ~ Laster

An integrated instructional approach can help students relate authentic concepts to the real world.  Students can therefore connect ideas to something about which they already have thoughts and feelings. Integrating content allows students to “see” relationships between what they already know and the new branches they can grow to create new models.  Content in context to bigger picture ideas helps diverse learners express their strengths in a myriad of ways, and allows us to repeat and reinforce key concepts through the web-like connections we help students create.  

It’s good for our students- yes! but what does it do for you?  For experienced teachers, it can provide a fresh lens through which to view the same core concepts. And it can help to address the pressure all teachers feel to cover all content in limited time.   We can cluster standards – find common ideas and redundancies across disciplines and around which integrated units can be created.  In this way, we can explore more standards with fewer units.  This can reduce that frenetic race to “get it all in.” Cheers to less stress!

4. The brain is a social organ. In fact, the strongest predictor of a species’ brain size is the size of its social group. We have big brains in order to socialize.  Inquiry, STEM and STEAM approaches open the door for students to collaborate and work in groups, but it also requires that we as teachers work collaboratively as we integrate lessons.

Many teachers are trained in specific content areas.  When you think of your experience as a student and your experience as a teacher, what comes to mind? Is it a traditional classroom with one teacher, door shut, working in isolation?  Through collaboration, teachers are exposed to new ideas, new pedagogical practices, and opportunities to share and support one another. In one study (Waggoner Road Junior High and Baldwin Road Junior High in Reynoldsburg, Ohio) students experienced a 20 percent increase in math scores when teachers participated in constant collaboration. And in another study of over 9000 teachers, collaboration resulted in direct improvements in student gains, “Instructional teams engaged in better collaboration also have higher achievement gains in math and reading.”  When students win, we win!

But it goes even deeper.  Collaborating with teacher colleagues promotes relationships. Let’s face it- teaching can be emotionally draining at times, and we need a support system with whom we can bond, seek advice, and celebrate successes.                                   

5. Integrating the arts enhances both teaching and learning.  You can see and feel heightened energy and enthusiasm.

stem, steam and inquiry image

Image credit: Stocksy

A 2011 poll found that only 44 percent of teachers were “very satisfied” with their job (MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, 2012, pg. 14). This was the lowest level in the poll’s 28-year history.  Teachers reported feeling too bound to the curriculum with limited time for creative planning and instruction.  Measuring teacher satisfaction is similar to measuring relationships – both are critical to successful outcomes in education yet difficult to quantify. You surely don’t need any research to prove how you feel when you teach and your students learn successfully.

“Integrating arts activities can decidedly enliven the curriculum content, make lesson outcomes more successful and interesting to both teachers and students, and introduce powerful and inspired creative thinking into the teaching-learning process.” (Sousa and Pilecki, From STEM to STEAM: Using Brain-Compatible Strategies to Integrate the Arts, 2013) They add the claim that any teacher who sees how the arts open creative pathways to deliver curriculum is in for an amazing experience. This is the “flow” we desire for our students.  This is the “flow” we also desire in our daily instruction.

We’ve all heard the adage, “Teaching is an art as well as a science.”   Let’s also apply this directly to “learning” because we’ve now entered an expansive frontier of educational neuroscience which provides scientific evidence for how the brain learns and compelling proof that creativity can be taught.  “The integration of the arts provides an enriched teaching and learning environment where teachers become facilitators of meaningful and engaging activities and lessons that increase student achievement.” (Elston Williams, 2013) When teachers call on the arts, they are connecting to creativity.

Teaching and learning are intertwined with mutually energized origins and outcomes. In order for students to feel engaged and energized, teachers must pay attention to their own levels of creativity and collaboration. In simple terms – engage the arts! It starts with a decision to offer opportunities for the arts in action and expression of learning. Think about what art form you love most - to make or appreciate - and infuse that passion into your classroom and curriculum content. Simple steps in a single classroom can lead to collaborations and connections between curriculums and colleagues, and stretch past the walls of any school out into the community and beyond.

Teachers who choose to use alternative STEM, STEAM and Inquiry student-centered methods will lead everyone right into the “flow zone.” Creativity is contagious. Motivation to engage and collaborate will produce amazing results for teachers seeking new energy and inspiration.

To learn more about incorporating the STEAM into your classroom, check out Learners Edge FREE on-demand webinar.

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  • Ronfeldt, M., Farmer, S., McQueen, K., & Grissom, J. (2015). Teacher collaboration in instructional teams and student achievement. American Educational Research Journal, 52(3), 475-514.
  • “Attitudinal Factors of Teachers Regarding Arts Integration” Sara Elston Williams, University of Southern Mississippi, pg. 11. (2013)
  • Bunzeck et al.: "Absolute Coding of Stimulus Novelty in the Human Substantia Nigra/VTA." Publishing in Neuron 51, 369--379, August 3, 2006 DOI 10.1016/j.neuron.2006.06.021
  • Teach the Way the Brain Learns: Curriculum Themes Build Neuron Networks, Madlon T. Laster Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2009.




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Offering more than 100 print-based or online courses for teachers, you can earn the graduate credit you need for salary advancement and meet your professional development needs. Contact us today to get started!

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