Bringing Real-World Science to the Classroom

Hands-on learning holds promise for making STEM subjects interesting.

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Students at Pike Central High School in Indiana recently used a combination of science, technology, engineering and math to invent a lightweight, portable disaster-relief shelter that costs less than $500 to produce and includes a water-and-air purification system and a renewable power source. A few months later, the students presented their invention to President Obama at the White House Science Fair.

Elsewhere, Oakland Unified School District in California is expanding its high school STEM curriculum and establishing STEM centers in its feeder middle schools. Such sustained effort over multiple years ensures that students are consistently exposed to the real-world application of STEM, including technologies used by innovative high-tech companies across the U.S.

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The work at these schools is part of a growing initiative to get students more interested and involved in STEM. Using activity-, project- and problem-based learning to engage students in rigorous and relevant learning experiences is vital to generating their enthusiasm. Hands-on, real-world projects that require integration of STEM subjects help students develop useful skills and take what they learn in the classroom and apply it to everyday life. By engaging in applied learning – identifying problems, building prototypes and testing solutions – students develop critical skills in problem-solving, teamwork, time management, communication and leadership, which ensures college and career readiness for the STEM-enabled 21st century.

For the next generation of scientists, engineers and technologists to succeed, they must develop a basic understanding of engineering design and have hands-on experience creating, building and refining new ideas, inventions and innovations. The needs of modern employers have evolved, and so too must American education. It is critical for the U.S. to develop and deploy an integrated STEM curriculum that reinforces applied learning, scientific inquiry and engineering design.

In today’s technology-driven workforce, manufacturing companies require scientists and engineers at a greater rate than they do hourly wage jobs. A June report from the Brookings Institution highlights that STEM knowledge plays a much larger role in the U.S. economy than previously thought, adding up to 26 million jobs in this country alone.

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Despite this growth in technical jobs, two-thirds of high school students in the U.S. report being bored in class, and science and math achievement scores are below those of our global competitors. To help close the STEM gap, we need solutions that prepare students for the global economy and for ensuring America’s continued competitiveness. Part of the solution involves changing the classroom experience. Curriculum must go beyond the textbook. Hands-on projects and trial-and-error processes effectively bridge theory and practice and bring STEM subjects alive.

To inspire the next generation, there are many ways partners can engage with organizations like Project Lead The Way, the leading provider of STEM curricular programs in middle and high schools, which last month announced a $6 million national partnership with Chevron. This work cannot be done in isolation, so we must focus on partnership through scalability, sustainability and collaboration. While companies may compete for business, they all have a shared responsibility to develop a STEM-skilled workforce that will drive innovation and create new, cutting-edge solutions to our most challenging problems. That development begins in our schools through a highly engaging curriculum and hands-on learning.

Vince Bertram is president and chief executive officer of Project Lead The Way. John McDonald is vice president and chief technology officer of Chevron.

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