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STEM Integration in K-12 Education: Status, Prospects, and an Agenda for Research (2014)

Chapter:4 Implications of the Research for Designing Integrated STEM Experiences

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Suggested Citation:"4 Implications of the Research for Designing Integrated STEM Experiences." National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council. 2014. STEM Integration in K-12 Education: Status, Prospects, and an Agenda for Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18612.
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4

Implications of the Research for Designing Integrated STEM Experiences

The recent surge of interest in designing programs that successfully engage students in integrated STEM learning experiences has created a demand for guidance about what constitutes “effective” integrated STEM education. Yet, as evidenced in the previous chapter, research on integrated STEM is at the preliminary stages and there are few large-scale studies that systematically compare different approaches to integration. However, the smaller-scale research efforts in the field can be supplemented with relevant findings from research on cognition, learning, and teaching to formulate hypotheses about how to design effective integrated STEM learning experiences and the limitations that need to be considered.

In this chapter we identify implications for design based on the research reviewed in the previous chapter, as well as evidence related to cognition and learning more generally. In the first section, we explore research on how people learn in order to determine how integrated experiences in STEM might support learning, thinking, interest, and identity development, and, conversely, why they might do little to change students’ attitudes, thinking, and behaviors.

Drawing on these discussions together with the research findings and limitations reviewed in Chapter 3, we identify issues related to designing integrated STEM experiences so that they more effectively support learning within and across the STEM disciplines. We also lay out important areas for future research and development.

Suggested Citation:"4 Implications of the Research for Designing Integrated STEM Experiences." National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council. 2014. STEM Integration in K-12 Education: Status, Prospects, and an Agenda for Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18612.
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INTEGRATED EXPERIENCES AND HOW PEOPLE LEARN1

In this section we draw on a substantial body of research on cognition and learning to explore the mechanisms by which integration might support, or be an obstacle to, learning within and across the STEM disciplines. Several decades of research in cognitive psychology, the learning sciences, educational psychology, curriculum and instruction, and other fields have shed light on how the mind works and how best to support learning. This research provides a foundation for understanding how and why integrated STEM experiences can support improvement in learning and thinking, where they might pose difficulties for learners, and how they can be designed to be more effective.

The committee considered findings from studies on learning and teaching across a range of research traditions including those informed by situative, sociocultural, cognitive, pragmatist, and constructivist theoretical perspectives. Findings obtained using diverse research methods, applied across several fields and perspectives, converge to create a picture of learning as an active process that is deeply social, embedded in a particular cultural context, and enhanced by intentional support provided by more knowledgeable individuals, be they peers, mentors, or teachers.

Based on what is known about cognition and learning, it is possible to hypothesize both advantages and disadvantages for learning from integrated experiences. But such experiences have only recently become a focus of research in STEM educational contexts, so important research questions remain. These are discussed in the final chapter of this report.

We begin with a discussion of key basic processes of cognition and learning and their implications for integrated instruction—how it supports learning and where it might introduce challenges. It appears that integration can be effective because basic qualities of cognition favor connected concepts over unconnected concepts; the former are better organized for future retrieval and meaning making than the latter. But it can also impede learning because it (1) places excessive demands on resource-limited cognitive processes such as attention and working memory, or (2) attempts to make bridges between ideas that were not well learned, or (3) obscures important differences in STEM disciplines about how knowledge is constructed and revised.

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1 This section is based on the review of the cognitive sciences literature conducted by Eli M. Silk and Christian D. Schunn, University of Pittsburgh, and on commissioned papers by Mary Gauvain, University of California, Riverside, Angela Calabrese Barton, Michigan State University, and Steven Marc Weisberg, Temple University.

Suggested Citation:"4 Implications of the Research for Designing Integrated STEM Experiences." National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council. 2014. STEM Integration in K-12 Education: Status, Prospects, and an Agenda for Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18612.
×

Given the focus of this report and the breadth of the research on cognition and learning, it is impossible to provide a detailed review of all the current research (for a summary see NRC 2000). Instead, we focus on the aspects of cognition and learning that, in the committee’s judgment, are relevant to an understanding of integrated STEM.

Building Connected Knowledge Structures

A major insight from research on cognition and learning is that the organization of knowledge—that is, the ability to make connections between concepts and representations2—is key to the development of expertise in a domain. Multiple studies have shown that experts do not just know more about a domain, they understand how ideas are related to each other and their relative importance and usefulness in the domain. They also notice features and meaningful patterns of information in the context of their field of expertise that are often not noticed by novices (see NRC 2000, Chapter 2, for a summary of research on expert knowledge). This organized knowledge gives experts multiple advantages for thinking and learning. For example, when they approach a new problem they are able to attend to its deep, structural aspects rather than surface features (Chi et al. 1981) and thus connect new tasks or concepts to prior experiences more readily and more meaningfully.

The importance of organized knowledge relates directly to some of the aims of STEM integration described in Chapter 3, such as helping students connect ideas learned at different stages of project-based learning or developing students’ representational fluency. Thus one way to frame the goals of learning is to think of it as helping novices build and reorganize their knowledge to develop more expertlike competence in a domain. For integrated STEM it is important to determine how to help students both build knowledge in individual disciplines and learn to make connections among them.

The foundation of knowledge building and rebuilding is the learner’s experience. All new knowledge builds on existing knowledge and involves making connections from previous experiences to the current context (NRC 2000, 2007). But learners often do not spontaneously relate the knowledge they possess, however relevant, to new tasks, a phenomenon referred to as a problem of transfer (see the discussion of transfer below as well as NRC

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2 A representation expresses or symbolizes an idea or relationship. Examples of representations include drawings, schematics, graphs, and mathematical equations.

Suggested Citation:"4 Implications of the Research for Designing Integrated STEM Experiences." National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council. 2014. STEM Integration in K-12 Education: Status, Prospects, and an Agenda for Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18612.
×

2000, Chapter 3); they often need cues or explicit supports to help them make connections.

One emerging view (e.g., Koedinger et al. 2012; Rau et al. 2012) is that integrated approaches benefit individuals who already have knowledge pertinent to the integrating elements, whereas individuals with limited knowledge are less adept at building connections among conceptual structures. This situation can produce so-called aptitude-treatment interactions; that is, an intervention produces different results depending on an individual’s initial level of knowledge or skill (e.g., Cronbach and Snow 1977; Serlin and Levin 1980).

Integrated STEM experiences vary depending on whether they are designed to target discipline-specific knowledge and skills or to support integration of knowledge across disciplines. In some cases a context or activity incorporates knowledge, and requires use of practices from more than one discipline, but students are expected to demonstrate learning gains in only one discipline. In other cases, experiences are designed to help students advance in more than one discipline, but students are not expected to demonstrate an ability to make connections across disciplines. And a smaller number of integrated experiences are designed to help students make and demonstrate connections between ideas across disciplines.

Depending on the outcomes of interest, an integrated learning experience should take account of students’ knowledge within individual disciplines as well as help them make connections between disciplines, drawing on the disciplinary knowledge they already possess.

Transfer

Transfer is one of the principal goals of learning in school: students should be able to take the knowledge and skills learned in one context and apply them in another. Typically, teaching for transfer aims to increase transfer within a discipline. Integrated STEM educational experiences, by design, ask students to engage in the transfer of disciplinary knowledge and, ideally, enable the students to reliably transfer their knowledge to other areas and activities in the future.

Transfer can be explored at a variety of levels—from one context to another, one set of concepts to another, one school subject to another, one year of school to another, across school, and to everyday nonschool activities. A recent NRC report on transfer in the context of learning 21st century

Suggested Citation:"4 Implications of the Research for Designing Integrated STEM Experiences." National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council. 2014. STEM Integration in K-12 Education: Status, Prospects, and an Agenda for Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18612.
×

skills (NRC 2012) found that there is little research on how to help learners transfer competencies learned in one discipline or topic area to another. The report identifies features of instruction that may support transfer (NRC 2012, p. 9):

•   Using multiple and varied representations of concepts and tasks

•   Encouraging elaboration, questioning, and explanation

•   Engaging learners in challenging tasks

•   Teaching with examples and cases

•   Priming student motivation

•   Using formative assessment

Many of these features are present in integrated STEM programs, but research is needed to assess whether and how they support development of both disciplinary competence and the ability to make connections across disciplines.

Integrating Across Multiple Representations

Representations that express or symbolize an idea or relationship are an important element of disciplinary knowledge and can facilitate learning. In STEM disciplines, each form of representation highlights or amplifies an aspect of a natural or designed system while simultaneously reducing or summarizing its essence (Latour 1999). Within a discipline, the development of connections among different representations is an important way in which disciplinary knowledge grows (Latour 1999, p. 24). Kozma and colleagues (2000) reported on integrative thinking among chemists who made explicit and implicit connections between a structural drawing, an experimental design, and data and used language to support these connections. Consequently, the chemists were able to reason with one representation (a drawing), while making inferences about another (e.g., a spectrum).

In integrated STEM learning experiences, students often need to make connections across different kinds of representations from a single discipline and learn to recognize how representations from different disciplines are related. For example, high school geometry students who use interactive software such as the Geometer’s Sketchpad® may construct multiple cases for exploring invariant relations that exist when a triangle is inscribed in a circle. The initial representations will start out as visual-spatial, but the stu-

Suggested Citation:"4 Implications of the Research for Designing Integrated STEM Experiences." National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council. 2014. STEM Integration in K-12 Education: Status, Prospects, and an Agenda for Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18612.
×

dents may be called on to present verbal proof in support of their conjectures (Nathan et al. 2013), thus demonstrating connections between visual and verbal representations in a single discipline. Similarly, students participating in an engineering project on ballistic behavior may use geometry modeling software, such as AutoDesk, to formalize a sketch into the design of a device such as a catapult. They will make connections across disciplinary boundaries when they relate the specifications of the device created in the CAD/ CAM system (technology) to trigonometric relations (geometry) used in the quadratic equations (algebra) that model the kinematic laws (physics) that specify the ideal trajectory of the ballistic flight.

Psychological research has shown important benefits for learning and performance in people who make connections between multiple representations of a particular concept or relationship. Evidence from both behavioral (e.g., Griffin et al. 1994; Stenning and Oberlander 1995) and neuroscience research (e.g., Dehaene et al. 1999) points to a dual system of linguistic and spatial representations that supports mathematical reasoning. Tabachneck (1992; Tabachneck et al. 1994) showed that an expert in economics successfully conveyed an economic situation that was thought to be out of reach for novices by combining graphical and verbal representations. Schwartz (1995) found that the availability of multiple representations played a key role in students’ generation of abstract representations. And Case and Okamoto (1996) demonstrated that when children form an integrated conceptual understanding, they exhibit new capabilities. For example, they can understand a concept presented in one modality using their understanding of another system that shares deep conceptual structure but has vastly different surface features and operations. Each of these cases represents discipline-specific integrative thinking.

Learning from Real-World Situations

One hallmark of integrated approaches, though not unique to them, is the use of real-world situations or problems. They can bring STEM fields alive for students and deepen their learning, but they may also pose particular challenges for them.

There is evidence that use of detailed concrete situations with rich perceptual information can prevent students from identifying the abstract structural characteristics needed to transfer their experiences to other settings. Goldstone and Sakamoto (2003) and Sloutsky and colleagues (Kaminski et al.

Suggested Citation:"4 Implications of the Research for Designing Integrated STEM Experiences." National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council. 2014. STEM Integration in K-12 Education: Status, Prospects, and an Agenda for Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18612.
×

2005, 2006a, 2006b; Sloutsky et al. 2005) found disadvantages to increasing levels of perceptual richness, especially when the added features were irrelevant to the structural features the students were meant to learn. Goldstone and Sakamoto (2003) found that the effects of the perceptual richness differed depending on students’ initial capabilities: students who were already able to attend to the abstract features of a situation were unlikely to be distracted by perceptual richness, whereas those who had difficulty grasping the abstract information were more likely to be distracted by superficial features.

It may be that real-world situations can be designed to encourage students to attend to the critical (as opposed to irrelevant) features of the situation. Kaminski and colleagues (2009) tested this idea by having students learn a mathematical rule either with entirely generic materials, so the rule’s connection to the symbols was entirely arbitrary, or with materials in a familiar context that follows the rule (in this case pictures of beakers of liquid combined with some left over). They found again that the relevant concreteness had advantages for learning of the particular rule, but that the generic materials resulted in better transfer to another context that followed the same rule but in which the objects didn’t compel the rule as they had in the relevant concrete learning materials. Although Kaminski and colleagues do not test claims about rich contexts directly (their “concrete” condition is an abstract image meant to resemble real objects), this work does reveal some of the trade-offs for perceptually rich and lean curriculum materials when measuring learning and transfer.

One implication of this research is that classroom instruction designed to promote the use of knowledge across different contexts should include instruction in the abstract or generic representations of the concept being taught. Teachers should not expect students to be able to infer the underlying symbolic or abstract representation of a problem by solving the problem using a single concrete instantiation (e.g., Goldstone and Sakamoto 2003; Goldstone and Son 2005; Kaminski et al. 2006a, 2006b; Sloutsky et al. 2005).

Cognitive Limitations: Attention and Memory

Research in cognitive psychology demonstrates that the amount of information a learner can simultaneously attend to and process deeply is very limited (Anderson 1996, 2004; Miller 1956). One’s intellectual abilities can appear to be outsized, however, when one effortlessly perceives information as connected and meaningful. Strings of random numbers will quickly exceed

Suggested Citation:"4 Implications of the Research for Designing Integrated STEM Experiences." National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council. 2014. STEM Integration in K-12 Education: Status, Prospects, and an Agenda for Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18612.
×

an individual’s information processing capabilities, unless s/he can readily group them in familiar “chunks,” such as important dates or the time (in minutes and seconds) needed to run a race of a certain distance (Ericsson et al. 1980).

When presented with multiple sources of information, learners must direct their attention to each individual source, encode separate pieces of information, manage the stored information, and discern the relevant connections. Split attention—simultaneously dividing one’s attention between competing sources of information—is cognitively demanding and can be a major obstacle to understanding and learning. The split-attention effect is evidenced by difficulties in storing and processing information that is physically separated (Mayer 2001; Mayer and Moreno 1998; Sweller et al. 1998). But it can be remedied: student learning improves when individual sources of information are visually integrated so they can be processed together in a single image (Bobis et al. 1993; Chandler and Sweller 1992, 1996; Mayer and Anderson 1991, 1992; Moreno and Mayer 1999; Mwangi and Sweller 1998; Sweller et al. 1990).

These aspects of cognition point to a potential drawback of integration: without effective guidance, the effort to make connections among multiple disciplines in the context of a complex problem or situation could overwhelm students and inhibit learning. Design of integrated experiences must balance the richness of integration and real-world contexts against the constraints of the cognitive demands of processing information that is separated in time, in space, or across disciplines and types of representation.

Learning by Doing and Embodied Cognition

Integrated STEM experiences typically call on students to engage in activities that involve the use of tools or manipulation of objects, and claims have been made that this use enhances learning. Although such instructional strategies are widely used in mathematics education (e.g., Fuson et al. 2000; Clements 2000) and mathematics education research (Chao et al. 2000; Martin and Schwartz 2005; Uttal et al. 1997), there is little research in other STEM fields on the relationship between physical manipulation of objects and learning, although some studies of physics learning do demonstrate benefits. One study reported that students who actually felt the angular momentum change when a rotating bicycle wheel was held performed better on written

Suggested Citation:"4 Implications of the Research for Designing Integrated STEM Experiences." National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council. 2014. STEM Integration in K-12 Education: Status, Prospects, and an Agenda for Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18612.
×

tests about angular momentum than students who merely watched other students hold the bicycle wheel (Kontra et al. 2012).

A related approach to understanding learning involves embodied cognition, the perspective that cognition occurs in a physical organism interacting with its environment; to understand the structures that mediate learning, one must consider the brain, body, and environment as an interactive unit. This approach considers forms of “embodied learning” such as gesture, sketching, and arranging objects, which can help mitigate the brain’s limited processing ability (Kirsh and Maglio 1994).

Embodied experiences may provide pathways for coordinating mathematical and scientific concepts. For example, children in elementary grades

image

FIGURE 4-1 Three complementary representations of rotary motion: embodied (upper left), geometrical (upper right), and mechanical/linkage (lower). SOURCE: Bolger et al. (2010). Reprinted with permission.

Suggested Citation:"4 Implications of the Research for Designing Integrated STEM Experiences." National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council. 2014. STEM Integration in K-12 Education: Status, Prospects, and an Agenda for Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18612.
×

are often expected to understand how simple machines work. But developing mechanistic reasoning is challenging, and many elementary students fail to anticipate or explain how interactions among components of the devices account for how they work (Bolger et al. 2012; Metz 1985).

Simple forms of embodiment and mathematical representation appear to substantially support the development of mechanistic reasoning. For example, in one study, children participated in rope walks, in which one student, “the holder,” acted as a fixed pivot (the fulcrum) and the other, “the walker” at the other end of the rope, as the end of a lever arm (Figure 4-1). When the child at the end of the rope attempted to walk in a direction perpendicular to the line joining the two children, the path was constrained to be circular. Challenged to represent the essential difference between ends of lever arms near and far from the fulcrum, by walking toward and away from the holder students came to see the usefulness of circles and their properties for describing how linkages (connected levers) function (Bolger et al. 2010, 2011).

Social Aspects of Learning and Cognition

Social and cultural factors are fundamental to all learning experiences and particularly important in integrated experiences, which typically require students to work with each other and actively engage in discussion, joint decision making, and collaborative problem solving. Integrated STEM education often involves extensive collaboration among teachers and students, and therefore its success depends on the design and effectiveness of the social aspects of the approach.

Social supports for learning are ubiquitous, occur in a variety of settings, and are present in all cultures (Lancy et al. 2009). Key ingredients for effective learning are the availability of appropriate support to help learners engage in an activity in a meaningful way, the gradual withdrawal of these supports as the learner’s competence increases, and instruction and guidance in the use of tools that support learning (NRC 2000).

Social processes of learning are inherent to three major components of integrated STEM education: the participation of the learners, the assistance provided by the teacher(s), and the nature and meaning of the learning activity itself. Because research has shown that not all forms of social experience are conducive to learning (Slavin 1983), careful attention to the design of social processes in integrated STEM education is essential.

Suggested Citation:"4 Implications of the Research for Designing Integrated STEM Experiences." National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council. 2014. STEM Integration in K-12 Education: Status, Prospects, and an Agenda for Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18612.
×

The social contexts that support learning include the physical settings themselves and the social psychological processes that occur in these settings. Learning is promoted by many social processes—observation, imitation, regulation of joint attention, demonstration, instruction, and shaping. Research has shown, for example, that children learn how to solve problems, including how to attend to important features and the knowledge and strategies needed to solve problems, by observing more experienced partners solve similar problems. Research has also demonstrated that learning can result when social support is carefully arranged, learning is monitored, and adjustments are made if learning strays too far from the goal (Gauvain 2001).

What children learn from observation and collaborative activity depends on their developmental status. Whereas preschool children benefit from assistance in understanding problems, following rules, and manipulating materials, school-age children gain more from help with strategies. Research suggests that the social psychological processes available in the learning environment, including the composition and activities of learning groups and the involvement of the teacher, are important design features for integrated STEM education. Social guidance and support for learning also exist in cultural tools that aid thinking and problem solving and in the type and structure of the learning activities in which children engage.

Certain social processes that support learning involve deliberate efforts to convey knowledge and strategies. Among these are instruction in the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky 1978), scaffolding (Wood and Middleton 1978), and peer collaboration.

The zone of proximal development (ZPD) is defined as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky 1978, p. 86). The ZPD is the region of sensitivity for learning in a particular domain.

One of the primary means by which teachers and other more experienced partners (such as more advanced peers, older students or parents) support children’s learning in the ZPD is with a learner-focused instructional technique known as scaffolding, which involves verbal and nonverbal efforts tailored to the learner’s needs to help him or her engage with a challenging activity (Renninger and Granott 2005; Wood et al. 1976, 1978; Wood and Middleton 1975). For instance, an activity, such as planning errands, may be broken into a series of actions (Gauvain and Rogoff 1989) and strategies for solving the problem (how to do the errands in an efficient manner) modeled

Suggested Citation:"4 Implications of the Research for Designing Integrated STEM Experiences." National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council. 2014. STEM Integration in K-12 Education: Status, Prospects, and an Agenda for Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18612.
×

by the more experienced partner, who meanwhile encourages and supports the learner’s involvement. The more experienced partner may also take on the more difficult parts of the problem so the learner can concentrate on easier parts that are less taxing to attention and memory (Gauvain 1992).

At both the elementary and secondary school levels children’s understanding and skills can be improved when peers work together on challenging tasks, especially when the exchanges are cooperative (Gauvain 2001; Light and Littleton 1999). Peer interaction can be more open and egalitarian than interaction with adults (Piaget 1952) and therefore can generate unique learning opportunities. Peer interactions such as tutoring, discussion, or joint problem solving offer different opportunities for learning because peers can define and structure a problem in a way that is mutually accessible (Ellis and Gauvain 1992). Peer interaction can also make different points of view available to learners, and they can take these perspectives into account in their reasoning.

Research has focused on collaborative problem solving by peers in the classroom in several disciplines, including mathematics and science (Light and Littleton 1999). Findings confirm that learning emerges from the joint construction of understanding through social processes such as discussion, argumentation, and negotiation. Even when classroom situations are not set up as collaborations, children often seek support for learning from peers, which can aid learning (Karabenick and Newman 2006).

Summary

Integrated approaches to STEM education are generally consistent with what is known about effective ways to support learning. They can promote the development of rich, conceptual knowledge in a particular discipline and provide contexts for students to build competence in problem solving and develop skills that apply across disciplines. The use of physical objects in the course of project-based learning may facilitate intellectual performance and learning, because it can help make up for the limitations of the brain’s processing capacity. Furthermore, because working with physical objects typically fosters interaction between students and requires communication and collaboration, it can leverage the social aspects of learning in ways that traditional approaches to instruction often do not.

At the same time, integrated instruction can pose challenges to learning and must be carefully designed with these challenges mind. One challenge is posed by the use of real-world contexts that are complex and characterized by

Suggested Citation:"4 Implications of the Research for Designing Integrated STEM Experiences." National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council. 2014. STEM Integration in K-12 Education: Status, Prospects, and an Agenda for Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18612.
×

potentially distracting details. Students may be cognitively overwhelmed by the complexity and distracted by irrelevant details. Such distractions, however, are an ever-present reality for practitioners of STEM disciplines, so the potential gain for students is to face the challenges and complexities and determine which warrant further attention and inquiry (Ford 2010; Ford and Forman 2006). Second, students need to draw on and build their knowledge and skills, and develop facility with representations, in individual disciplines at the same time they are making connections across disciplines. Third, students need opportunities and supports for productive embodied cognitive and social interactions that support their learning.

IMPLICATIONS FOR THE DESIGN OF APPROACHES TO INTEGRATED STEM EDUCATION

Research findings on integration converge with those on cognitive, social, and embodied learning processes to highlight the importance of designing integrated experiences that explicitly support students in building knowledge and skill both within and across disciplines. These strategies for instructional design also need to take into account the collaborative nature of learning and include guidance for structuring students’ interactions with their peers and teachers. In the next sections, we discuss principles for the design of integrated STEM learning experiences, including: making integration explicit, attending to the students’ disciplinary knowledge, attending to the social aspects of learning, and supporting the development of interest and identity.

Making Integration Explicit

Observation studies in K–12 classrooms show that pedagogical practices aimed at fostering integration are quite rare. Analyses of K–12 engineering curricula, for example, reveal that, although many valuable STEM concepts are presented to students in rich contexts, the explicit integration of mathematics and science concepts is not common (NAE and NRC 2009; Prevost et al. 2009; Welty et al. 2008). These analyses also show that, although many mathematics and science concepts are present in the curriculum, they tend to be embedded in the activities (e.g., Redish and Smith 2008), CAD software, measurement instruments, and computational tools used in the classroom.

Suggested Citation:"4 Implications of the Research for Designing Integrated STEM Experiences." National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council. 2014. STEM Integration in K-12 Education: Status, Prospects, and an Agenda for Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18612.
×

Explicit integration seems to be particularly rare in entry-level courses; more advanced engineering classes, such as digital electronics, typically support explicit integration, albeit for a smaller and more sophisticated pool of students (Prevost et al. 2010).

Students are less likely to make connections on their own without explicit integration (Graesser et al. 2008; NRC 2001). Its absence is probably not intentional but rather due to teachers’ and curriculum developers’ highly refined knowledge of the material. Similarly, instructors and curriculum developers shape their teaching by their more advanced understanding and experience an “expert blind spot” (Nathan and Petrosino 2003): they spontaneously see the deep connections and expect that their students will, too.

But one of the most important roles of a STEM instructor is to explicitly draw students’ attention to deep structural relations shared across objects and representations. Without this support, students often fail to identify which components of a representation or problem solution matter (Ainsworth et al. 2002; Bottge et al. 2007). Another approach is to design instructional experiences that compel students to develop conjectures about which relations matter and ways to test these conjectures (e.g., Lehrer and Lesh 2013 re designing mathematical modeling).

The lack of explicit integration in STEM instruction is also problematic because studies show that students do not spontaneously integrate what they learn across representations and materials or across multi-day lessons, so integration cannot simply be assumed to take place simply because of temporal or spatial juxtaposition (Kozma 2003; Nathan et al., 2013; Walkington et al., in press). Analyses of project- and problem-based STEM units in both technical education and college-preparatory courses show that deep connecting concepts that thread through formal lectures laden with symbolic notation and graphs are not readily applied by students as the projects move from design to simulation, fabrication and construction, and testing and phases of analysis and redesign (Nathan et al. 2011). These connections must be articulated and maintained by instructors throughout the course (Kanter 2010). Once connections are made—most often by teachers but occasionally by peers—students are better able to see the phases of project-based units as a cohesive whole and their performance often improves (Richland et al. 2007). Furthermore, operating with these connections in mind can actually change students’ perceptions of the project materials and representations and how they communicate about them (Nathan et al. 2013).

Suggested Citation:"4 Implications of the Research for Designing Integrated STEM Experiences." National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council. 2014. STEM Integration in K-12 Education: Status, Prospects, and an Agenda for Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18612.
×

Attending to Students’ Disciplinary Knowledge

Because integrated approaches are intended to help students both deepen their disciplinary knowledge and make connections across disciplines, instructional designers need to understand how students connect ideas even within a discipline (Nordine et al. 2010) and then consider how to help them use their discipline-specific knowledge in the integrated context. Connecting ideas across disciplines (Stevens et al. 2005) may be challenging as students are unlikely to cue their normative disciplinary ideas in disparate contexts. They need explicit support to elicit scientific or mathematical ideas in an engineering or technological design context, to connect those ideas productively, and to reorganize their ideas in ways that come to reflect normative, scientific ones.

A number of integrated programs that use design as a context for learning science have incorporated scaffolding supports to help students connect normative science ideas to their designs (Fortus et al. 2004; Kolodner et al. 2003). Additional supports may be necessary to help students express and rework their understanding of scientific ideas. For instance, Puntambekar and Kolodner (2005) used explicit prompts in design diaries and whole-class pinup sessions and presentations to encourage students to justify and articulate the science behind their design ideas as well as to hear other ideas. Schnittka and Bell (2011) supplemented a design-for-science curriculum with demonstrations that specifically targeted students’ alternative conceptions. Using science ideas in troubleshooting is another possible strategy (Crismond and Adams 2012). Supporting students in focusing attention on problematic areas of their prototypes and then using science ideas to offer possible explanations of why the problem may be occurring can be a powerful context for the use of these ideas in improving designs (Crismond and Adams 2012). In sum, typical design-for-science activities need additional, targeted scaffolding for students to explicitly connect and sort through their science ideas in the context of their design activities.

Developers of design-based curricula need to make sure that abstract knowledge is both motivated from and then applied to the design (Kanter 2010). Students are also likely to need explicit support in projecting backward in time to reflect on the process of connecting the normative science idea to their design. Such reflections are rare in design activities (Walkington et al., in press) but are likely the primary mechanism for students’ grasping the strength and centrality of normative science and mathematics ideas.

Suggested Citation:"4 Implications of the Research for Designing Integrated STEM Experiences." National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council. 2014. STEM Integration in K-12 Education: Status, Prospects, and an Agenda for Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18612.
×

Attending to the Social Aspects of Learning3

Social approaches to learning and cognitive development offer several important ideas for the design of integrated STEM education. As noted earlier in this chapter, the social elements of a learning activity include the learners and their interactions, the teacher’s guidance and support in directing learning, the activity itself, and the materials or tools used.

The social components of the learning environment are interdependent, and learning depends on their coordination, but they have received little attention in research. Two key questions are:

•   What social processes will promote individual learning in integrated STEM education?

•   Can these social processes be implemented in systematic and effective ways?

In the following sections we discuss social elements of learning that are possible directions for future research and that can usefully inform the design of integrated STEM instruction.

Social Arrangement

The use of small social groups in integrated STEM learning is consistent with the theoretical view that learning and cognitive development do not reside separately in the child or in the social context, but in the child-in-socialcontext. The ways in which participants are involved in problem-solving activities is as important to the design of integrated STEM education as the problems themselves. Group activity needs to be designed to allow and encourage children to be active and contributing members. Social arrangements that use group work simply to lure children into the activities, use individual group members to manage (offload) elements of the problem, or do not allow ample time for individual or group work when needed or desired do not promote learning.

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3 This section is based on a commissioned paper by Mary Gauvain, University of California, Riverside.

Suggested Citation:"4 Implications of the Research for Designing Integrated STEM Experiences." National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council. 2014. STEM Integration in K-12 Education: Status, Prospects, and an Agenda for Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18612.
×

Social Process

Even with well-designed activities or groups, people cannot just be assigned to them with the expectation that social processes that foster learning will automatically emerge. Conversation, argument, note taking, and other recording and review activities should be part of the integrated STEM design. These techniques foster active participation by individual group members and help engage both the mind and the body (sensory and motor systems) in learning. Use of a distributed learning approach in which each group member has a meaningful role may produce more uniform engagement of all participants. Rotating roles and regular peer instructional exchanges are important. In addition, the design should include explicit and specific learning outcomes for individuals in relation to the various aspects of the problem and clear means of assessing these gains, both within and outside the group. A distributed learning approach may also be useful for addressing learning issues related to equity and diversity in the classroom setting. Such approaches can create opportunities for learners to observe and engage with other learners as competent and contributing members of the group.

Role of the Teacher

Teachers can provide effective instruction by engaging students in learning with the support and guidance they need (without doing the thinking for them). They should be attentive to learners’ needs as they work with them, individually and in groups, and be able to ensure the positive and productive involvement of all as well as facilitate engagement when group work breaks down. They should also have techniques to guide (or redirect, as necessary) learners toward achieving the learning goal. It is important to recognize that requests for help are evidence of active engagement in learning and not an indication of a deficit. Teachers also need to be prepared to offer hints that steer individual and group learners toward insight into problems without being overly directive.

As learning in integrated contexts becomes more commonplace, further research may yield findings that aid teachers in understanding students’ development, as exemplified by research on learning progressions in mathematics and in science education.

Suggested Citation:"4 Implications of the Research for Designing Integrated STEM Experiences." National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council. 2014. STEM Integration in K-12 Education: Status, Prospects, and an Agenda for Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18612.
×

Supporting the Development of Interest and Identity4

As explained in Chapter 3, while there is little or no research that explicitly examines how to design integrated STEM learning experiences to support interest, there is research that describes features of learning environments in general that promote the development of interest. Azevedo (2006), for example, identified four factors that contributed to the development and deepening of students’ interest in grades 7–12 during their work with image processing in a computer laboratory:

•   a general feeling of competence;

•   the features of activities, including whether they allow the students to express their competence;

•   enough time both to complete activities and to initiate activities that students come up with themselves; and

•   the flexibility of the learning environment.

Competence here reflects the learners’ knowing that they will be able to be successful in the activities and that they have the necessary support to be successful. Azevedo (2006) also points to the importance of designing the activity in such a way that it provides opportunities for feedback that builds competence.

The need for learners to have enough time both to complete activities and to initiate activities they select is critical, according to Azevedo (2006); adequate time not only ensures that the activity is completed but also makes it possible for the learner to engage in “personal excursions,” a basis for developing interest. He explains that personal excursions are typically aligned with the planned activity and prompt the learner to make connections between present and previous activity, ask questions, and/or seek resources that contribute to deepening understanding (see Flum and Kaplan 2006).

Research has also demonstrated the importance of the following design elements for integrated STEM education:

•   Interactions with others (Barron et al. 2009; Pressick-Kilborn and Walker 2002; Renninger and Hidi 2002)—educators, workshop facilitators, parents, peers—provide models of how one engages with others and works on the problem solving of STEM content.

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4 This section is based on commissioned papers by Angela Calabrese Barton, Michigan State University, and K. Ann Renninger, Swarthmore College.

Suggested Citation:"4 Implications of the Research for Designing Integrated STEM Experiences." National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council. 2014. STEM Integration in K-12 Education: Status, Prospects, and an Agenda for Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18612.
×

    They can be a source of encouragement, stimulating feelings of competence and continued engagement,.

•   Triggers of interest (Durik and Harackiewicz 2007; Renninger and Hidi 2002; see also Renninger and Su 2012) vary from earlier to later phases of interest: (1) real-world connections and connections to prior experiences and instruction are important for learners in earlier phases of interest development, whereas the opportunity to continue to be challenged to think about the content is important to learners in later phases of interest (Renninger 2010); (2) in earlier phases of interest puzzles and group work can trigger interest, and personalization and meaningfulness may sustain it (e.g., Palmer 2004, 2009; Mitchell 1993).

•   More open learning environments such as project- and problem-based learning sustain interested engagement and enable it to develop (e.g., Renninger and Riley, in press;). Opportunities for sustained inquiry ground student participation in other STEM practices as well. For example, elementary students’ inventions and revisions of representations and models of ecosystem functioning are motivated by their questions about local ecologies (Lehrer and Schauble 2012; Manz 2012), and students’ disposition to generalize and seek invariants in light of change about mathematical systems is nurtured by sustained opportunities to pose mathematical questions and conduct investigations related to them (Lehrer et al. 2012).

Although there is very little work on identity development and integrated STEM, studies of the development of identity in science offer insights. For example, traditional approaches to science often favor aspects of a science identity that are more reflective of schooling than of science itself, thereby limiting engagement of some youth with strong science identities and rich knowledge based on nonschool experiences (Bricker and Bell 2012; Brickhouse 2001; Brickhouse et al. 2000; Brickhouse and Potter 2001).

In one case study, Carlone and colleagues (2011) examined what it meant to be scientific in two 4th-grade classes taught by teachers who were both committed to reform-based science instructional practices. Students in both classrooms achieved at similar levels and expressed positive attitudes toward science learning, but differences emerged in what it meant to be recognized as a smart science student. One of the teachers allowed for and supported a wide range of science practices, fostering a classroom culture in which scientific expertise carried a range of meanings. The other teacher held

Suggested Citation:"4 Implications of the Research for Designing Integrated STEM Experiences." National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council. 2014. STEM Integration in K-12 Education: Status, Prospects, and an Agenda for Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18612.
×

more narrowly defined views of science practice, thus limiting the opportunity for all students in the class to engage actively.

In contrast, an ethnographic study of an urban magnet high school (Buxton 2005) shows how students resisted and transformed the identity of the “preferred student” and in doing so impacted the cultural, institutional, and structural features of their school. The students’ interactions with each other and with their teachers led to the development of new tasks and relationships that helped to change perceptions of what counted as a “good science student.” Teachers became more open to redefining what counted as successful student work, and course scheduling patterns were changed to address students’ needs and interests.

These two studies suggest that teachers play a dynamic role in the development of science identity. In the comparative study by Carlone and colleagues (2011), the teacher who privileged the sharing and vetting of ideas and tools over securing the right answer created more spaces for students to try out being scientific. The implication is that, even when teachers commit to enacting reform-based science, without explicit attention to the ways they support different possible identities it may be difficult to foster the kinds of identities that support meaningful learning.

Looking across studies of science learning, there is evidence that classroom interventions and design experiments grounded in reform-based curriculum/pedagogy and intended to explicitly incorporate students’ identities in instruction can positively impact learning and identity. Calabrese Barton and Tan (2009) report that one teacher’s approach to a reform-based inquiry unit on dynamic equilibrium and the human body led students not only to learn the relevant concepts but also to exhibit strong science identities. Using a design experiment approach, the authors collaborated with the teacher and a small group of students to design lesson extensions that incorporated students’ existing knowledge. Use of the students’ own knowledge positioned them as experts and positively impacted how they viewed themselves and ultimately participated in class. Thus the design of the learning environment, including how resources are made accessible and legitimized, norms, routines, and expectations, all play crucial roles in how identities are formed.

Youth who engage in project-based investigations with local significance, codeveloping research questions and identifying connections to the work of practicing scientists and engineers, develop positive science identities (Calabrese Barton 1998; Furman and Calabrese Barton 2006; Rahm and Ash 2008). A number of studies show that when youth engage in science

Suggested Citation:"4 Implications of the Research for Designing Integrated STEM Experiences." National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council. 2014. STEM Integration in K-12 Education: Status, Prospects, and an Agenda for Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18612.
×

projects, they activate a combination of traditionally scientific and nonscientific resources, and this engagement supports them in being recognized as experts, as successful in school/science, while they maintain cultural allegiance.

But the research has focused on programs in which participation is voluntary and long-term. Given the time scale of identity development (see next section) long-term engagement could be a critical component of these programs.

Summary

Looking across the literatures on instruction that supports development of interest and identity, a few key features emerge. It is important to provide learning opportunities that make students feel competent and give them opportunities to express that competence. Learning experiences that allow flexibility and choice for students and that make connections to the real world are also important. Project- and problem-based experiences seem to be especially effective in supporting the development of interest and identity, suggesting that integrated STEM experiences can be powerful tools for building students’ interest and identity in STEM fields.

In sum, integrated STEM can provide opportunities for students to productively engage in STEM in ways that spark their interest and transform their identity. But the research base is sparse, particularly on the subject of designing integrated STEM experiences to intentionally support interest and identity.

CONCLUSIONS

Disciplinary integration can support learning because basic qualities of cognition favor connected concepts and representations, so they are associated with other knowledge and grounded in familiar experiences. In some cases, however, the presentation of concepts in the context of activities that integrate multiple disciplines can impede comprehension and learning because of the cognitive processing demands associated with split attention. Moreover, there are substantial differences in how different disciplines generate and validate knowledge, and it is not clear when these differences matter for learning and when they do not.

Suggested Citation:"4 Implications of the Research for Designing Integrated STEM Experiences." National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council. 2014. STEM Integration in K-12 Education: Status, Prospects, and an Agenda for Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18612.
×

Work on complex, real-world problems, which almost always call on multiple disciplines, can support both short-term learning and longer-term application or transfer to new contexts. However, these desired outcomes are not a given and depend on factors related to the design and implementation of the learning experience as well as the teacher’s ability to effectively support student problem-solving efforts.

Integrated STEM experiences should be designed so that they support students’ development of knowledge and practices in individual disciplines and their ability to recognize and make connections across disciplines. STEM curricula should also attend to discipline-specific learning progressions; if the learning goals of one discipline are primary, the knowledge and skills of other disciplines should be integrated into the curriculum with the learning progressions of that discipline in mind.

STEM connections that may appear obvious to teachers, curriculum developers, and disciplinary experts often are not obvious to novice learners and cannot be assumed to occur simply because certain concepts and practices are introduced at the same time or place. Integrated STEM instruction needs to make connections explicit to students through scaffolding, sufficient opportunities to engage in activities that address connected ideas, and other approaches described in this chapter.

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STEM Integration in K-12 Education examines current efforts to connect the STEM disciplines in K-12 education. This report identifies and characterizes existing approaches to integrated STEM education, both in formal and after- and out-of-school settings. The report reviews the evidence for the impact of integrated approaches on various student outcomes, and it proposes a set of priority research questions to advance the understanding of integrated STEM education. STEM Integration in K-12 Education proposes a framework to provide a common perspective and vocabulary for researchers, practitioners, and others to identify, discuss, and investigate specific integrated STEM initiatives within the K-12 education system of the United States.

STEM Integration in K-12 Education makes recommendations for designers of integrated STEM experiences, assessment developers, and researchers to design and document effective integrated STEM education. This report will help to further their work and improve the chances that some forms of integrated STEM education will make a positive difference in student learning and interest and other valued outcomes.

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