Engaged but clueless

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education is hot these days, but Math Hub’s David Dockterman worries that “schools become satisfied with students doing fun projects like building model bridges and designing software games, and they neglect the rigor of the science and math that make the bridges and games work.”

. . . Technology and Engineering are vehicles for engaging with, learning, and applying the Science and Math. Students need to know how and why things work so that they can use the concepts in other compelling (and mundane) situations. The National Research Council report — Taking Science to School — from a few years ago does a nice job of summarizing how hands-on science often became a fun manipulative experience for students. They looked very engaged, but they typically couldn’t explain the science.

Some say STEM really means science and math with little technology and no engineering education.

Via Stemology.

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  1. All in all, if you have to choose, I would rather engineers express their knowledge through the building of successful bridges rather than the answering of questions to some investigator.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    Making things work is linear thinking; patriarchal and masculinist.

  3. I remember my 7th grade science class; we spent a lot of time doing hands-on stuff like those egg-drop contests. I felt that I learned very little that year.

    I know a lot is made of using “special techniques” to engage students who don’t learn “the traditional way,” but often the more traditionally-minded students are frustrated and actually LEFT BEHIND by those techniques.

    Hands-on stuff is good only when you have the background to understand what you are doing and why. I think that’s why the egg-drop contest frustrated me; I didn’t know enough about impacts and the physics of transfer-of-energy to be able to make a viable container. (I was a former A student in science; it was humiliating to have my egg splattered on the sidewalk and be told – in front of the class – that I had received an F for the project. Oh, and then afterwards, all of us who “failed” had to clean up the eggs and the broken containers.)

  4. “They looked very engaged, but they typically couldn’t explain the science.”

    This is an important issue in teaching across all subjects, levels and grades and I think it is one of the major flaws that new and inexperienced teachers make.

    Fun does not mean learning. Engaged does not mean learning. Interesting does not mean learning. Active does not mean learning. All of these concepts might be involved in good teaching and learning, but it is not always the case that a fun, interesting, engaging and active looking class is actually learning anything. I always shoot for effective teaching, and not engaging teaching and I think there is a huge difference.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    I recall in a tenth-grade chemistry class, our first experiment was to boil water. We wanted to make bad smells.
    We boiled water, kept records of the temperature, and prepared tables and graphs.
    We thought the whole thing silly. No fun.
    You can see what the prof was aiming at, though.
    I wonder if that would be done today.

  6. Deirdre Mundy says:

    My engineering class in High School was very good (went to a magnet school!).

    But our projects were things like building a device to propel a ball bearing across the room–we weren’t graded on distance. Instead, we were graded based on how closely we were able to predict where the bearing would land—based on our physics class!

    When we built robots, we were expected to apply the knowledge from our computer programming and earth science classes. Engineering was ALL about applying math and science for us.

    And a huge percentage of my classmates are now…. engineers!

    BUT in order for a course like that to work, you have to have dedicated students who ALREADY have a good background in Math and Science. Engineering didn’t TEACH us theory–it just taught us how theory acts in the real world— a useful lesson, but you need to know the math and science first…..

  7. In my son’s “engineering” high school the projects were similar to the egg-dropping, bridge-building, and rubber-band powered type. The kids were engaged. They had fun. It was project-based. There were real world connections. Everything an aspiring teacher should do according to ed school “research.” Unfortunately, there was no understanding behind the projects.

    Project success seemed to come from luck as much as skill. It felt very much like the math programs that encourage Guess and Check. When a project worked, the kid that built it was just as surprised and clueless as the kid with the failing project.

  8. All in all, if you have to choose, I would rather engineers express their knowledge through the building of successful bridges rather than the answering of questions to some investigator.

    That’s the end result of an civil engineering education, which means that it’s not necessarily a good basis for assessment for every stage during civil engineering training. The trouble with assessing civil engineering students’ knowledge by having them building bridges is as follows.
    Bridges don’t scale perfectly as they get bigger. A 100-metre long bridge puts different stresses on the materials it is made of than a 1-metre bridge. And a 1000-metre bridge places different stresses again. But people want bridges to cross big rivers as well as little streams. So if you want to assess a student’s knowledge of bridge building, you can’t just have them construct bridges in a lab or across a creek in a back paddock of the university.
    But bridges really scale in cost or building time as they get bigger. Constructing a 100-metre bridge is a lot more expensive and time-consuming than constructing a 1-metre bridge. Furthermore, constructing a big bridge is far more dangerous than constructing one in a lab. People get killed working on big engineering projects even ones put together by experienced engineers.
    So if we only assessed civil engineering students’ progress by having them build bridges, a civil engineering degree would have a cost in the high millions and lots of people would likely die unnecessarily.
    So personally I am entirely grateful that Stephen Downes is not in control of civil engineering training.

  9. Ricki – giving an F to someone whose eggholder failed is just silly too, unless you had multiple chances to go around and try again to improve your design. Scientists and engineers almost always have numerous failures when trying to work out something new to them. As do people in traditional classrooms, of course.

  10. I know, Tracy, but that’s how it worked in seventh grade. I pretty much hated the whole class. Then the next year I got a more “traditional” teacher (and the class was more biology-themed, and I liked biology anyway) and that served to keep me interested in science until I was able to take “real” science in the AP classes in high school (where we actually designed experiments using our underlying knowledge).

    I teach biology at the college level now and I get SO frustrated – remembering my own experiences – when some Ed School type says, “Why do you lecture? You should not lecture! You should ENGAGE the students with ACTIVE LEARNING by having them DO STUFF.” Um, if they don’t know the reason for what they’re doing or why they’re doing it, there’s not much of a point.

    I think we are seeing a tyranny of “fun” in American education, and that’s sad.

  11. Absolutely. Not only have teachers been told to abandon the role of imparting knowledge (sage on the stage) in favor of the guide on the side model, but even that role has been downgraded to that of entertainer. Students must be entertained at all times and learning must occur without effort, in the context of “discovery” and “fun.” Unfortunately, the real world doesn’t work that way; learning is an active process, not a passive one, and it really requires instruction and effort. It’s a waste of time to try to discover something from someone who doesn’t know it.

  12. Ricci, I’m glad you kept on with the science. I remember a friend at uni the first year he was doing his physics degree saying that he’d had an appalling physics teacher in his last year at high school and had had to keep saying to himself repetitively “I like physics, it’s the teacher who I dislike.”

  13. Former PhysicsTeacher says:

    When I tried to explain to the boss that students with 5th grade math skills don’t have the ability to deal with vector fields, and thus subjects like magnetic induction, my boss kept droning on and on that I have to find some way of “engaging” students. She was a former middle school English teacher who left teaching to take a desk job in HR before reinventing herself as an administrator. The fact that someone with her background could become lord and master over people teaching a subject she knows nothing is one of the reasons this BS persists.

    From what I understand in Finland teachers have far more autonomy in how and what they teach.

  14. ponderosa says:

    Physics Teacher, I’m glad you’re still paying attention to these blogs. Your comments are always refreshing and incisive. (And I can tell by the way your write that “Former Physics Teacher” = “Physics Teacher” of yore.)

  15. Former PhysicsTeacher says:


    I enjoy your postings as well.

    By the way, my new boss is a former teacher as well. One of the very first things she told me on my first day was “here, we treat you like an adult”. How true. Unfortunately.

  16. Well, when students want to be spoon fed all the answers, they’ll never get the skills to think independently. I’m amazed at the number of students who think that math and science are subjects to be avoided or “I’m not good at math”.

    If you look back, the reason most students don’t get the light bulb to turn on is that they had a poor grounding in math in elementary and middle school (I’m talking about getting rid of the calculators and going back to doing math with pencil and paper).

    Today, we have students who don’t know their multiplication tables, can’t add, subtract, multiply or divide fractions (needed in all higher math classes and physical sciences), etc. It’s no wonder that a recent study showed that 80% of high school students who had taken and (allegedly) passed algebra II/Trig were not ready for college level math (pre-calc or higher).