After personally teaching STEM classes to over 1500 students in the past 1.5 years, I would like to share some of my insights on how STEM (or for that matter any) type of learning takes place.
How the brain learns
Think of the child’s mind as a complex network where little bits of knowledge reside. As the child attempts to understand the world and its ways, connections are formed across all those tiny bits of information. Our job, as parents and teachers, is to create multiple connections, so that the child can use that piece of information in different contexts.
Imagine if you were mastering a complex skill like writing. You would begin with the alphabet, just understanding how they form. A child just beginning to form letters cannot explain what a word is for that matter what exactly is the shape he is making. But over time he learns that letters are pictorial representations of sound, they join together to make words and sentences and ultimately he can combine them all to make a song that conveys emotion.
Understanding STEM learning
Children in our class are also at the very beginning of their STEM journey. For some it is their first exposure to hands on mechanics, while others come with limited background information. Following the visual instructions, building the machine, getting it to operate is often a huge first step. Mastering the basic class structure often takes 2-3 weeks. Over a few classes they explore how manipulating the design affects machine function. Gradually, they problem solve more, and try to make more design changes.
Along the journey however, they are learning many, many skills. Visual-spatial relationships and attention to detail is a big one. Construction skills, problem solving, creativity are others. These are hard to quantify or verbalize.
Steps in STEM mastery
Level 1 of our program introduces children to construction through connectors. They must orient and match pieces exactly as the instructions show in order to build the final machine. They are being introduced to step wise building up of ideas, in a very visual manner. The program also provides more opportunity for innovation. Children can bring their imagination and ideas to life – while still having to think about basic structural concepts like frames, walls, curves and angles. Science and biology concepts are integrated into what they make and build.
In Level 2, they are more mature and better at reading visual instructions. Parts become smaller and more needs to be done to complete a step. Electronics and mechanics is added to the build. They observe how interconnected parts work together to create motion and see the practical effect of forces. What we are teaching also becomes more technical with higher level physics and mechanical concepts taught more intuitively.
In Level 3, children start integrating software with the hardware they create. They understand that step-by-step work not only leads to physical design but also to digital design. While we still touch upon mechanical concepts, the focus of teaching now shifts to software. We look at algorithms, code, sensors and networks. The aim is to understand how humans and machines communicate and interact with one another.
Learning soft skills
You may ask your child what did you learn today? He or she may say I made a car. What they won’t say is that – “I got stuck making the wall and had to reorient the whole machine. I almost gave up after I accidently knocked it down half way through – but I persisted. I observed that when I stretched the rubber band, the machine went faster and when I used a chain – it went faster still. I coded it to drive itself and then wondered how to stop it from hitting the wall.” So many skills are being learnt in the background of the actual task!
I have noticed that many times children make a change to their design and get it to work a different way. We give them little problems and they solve them, but they are unable to verbalise their thought process. We try to encourage more communication of their design thinking by having some show and tell time in our class. We try our best to get children to collaborate with each other and solve problems together – much like the real world.
Every child is unique
Each child’s journey is unique. For some children – it may spark a sense of wonder and lead to further exploration. Others may connect the dots in their mind – and express it in different contexts. They may be in the elevator and talk about pulleys or they may watch a self-opening door and say motion sensor.
All our teachers are pursuing advanced STEM degrees in engineering, mechatronics, physics and math and they want to share this passion with your child. What we hope is that our classes spark a sense of wonder and a love for all things technology – leading them to future careers as innovators and technologists.
But even if that doesn’t happen, we know that they will better understand how machines work and how they make life easier for us all!
We are with your child for only 90 minutes each week. We hope that you will continue to support your child’s STEM exploration and learning at home by providing them with STEM-related books and other resources. As technology changes the world, education also changes and as parents it is our responsibility to ensure that our child has access to tools that will enable them to be successful 21st century citizens!