What does teaching and learning look like in the STEM program?

The STEM program uses what is commonly called a “constructivist” model for learning.  This approach is based on the theory that learning must be active to be effective and we use an “inquiry” or “project based learning” model to make the learning active.  This what most people mean when they say “hands-on” learning.  By comparison, the approach used in most classrooms is called “direct instruction”.  There are elements  common to both approaches.  Research that compares effectiveness of teaching methods is hard to control and both approaches have their supporters.   What does this look like in the STEM classroom?  The difference between a constructivist inquiry model and direct instruction is how students interact with new concepts:

Direct Instruction

A common method for teaching new concepts is for the instructor to introduce a problem with a known solution.  The role of the student is to practice the application of the solution to variations of the original problem.  This is pretty recognizable in math lessons.  The problem may be to find the hypotenuse of a triangle.  The well known Pythagorean Theorem can be applied to determine the solution.  Students are introduced to the theory and algorithm, and then practice variants of the initial problems.


This approach is very successful in some contexts, and many people prefer the straight-forward nature of the presentation.  Textbooks and worksheets, for example, can be used to great effect, because everyone already knows what material needs to be covered.  Scheduling is also easier, since the curriculum tends to progress at a very steady rate.  A common criticism of direct instruction is that, without anchoring the learning to authentic problems, it is quickly forgotten, or the student doesn’t know how to use the knowledge as a tool.

Constructivism and Inquiry Learning

The major difference in this learning approach is the use of more realistic or “real world” problems.  Questions like “Is it viable to invest in solar power in Vancouver?” or “How could we more effectively recycle at the school?” do not have an obvious solution, even if the problem and desired outcome are well understood.


The main attraction of this method is that it mimics real problem solving in the various STEM fields.  It automatically answers the question “Why are we learning this?”  The unknowns of the solution are a rich proving ground for the development of research skills, prototyping, communication, instrumentation, testing, and a host of authentic domain skills.  The role of the teacher is to manage the scope of the projects so that they are level appropriate and have attainable goals.  During the project cycle teachers role-model a host of 21st century skills to support the needs of the students as they engage the problem.  It is common to use research in place of using textbooks for example, since it can be hard to predict what knowledge and skills may be necessary to be successful.  Designing and prototyping is rapid and there is a lot of learning from failure on the road to success.  The development of solutions is both iterative and reflective.  This active, flexible style is engaging for some students, while others find that they prefer the more linear approach of direct instruction.

Attitudes for success

Everybody recognizes the value of academic achievement and mastery.  Often attitude goes unrecognized, but this is no longer the case.  In scholarship applications, post-secondary institutions are now asking for direct evidence of  initiative. perseverance, and commitment.  We agree whole-heartedly!   The most successful students in our STEM program have these qualities in spades. 

Initiative:  They have a sense of purpose, and will start on projects and new iterations without being asked.  They volunteer and take their projects in new directions.  They work well in groups, and understand their role.

Perseverance:  How do you deal with obstacles, or frustration?  Most projects hit snags.  Successful students look for lessons in the failure, and use that to inform their next design.  Most of all, they keep at it, and learn to be resourceful.

Commitment:  The project cycle requires commitment to reach a successful conclusion.  Many of the solutions are quite challenging to develop and students need to play the long game to see it through.  Also, the best students learn from their feedback and are committed to growth.

How are students evaluated?

Project evaluations are designed to highlight the development of key skills and attitudes held by members of the STEM community.  It is a program goal to give a wide variety of modes and mediums for communicating their learning, both individually, and in groups.  For example:

Research reports

Prototyping/lab work

Project management/group work

Individual & Group written tests

Presentations (live and video)

Personal reflections