Associate Professor Ann Haley Mackenzie helps students cut out materials to build shoes
Associate Professor Ann Haley Mackenzie helps students cut out materials to build shoes

STEM Educators Need to Keep Curiosity and Creativity Alive

James M. Loy, Miami University

As teams of college students sorted through the random materials heaped upon the table, they were trying to solve a very specific engineering and design problem. And one they weren’t quite expecting either.

“We were kind of shocked when we got the project because we thought, ‘Did she actually say build a shoe?’” says Emma Costello, a Miami University senior.

She did, actually.

“The class is called Creativity and Innovation in STEM Education,” says Ann Haley MacKenzie, associate professor of teacher education in Miami’s College of Education, Health and Society (EHS). “They really go through the engineering design process. As they uncover problems, they have to come up with a strategy to address those problems, and then ultimately decide on a final design that meets the constraints they were given.”

So the students flexed clear tubing. Tugged on strings. And carefully considered the form and function of each item, while debating whether or not a sponge would provide enough cushion and support, or if a rubber glove could be retrofitted for a foot.girl uses scissors to cut rubber glove

Throughout her classes, MacKenzie often uses these kinds of problem-based learning experiences to emphasize creativity and collaboration. Other projects have challenged students to mail an unbroken Pringle chip back to themselves and to construct a support that can hold 10 text books using nothing more than a sheet of newspaper and some tape.

Her goal is to nurture the lateral thinking skills that make STEM education so profoundly useful in society today.

“We really focus on what lateral thinking means, how to practice it, and what it means in terms of careers,” MacKenzie says. “And it is critical in this day that we live in, that kids can still critically think, be creative, and stay curious. It’s powerful because it is the way new ideas are generated.”

STEM is most commonly referred to as the group of four subjects that comprise the now ubiquitous acronym. But as a way of approaching knowledge and information, it is more than just a collection of fields that include science, technology, engineering, and math.

STEM also represents a way to understand, explore, and engage with the world, and in a way that critically analyzes and synthesizes information to find original solutions to problems that are both old and new.

And these are precisely the kinds of skills being increasingly prioritized across a wide range of careers, especially as the marketplace continues to leverage the foundations of STEM to innovate in a complex and quickly evolving global society.

“The opportunity to work in a STEM career is increasing and it is important for teachers to adapt so that students are ready for the upcoming workforce,” says Tony Kabealo, EHS alumnus and a current middle school science teacher. “It is also important that we train students to think critically about the world. STEM education does that beautifully and the topics that STEM encompasses is extremely vast so it prepares students for the type of thinking that they might have to do in our global economy.”

Kabealo teaches 7th grade at Phoenix Middle School in Columbus, Ohio, where he recently started a Robotics Club, with absolutely no prior experience.

“I had never coded before, never built a robot before, so I researched online to figure it out and I was really a true learner alongside of my students,” he says. “Which was pretty cool actually.”

So when a Phoenix Middle School student expressed an interest in learning about robotics, she was lucky enough to have Kabealo as a teacher who was willing to take on the challenge.

And according to MacKenzie, this is the kind of STEM-based education that more schools and teachers should embrace. But she worries that not enough are adapting to the growing need to prepare students to thrive in a 21st century environment.

This can be a problem at the middle school and high school levels, which is when interest in science tends to fade. And it’s also particularly true for female students and for students of color, who are still among the least represented groups in STEM fields today.

“Kids are so naturally curious and creative,” says MacKenzie. “But then they get into school and we have this mode of standardized testing now that teachers feel like the only way to prepare kids for the test is to drill the information into their heads. We know that’s an ineffective method. So if teachers would just hold on to that spark of creativity and curiosity that kids come into the classroom with, I think more people would pursue STEM.”

two students work together to make shoesNot every student may be suited for a STEM career and not every student will even want one. But it’s important, nevertheless, to ensure that the opportunities exist.

“We want to make sure the door is open, and that equitable access is there to whoever wants to go through, to make sure that all kids know that it is an option,” she says. “But by middle school you hear, especially from girls, well, I’m not good at math. Or they don’t want to appear smart in front of the boys. And teachers are on the front line need to combat that thinking.”

So while the opportunities across STEM fields may be growing, the readiness is not. Or, at least, not fast enough. But it all starts with the teachers in the classrooms.

They are in the position to show students of color, for example, that there are successful scientists and engineers who look just like they do. And it’s these same teachers who can also embrace creativity and problem-solving as a way to keep curiosity alive and to make science feel exciting for more students in general.

But teachers need to be willing to make the effort. Even if it means, like Kabealo, diving into STEM concepts that might be outside of their particular expertise. And especially if it means letting go of rigid lesson plans that still see science as just a bunch of facts to memorize.

Because that is just not the world we live in. Not anymore.

“Teachers are often viewed as the holder of all the knowledge and the reality is that we are not,” Kabealo says. “And I think it is important for teachers to be able to say that they don’t know and to be able to jump in with their students and figure things out. Problem-based learning asks teachers to say that they don’t know everything all the time. So you have to be a learner alongside the students. That is the only way to do it.”