By Jamie Fuller
Learning takes place in many ways and from different motivations. Yet how people learn most effectively is not often studied. A specific type of research center was established at Oregon State two years ago to study how people learn the subjects of science, engineering, mathematics, and technology (STEM) both in and out of the classroom. STEM is more than just a convenient acronym. It represents teaching and learning these subjects in connected ways, as an integrated subject. An individual can’t be good at any one of these subjects unless he or she knows a little about the other three subjects. The common thread is that they are all foundationally based on mathematical thinking.
Martin Storksdieck, PhD, a researcher who has worked all over the world doing everything from producing shows at a planetarium to hosting environmental news broadcasts, has been appointed director of the Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning (CRL). The STEM Center is grouped directly under the research office of OSU as it is relevant to all disciplines. It focuses on how one comes to know these subjects and how to improve the teaching of them at the undergraduate and graduate level, as well as in settings outside formal schooling. As a society, we don’t often question ourselves or determine whether the education we are providing is indeed the most effective or useful. Storksdieck emphasizes that it is important for us to be conscientious and to research ourselves, including the practices at OSU. This is how we will know we are improving.
“It’s reaching out to people that has the most benefit,” said Storksdieck, “rather than being authoritative.” When people ask questions about their educational effectiveness, they tend to learn better. This is why citizen science is becoming a hot topic now. Citizen science involves lay people in research and data collection, as well as having them co-design research plans. The world could gain a large collection of data using information that members of the general public are already collecting for their own edification. “The science is good,” affirmed Storksdieck, “but now we need to learn much more about how individual participants and communities benefit by engaging in citizen science.” Do they learn how research is done? Do they change their attitudes and perspectives on research? In short, how do the hundreds of active citizen science projects across the country change the public perception of science?
These are the types of questions that will be pursued through the CRL. The center is focused on lifelong learning, which means it applies to adults, children, working adults, and retirees. It offers a place for people to ask questions. Anyone who has to design a research project can go to the STEM Center for expert advice on how to get started. “We can bring in research literature and help you design your research plan at the outset. And we can be the partner at the end of the project who can help you find out whether it was effective and what you learned,” noted Storksdieck. The Center will provide a home for like-minded researchers who are curious about the nature of STEM learning and are interested in getting involved in improving STEM teaching based on evidence.
The CRL is a start-up at this point, with only three staff. The aim of the center is to form a community of practice from the ground up and across campus. They plan to get the word out about this resource through announcements, contacting the deans, and telling everyone they meet to pass the word on to their friends. The STEM Center will serve Corvallis and Oregon by looking at the gaps in our knowledge about learning and education. It will seek out questions the community has and, in partnership, devise the research that will best answer those questions.
The STEM Center purports that education is most useful when it is adapted to people’s value systems, when it finds sustainable ways of co-creating educational experiences appropriate for the learner and the purpose of learning. The STEM Center also takes into account different groups’ perspectives and what knowledge they already have. “We want to be an asset,” emphasized Storksdieck.
Dr. John Falk established the center and served as its interim director, but did not wish to hold that position permanently. Storksdieck is taking over that role after serving on the Board on Science Education at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. Originally from Germany, Storksdieck began his studies in sustainability, botany, and physiology. He initially worked at a planetarium in Germany, where he produced a weekly environmental news broadcast. Later he earned his master’s in public administration from Harvard University, followed by a PhD in education. Although he was passionate about the environment, he felt he could make more of a difference in education and learning research.
As director of the Board on Science Education, Storksdieck developed a new way of thinking about how to teach science in the classrooms, often referred to as Next Generation Science Standards. Rather than declaring facts, this method encourages students to ask scientific questions. It means teaching science more through scientific and engineering practices than as a body of knowledge and facts. This contemporary model of education places high emphasis on out-of-school learning and questions the quality of undergraduate education.
“[The] education system is a very inert system,” said Storksdieck. “We know already that 500 people learning the same thing at the same time in the same room doesn’t make any sense. But we’re entrenched.”
The STEM Center helps make the accumulated research on learning and teaching accessible to researchers in other disciplines, but also helps them use that research effectively. “Just because research shows clickers in a classroom can make teaching more effective does not mean the teacher knows how to implement that,” explained Storksdieck. He said that the STEM Center is a forum where people can discuss what the research actually means. “How can you know whether the students actually learned or not?” posed Storksdieck. “Whether they can take the next step.”
Most start-ups take a year to get established. Storksdieck said his job now is to convince the community and the university that the STEM Center is there to help. He will ask questions of the community that will ultimately add value to the systems in place—questions like, “What do you need help with? What are your concerns? What is your vision? It may not be the same as my vision, but I need to know your vision so I can take it into account.”
For more information about the Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning, visit http://stem.science.oregonstate.edu/.