I am unapologetically a huge supporter of STEM and design thinking. Though many in education view this as terminology which does not apply to their subject or grade level or agenda of their school, I feel it could be an answer to many of our issues which education faces today. So many positive side effects come from a curriculum that is rich in STEM methods and design thinking. I’ve been observing these benefits for the last 15 years of teaching as students are exposed to various STEM challenges and projects. One of these benefits I have had the pleasure of watching is seeing students gain confidence in themselves by following a design process for solving problems. I don’t want you to think I am presenting this from some Utopian point of view. I’ve been through the struggle of implementing this. I’ve failed and improved and because of these struggles, I have the confidence to write about these benefits. This process can be difficult and the reason this is difficult is because it's a new concept for students to follow and a new process for educators to learn and implement. It takes time and effort and a commitment from everyone involved. In the end, though, you will see students approach challenges with a confidence you may not have seen in them before.
The confidence I speak of and have observed in my students is not a confidence which comes from them all experiencing success and meeting every challenge I give them. The confidence I am speaking of comes from students being able to accurately identify the challenge set before them. It’s a confidence which comes from knowing where to locate information which can help them along their problem solving process. It’s confidence from basing decisions on information they observed and recorded along the way. Finally, it’s confidence that comes from not meeting the challenge, figuring out why, and then becoming better because of it. I don’t want a classroom full of students who are confident because they know all of the answers to the questions and challenges I give them. If they know all of the answers already, I am not challenging them enough. I want a room full of students who know they have the knowledge and skill within them to follow a problem solving process. School gets progressively more challenging as students climb the grade level ladder. Eventually, there will be challenges to which students do not know the answer. Often, students who have found things easy when they are in the younger grades become accustomed to this comfort zone and struggle to deal with the pressures of keeping this image as the work gets harder. This can cause them to lose confidence. Many don’t know how to approach these challenges and will go to great lengths to maintain this image. I think this is sabotaging some students’ academic performance and can also become problematic in their life outside of the classroom. I have seen great students and kids cheat and lie because they don't know the answer to a challenge and don't know how to get it outside of looking it up on Google. No matter our path, we will all face problems that Google can't answer. Having the confidence of knowing how to solve problems is key to successfully meeting these challenges. I want kids to start gaining this confidence in the earliest of ages. I realize getting students to know the ABCs is important. As is teaching students to know their numbers. Recognizing shapes and colors are also skills our students need. Ultimately, though, we want them to use all of this information they know to confidently take on the challenges this world has for them. Every challenge (no matter the subject) presented to a kindergarten student can be approached with a method of explore, attempt, improve. Start there and build on this problem solving process as students get older. Before you know it, older students will have the confidence to not only attempt to solve problems but also to communicate their findings.
Confidence is one of about a dozen life skills and/or positive side effects of teaching problem solving through STEM and the design process. I think it is important to keep in mind that the skills emphasized and practiced through a STEM approach may not solve major world issues in the classroom. However, these are the same skills which will be needed to solve the major issues that face our world. In the coming weeks, I hope to address all of these skills and positive effects in this blog. If you have any questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to contact me through the email address or phone number on this web page.