Experiential Learning and STEM

By Robert Gomez
NMSU EDLT 572

The curriculum in the modern STEM classroom has been shown to benefit from the addition of Experiential Learning.  One of the primary reasons for this is that the Experiential Learning process makes the subject matter both real and relevant to the students.  Experiential Learning has the added benefit of instilling in students the skills necessary for them to achieve success throughout their adult lives.  Before we step any further, let us expand on what STEM stands for and STEM’s importance in the modern educational system.  The acronym STEM stands for Science, Engineering, Technology and Math.  The acronym was created to help bring awareness to the importance of the STEM curriculum in our modern educational system.  Instruction in the STEM curriculum is of vital importance to our national interests because it assists students in developing such skills as critical thinking and problem solving.  Also, through STEM intensive education, students develop skills beneficial to them in their future employment and in day to day life.  STEM curriculum provides students with the ability to negotiate through the ever increasing use of technology in our day to day lives.  More importantly, the modern educational system must educate students for jobs that have not been created.  This important teaching moment is one that everyone in the educational field must keep in mind when thinking about the long term goals of the educational field.  It can be said that in no other time in our nation’s history have we had to prepare our students for jobs that have yet to be created in fields that have also not been created.

Experiential Education is the method by which the United States will maintain its lead in the technological and scientific fields.  Experiential learning is learning through hands on situations.  It is also known as learning by doing.  Students that are educated in the STEM fields through experiential learning gain a deeper understanding of the subject matter and provides the student with the capacity to apply critical thinking and knowledge in complex situations.  This takes us to what experiential learning really does for students.  In simpler terms, Experiential Learning gives the students the tools with which to apply learned skills in different contexts.  Without being overly dramatic, it is this ability that humans need in order to become successful members of society.  The discussion of benefits to students continues with the idea when experiential learning takes students out of the classroom and in to the community, it increases their level of community involvement.  It is one of the foundations of democracy that calls for its citizens to become active participants in their community.

The discussion could continue ad nauseum on the virtues of creating better citizens and in turn a better functioning democracy.  I do not wish to denigrate this very important feature of Experiential Learning, but I am going to switch the emphasis of the discussion to more nuts and bolts of experiential learning.  In order for experiential learning to be successful in the modern classroom, it needs to be taught as part of a larger inclusive system that does not treat individual disciplines that are walled off and not in conversation with each other.  In this discussion concerning Experiential Learning, we see the theme of interdisciplinary studies.  This stems from the fact that students will be utilizing multiple skill sets when undergoing the field based experiences and classroom based learning .

As stated above, there are two main types of Experiential Learning, Field based and classroom based experiences.  We are most familiar with the idea of field based experiences in which the student works in the field alongside others while attempting to solve community based problems.  But there are many activities that can be undertaken that still hold true to the Experiential Learning ideals.  These are activities such as role-playing, case studies and simulations.

A logical question to ask during this discussion would be “where is the instructor during Experiential Learning exercises?  During these exercises, the instructor acts as a guide, resource, support and facilitator.  Also, the instructor only directly intervenes in the students learning in cases where the student lack the skills to deal with obstacles and situations that they encounter.  The instructor takes a largely hands off approach to instruction.  One of the most important roles of the instructor, however, is to instruct the students on the reflection process.  The reflection process is of great importance during experiential learning because it is during this process that students synthesize and process the information that they are learning and formulate new knowledge.  So, it is during this very important process that the instructor moves to the fore-front of the learning process.

In conclusion, the primary benefits of experiential learning is that it provides students with the necessary tools with which to develop intellectual capabilities to deal with problems, tolerate disorder and make warranted judgements.  These are what we would refer to as “life skills” and are important to both the academic and personal success of the students.

Resources

Eayler, J. (2009, Fall). The Power of Experiential Education. Association of American Colleges and Universities, 1-10.

Gilmore, M. W. (2009). Improvement of STEM Education: Experiential Learning is Key. Modern Chemisty and Applications, 9.

Schwartz, M. (2012). Best Practices in Experiential Learning. Los Angeles: The Learning and Teaching Office.

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Experiential Learning and STEM