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Not all STEM Activities are Equal

Posted by Mark Stansell on Mar 6, 2018 10:10:59 AM
Mark Stansell

While STEM activities, camps and programs are popping up everywhere it's important to note that not all of them are equal. Some of these camps and activities are incredibly well thought out, with the idea that every child learns differently, and every child has different interests. I would call those "child-centered."

Many of the newer programs are more centered on content. So how are these programs different? What makes a good one?


Child Centered Programs
These are usually created by teachers who understand the nature of learning and teaching. The programs give children choices and different avenues for finding the answers or solutions. They honor the notion that not all children are visual learners, or auditory learners. And they honor the idea that the "right answer" is not the end all be all. The destination is much less important than the journey itself. In these programs you will see and hear kids encounter obstacles and problems. Oftentimes the children will find solutions by accident - by happenstance or trial and error.

It is in these types of programs that our newest waves of innovators are born since there is not one correct answer or solution, rather there are a multitude of possibilities.

Content Centered Programs
Many other programs are centered on a set of activities, with no preset knowledge of the children or their interests. Most of these have web-based curriculum that children go through on their own - clicking their way through a set of activities. These programs assume that all children can learn this way - and while some CAN learn through these activities, the vast majority of meaningful learning takes place through social interaction, modeling, trial and error, and support.

In these programs there is one right way or solution, and typically only one way to arrive at it.


Child Centered Programs
In these camps or activities there is a great emphasis on teachers/instructors. We spend the time to model a process, give the children a chance to emulate it, then try it on their own. We think of it as "I Do, We Do, You Do." 

Allow me to explain that:

'I Do' is when I show learners an avenue to a solution - for example, how to manipulate objects in a 3D Computer Assisted Design (CAD) software package.

'We Do' is when I ask the children to try out what I modeled - so they all try it. During 'We Do,' instructors circulate to assure understanding.

'You Do' is when we give kids an opportunity to try the new skill on their own.

Instructors are an important part of all three phases, making sure kids understand the new skill and can use that skill to solve their own problems - make their own stuff. 

Content Centered Programs
In these programs instructors are much less important since their only responsibility comes when a student needs technical assistance - IE: "My mouse isn't working." 

Occasionally students may need help understanding a task that the web-page presents and staff can help clarify, but there really isn't any teaching or modeling going on. Learners are left to muddle through to solutions pretty much on their own.


Child-Centered Programs
In these programs, management realizes that the ratio of instructors to learners matters. When the room is filled with hands raised and there is not enough support to get to all of the questions quickly, learning is limited. Learners get frustrated and end up feeling defeated.

Because of this, a reasonable instructor to learner ratio must be maintained. I believe this ratio is no greater than 1 to 10. (1 instructor for every 10 learners.)

Content Centered Programs
Typically the management is focused on numbers - translated: profits. For this reason, the philosophy is to cram as many bodies as is possible in order to maximize profits.

This way of being discounts the importance of the learner's experience, and learning is compromised. 

While it is true that we all care about profits - heck, we are a business - we must recognize that the experience of children and their learning should NOT take a back seat in the name of greater bottom lines.

We, at YML & Digi-Camp, have found that balance and are proud to say that we honor the experience first and foremost. Without a positive experience for ALL of our children, we become a memory very quickly.

I suppose that philosophy was born from being a proud public school teacher for nearly 30 years. I was someone who was always ready to serve whomever walked into my doors. I knew then, as I know today, that if I can create a space where kids are the priority, then they will want to come back again and again.

I refused then, as I refuse today, to allow money to drive my way of being in a direction that is counter intuitive to that ideal. The children will always be first at YML & DigiCamp.

Tags: teaching, learning, stem education, stem

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