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Five Research-Based Best Practices for STEM Education

The quest for high-quality STEM education starts with having a solid foundation grounded in research. But what exactly does the research say about high-quality STEM education?

To answer this question, Vernier Science Education commissioned Education Northwest, a nonprofit education research organization, to conduct a review of the latest research on successful STEM education practices. The resulting report (which cites more than 50 research studies and academic journal articles), revealed the following best practices.

1. Incorporate interdisciplinary approaches.
High-quality STEM education programs take an integrated approach to STEM; they teach science, technology, engineering, and math as interwoven, not stand-alone, subject areas. This interdisciplinary approach helps foster STEM literacy and can support student engagement.

“Research shows that using an interdisciplinary curriculum that integrates multiple STEM subjects provides students with a more relevant, more engaging, and less fragmented learning experience,” according to the US Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology.

2. Use authentic, inquiry-based, and hands-on learning.
High-quality STEM education programs go beyond handouts and textbooks, emphasizing hands-on learning. Project-based learning is one approach that high-quality STEM education programs take to authentically engage students and encourage student inquiry.

This approach to STEM education can help “facilitate hands-on, real-world experiences that not only allow for deeper, more meaningful learning but also provide students with the opportunity to both better identify and begin their journey down a career path,” according to an article in Contemporary Issues in Education Research.

3. Include activities and resources that are culturally relevant, socially meaningful, and collaborative.
High-quality STEM education programs incorporate and honor students’ culture—and they do so in a way that also fosters cooperation and teamwork among students. When STEM education programming takes into account and integrates students’ lived experiences and communities, it resonates with STEM learners. 

“Culturally based best practices in teaching science literacy can aid in the achievement of underrepresented science students as research continues to demonstrate the need for culturally relevant curriculum materials [that] recognize diverse cultural perspectives and contributions in science,” according to the authors of “Culturally Responsive Pedagogy, Science Literacy, and Urban Underrepresented Science Students,” a chapter in a book titled International Perspectives on Inclusive Education.

4. Incorporate activities and resources that engage youth intellectually, socially, and emotionally.
High-quality STEM education programs take a holistic, or whole-student, approach to STEM learning. In other words, they go beyond academics by incorporating social and emotional learning to ensure students have the skills they need to engage in class and develop STEM knowledge.

“Integrating social and emotional development with academic instruction is foundational to the success of our young people, and therefore to the success of our education system and society at large. All children deserve the opportunity to learn the skills they need to succeed as individuals and as contributing, engaged citizens,” according to The Aspen Institute.

5. Provide effective skill-building professional development strategies to educators.
High-quality STEM education programs cannot exist without dedicated teachers who have gotten the support and training they need to thrive. To set up STEM educators for success, schools must provide them with the requisite professional development—and ensure they develop skills and classroom strategies that will help them set up their students for success.

“STEM instructional improvement programs … work best when focused on building knowledge teachers can use during instruction. This includes knowledge of the curriculum materials they will use, knowledge of content, and knowledge of how students learn that content,” according to an article in Phi Delta Kappan. 

To learn more about the research behind a whole-student approach to STEM education, check out this story from the March 2022 edition of The Caliper.

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