Is Coding the Real ‘T’ in STEM?
A MiddleWeb Blog
Integrating Math and Science using the Engineering design process is the usual focus. But I’m still mulling over the T, or technology. How are we integrating technology into the STEM mix? First, think about a few ways we currently use technology within integrated STEM.
1. In STEM challenges, kids design products to solve real problems. Technology is anything made by humans to satisfy a need or solve a problem. By definition, then, a product kids design during a STEM challenge is a technology.
2. Many STEM lessons involve kids in using equipment such as electronic balances and monitoring equipment, along with a variety of science equipment and digital math tools, and all can be considered technologies.
3. Some STEM lessons bring in technology by using computers as tools for researching the problem – an important step in the engineering design process.
4. Education websites such as BrainPOP provide engaging games to involve kids in STEM learning. For example, when I recently worked with kids on a roller coaster project, this teaching game helped them understand/review potential and kinetic energy.
5. Technology projects can actually drive integrated STEM projects. For example, the Air Force Collaboratory is a unique program that I find compelling because of its real life digital scenarios as well as its requirements for hands-on science and math.
Those are a few ways we integrate technology in STEM challenges today, but a new and rapidly emerging K-12 phenomenon is surfacing that may technology full membership in the STEM acronym.
Coding: the new technology on the block
Perhaps you’re familiar with computer code – a sequence of signals used to give instructions to a computer. I’ve known about coding for a long time – sort of. At least I know that something makes things happen on my computer screen when I move my cursor.
I have a son who learned to code at age 6 in a Saturday class for young children at the University of South Alabama. That was over 30 years ago. I recently asked him how learning coding had helped him in school. He told me that coding forced him to break down a problem and think through it logically. To code effectively, he learned to chunk a problem into smaller bits and reduce it to a more manageable status.
Interestingly, coding also helped my son learn mathematics and physics because it helped him visualize problems and think about them less abstractly. He remarked, “I couldn’t do the work I’m doing now [computer simulation] without visualizing what I’m doing, and for me, coding made that possible.”
That glowing testimonial, coupled with my personal lack of any real knowledge about coding, prompted me to turn to one of my favorite teacher techies – Emily Vickery. Emily has recently written about coding a couple of times on her blog, Running the Digital River of Learning, in recent months. (She’ll be publishing an article here at MiddleWeb soon as well, about coding and the digital learning gap.)
I urged Emily to tell me how and why coding might be used in STEM lessons. Here – in a nutshell (because I’m running out of space) – is a synopsis of some possibilities we brainstormed.
► Coding is just plain fun. It gives kids insight into the inner workings of technology and how it can be used to solve problems. It can add interest to STEM and expand kids’ options as they think about ways to solve problems.
► Simple programs such as Scratch (a free coding program for kids developed by Mitch Resnick at MIT) can teach computational thinking and math and science concepts, such as motion, slope, and boiling point. So STEM lessons that use those concepts might use coding as a part of the research phase of the engineering design process (EDP).
► Kids can use coding to construct games such as guessing games. Using coding, they might design a game that will help them evaluate whether the product they constructed meets the established criteria.
► Coding programs sometimes focus on art and music projects – and this has real possibilities for building STEAM programs.
► Coding can be used to create stories. Maybe these stories could be used to set up compelling scenarios that grab kids and lead them into the engineering challenge. (See this interesting post by MiddleWeb blogger Kevin Hodgson: “Why Coding Is Important in Our Writing Class”.)
► Coding programs can change and control the speed of objects. Maybe this could complement STEM challenges involving vehicles and motion.
► When students do activities like debugging code they’ve written or finding more “elegant” ways to write code efficiently, it seems to us that they are deepening the kind of “engineering” thinking that STEM seeks to promote. This kind of mind work is very much a part of the design process as we test and tinker with our code and test again.
► Coding can be used to create advertisements. Students might use coding to create a description or even a marketing strategy for a product they created. This would be one way they might address the “Communicate” step of the engineering design process.
► Teachers use coding programs such as Alice to develop lesson plans. The lesson plans already developed for grades 6-8 cover a wide range of math topics. Some of these topics (rate of change and slope, volume, bouncing balls) are directly related to math concepts students need in STEM projects. These math concepts could be purposefully coordinated with STEM projects in which students need to apply those skills.
► According to Judith Gal-Ezer in The Economist, coding requires computational thinking – the ability to formulate problems in such a way that they can be tackled by computers. Perhaps coding can help kids formulate some STEM problems in such a way that they can use computers to engineer solutions.
The future of coding and STEM
Adam Enbar in The Wall Street Journal asserts that “we’re entering a world where every job, if not already, will be technical.” All graduates won’t need to be computer programmers, but they should be technically conversant. What does that say about the direction of our STEM programs? Are we putting enough focus on the T in STEM?
Coding as a part of our basic curriculum is still in the early stages. Teachers and curriculum designers don’t yet have all the pedagogical knowledge they need to guide them. Effective use of coding will require teachers who know what they are doing and understand how to use coding in their subjects – including STEM.
I make no claims to being a tech guru and I wonder – what have I left out in terms of how technology (including coding) can be better integrated into STEM? If nothing else, answering that question might generate a list of ideas for those who are teaching our STEM kids.