In today’s educational culture, you would be hard-pressed to find a school that did not count STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) or Project-Based Learning (PBL) as one of their core initiatives. While these educational philosophies sound different on the surface, in actuality, they are more similar than many might think. In fact, I would posit that PBL is the foundation on which STEM education can be built.
Before we discuss the complementary qualities of each approach, let’s first take a look at the definitions of these educational buzzwords.
“STEM education is an interdisciplinary approach to learning where rigorous academic concepts are coupled with real-world lessons as students apply science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in contexts that make connections between school, community, work, and the global enterprise enabling the development of STEM literacy and with it the ability to compete in the new economy.”
“The core idea of project-based learning is that real-world problems capture students' interest and provoke serious thinking as the students acquire and apply new knowledge in a problem-solving context. Advocates assert that project-based learning helps prepare students for the thinking and collaboration skills required in the workplace. “
As we read through these definitions, 3 commonalities appear:
1.) Real-World, authentic problems, and contexts
STEM and PBL philosophies both focus on this specific facet of preparing students for life after school. In order for students to be ready to solve the complex challenges and problems that exist in our world, they have to have had the opportunity to practice doing so. This is true whether students pursue a career in a STEM field, the arts, or in the humanities. Requiring students to engage with rigorous problems that have not been contrived for the sake of arriving at one correct answer is key in building their capacity to think critically and problems solve out in the real world.
2.) Interdisciplinary approach
One of the hallmarks of STEM education is that students no longer study and practice science, math or engineering in isolation. Rather, teachers are now asked to engage students in thought-provoking work that requires them to utilize and make connections among their learning. In similar fashion, the goal of PBL in modeling real-world problems and challenges is to get students to begin to understand that issues in the real-world are rarely connected to one single subject. Students need to be proficient with academic content and skills across the curriculum, and both PBL and STEM focus allow students opportunities to develop this interdisciplinary view of their learning and of the word.
3.) Skills needed for success in the workplace
While the definition provided for PBL defines it more explicitly, one of the main goals of both a PBL and STEM approach to learning is that students leave schools prepared with the skills they need in the workplace; or, to quote Tsupros, Kohler and Hallinen, the skills needed to “compete in the new economy.” Being able to apply what you know to solve problems is important, and being able to collaborate, communicate, innovate and think critically are equally necessary to ensure long-term success. Both approaches hone in on helping students develop the 21st century and future-ready skills they need to live, work and interact successfully in today’s modern landscape.
Based on the commonalities we can see here, it is in schools’ best interest not to treat these initiatives as separate entities, but to recognize that the changes in teaching and learning called for by each is the same. PBL provides a framework of instructional strategies and content practices which can be applied and used within STEM or any content area of choice. As teachers shift their classrooms and instructional practices toward a project-based approach, they will more naturally be able to utilize complex, interdisciplinary STEM projects as the focus of these experiences.