STEM has become a bit of a ‘buzz’ word in recent times, being used in education to describe a range of learning activities in classes from simple ‘word problem’ activities in maths, to science experiments, to fully integrated multi-curricular units of work. The Department for Education is very clear about what STEM learning is in South Australia: “STEM learning refers collectively to the disciplines of science, technology and mathematics integrated with engineering as a process to solve problems involving complex thinking.” So to be engaging in STEM learning, we need to be solving problems which involve complex thinking, and rely on knowledge and skills we use in the curricular areas: science, technology, engineering and maths.
At BPS our Year 6 students are working with the Holdfast Bay Council to solve a problem: How can we increase the amount of tree canopy, increase infill, and decrease heat islands in our council area? This is a problem facing the local council because of the need to balance the competing demands of increasing population and climate change. The problem directly relates to Government directives which the Council has to comply with.
To answer this question, the students first have to understand what the three elements: tree canopy, infill and heat islands, are. They need to know how they affect the local environment and in what ways changes could be made that would have a positive impact. Finally, they need to decide how they could actually cause those changes to occur, and present their solutions to the representatives from the Holdfast Bay Council.
They need to understand how plants grow, and what affects the size of a tree canopy, as well as the effects large trees have on the local environment (e.g. roads, buildings, infrastructure). They need to know what the current rules are about developments in the council area, and what sorts of infill would be feasible (e.g. apartments, subdivisions, commercial). They need to understand what heat islands are (areas in the environment which give off heat), what causes them and how to reduce their harmful effects. Once they have the knowledge required in these areas, they can then begin to develop solutions to the problem, and make suggestions to the council about they can fulfil their needs to increase tree canopy, increase infill, and decrease heat islands in the local council area.
The process we are following – STEM Problem Based Learning with an Industry Partner – is currently being trialled with the three Year 6 classes, and we intend to develop it further across the school next year. We are also assisting the Department for Education to develop teaching tools, buy enabling them to video the process. This will be shared across all Department Schools in South Australia as we develop innovative ways to teach STEM in South Australia.
Innovative Pedagogies and Digital Technologies