Monday, May 21, 2012

STEM Curricula: Are online courses good enough?


In my last post, I gave an example of how traditional science classes differ from multi-disciplinary, project based STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) classes.  It's important to consider how to engage your student in STEM programming, with new options popping up all the time. Some homeschooling parents use online curricula for traditional sciences, and these courses have validity and a solid place in education.  Unfortunately, I think online coursework for STEM only hits about half of the target.

It's true that part of what STEM offers could be learned from a textbook.  Its concepts are drawn from any of the physical sciences, technology, or mathematics and are often criss-crossed between two or more of these.  But STEM is much more: it's about learning how to communicate and interact well with peers in brainstorming, design, invention, innovation and collaboration.  These are the "soft" skills needed for the next generation of workers and they may seem obvious but require many hours of practice to master.  These are also the skills that an online course does not address.

I have taught STEM to five separate groups of homeschoolers (about 65 total students) over the past two years.  I have noticed that the skills that my STEM homeschooled students most need practice in are not vertical collaboration (ages above and below) but rather horizontal project collaboration (peer, same aged).  The homeschoolers I teach are wonderful, well-socialized and have good friends.  However, friendships are different from collaboration.  What my experience has shown me (this is not scientific, only observational) is that it takes nearly 30 hours of practice for homeschooled students to become very skilled in brainstorming and completing design projects together under constraints.  Acquiring STEM skills is less like charging through a textbook and more like apprenticing in a trade or growing a garden.  It takes time, mentoring and iteration.

So what is a parent to do?  My next post will have links to real-time (as opposed to virtual, online) STEM resources.  I'd love any and all comments and thoughts.
Science Blogs - Blog Rankings Engineering Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory