Applying New Research to Improve Science Education: Insights from Several Fields on How People Learn to Become Experts Can Help Us to Dramatically Enhance the Effectiveness of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education

By Wieman, Carl | Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Applying New Research to Improve Science Education: Insights from Several Fields on How People Learn to Become Experts Can Help Us to Dramatically Enhance the Effectiveness of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education


Wieman, Carl, Issues in Science and Technology


Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education is critical to the U.S. future because of its relevance to the economy and the need for a citizenry able to make wise decisions on issues faced by modern society. Calls for improvement have become increasingly widespread and desperate, and there have been countless national, local, and private programs aimed at improving STEM education, but there continues to be little discernible change in either student achievement or student interest in STEM. Articles and letters in the spring and summer 2012 editions of Issues extensively discussed STEM education issues. Largely absent from these discussions, however, is attention to learning.

This is unfortunate because there is an extensive body of recent research on how learning is accomplished, with clear implications for what constitutes effective STEM teaching and how that differs from typical current teaching at the K-12 and college levels. Failure to understand this learning-focused perspective is also a root cause of the failures of many reform efforts. Furthermore, the incentive systems in higher education, in part driven by government programs, act to prevent the adoption of these research-based ideas in teaching and teacher training.

A new approach

The current approach to STEM education is built on the assumption that students come to school with different brains and that education is the process of immersing these brains in knowledge, facts, and procedures, which those brains then absorb to varying degrees. The extent of absorption is largely determined by the inherent talent and interest of the brain. Thus, those with STEM "talent" will succeed, usually easily, whereas the others have no hope. Research advances in cognitive psychology, brain physiology, and classroom practices are painting a very different picture of how learning works.

We are learning that complex expertise is a matter not of filling up an existing brain with knowledge, but of brain development. This development comes about as the result of intensive practice of the cognitive processes that define the specific expertise, and effective teaching can greatly reduce the impact of initial differences among the learners.

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This research has established important underlying causes and principles and important specific results, but it is far from complete. More research is needed on how to accomplish the desired learning most effectively over the full range of STEM skills and potential learners in our classrooms, as well as how to best train teachers.

What is learning STEM?

The appropriate STEM educational goal should be to maximize the extent to which the learners develop expertise in the relevant subject, where expertise is defined by what scientists and engineers do. This is not to say that every learner should become a scientist or engineer, or that they could become one by taking any one class, but rather that the value of the educational experiences should be measured by their effectiveness at changing the thinking of the learner to be more like that of an expert when solving problems and making decisions relevant to the discipline. As discussed in the National Research Council study Taking Science to School, modern research has shown that children have the capability to begin this process and learn complex reasoning at much earlier ages than previously thought, at least from the beginning of their formal schooling. Naturally, it is necessary and desirable for younger children to learn less specialized expertise encompassing a broader range of disciplines than would be the case for older learners.

Expertise has been extensively studied across a variety of disciplines. Experts in any given discipline have large amounts of knowledge and particular discipline-specific ways in which they organize and apply that knowledge. Experts also have the capability to monitor their own thinking when solving problems in their discipline, testing their understanding and the suitability of different solution approaches, and making corrections as appropriate.

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Applying New Research to Improve Science Education: Insights from Several Fields on How People Learn to Become Experts Can Help Us to Dramatically Enhance the Effectiveness of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education
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