STEM Learning Experiences: What’s Really Going On? (And Implications for Designing Them)

Laura Lukes
Thursday, April 15, 2021 · 1:00 pm

Education is in a transition period. Broadly, in the last 50 years, there have been significant advances in our understanding of how the brain works and learns from the fields of neuroscience and psychology.  The field of education has shifted from an instructor-centered model of learning to a learner-centered one.  At the same time, technologies (computers, internet, asynchronous and synchronous communication tools, mobile/smartphone devices, etc.) have also advanced, allowing unprecedented speed and access to information, raising questions about the role and value of formal education programs.  More recently, due to COVID-19, our comfort levels and cultural norms around using these technologies in teaching and learning have fundamentally (and perhaps irrevocably) shifted. Additionally, funding structures for universities and colleges have also changed—many are experiencing public fund or enrollment shortages, forcing them to seek alternative sources (tuition hikes, cheaper contingent labor sources, moving programs entirely to online formats, private partnerships, etc.). This has raised questions of how these cost saving measures are impacting the quality of student learning experiences. In terms of STEM education, there has been a well-acknowledged shortage of qualified workers to fill the needs of the STEM workforce and well-documented need to diversify the STEM workforce.  How do these changes in learning experiences influence who pursues careers in STEM?

Educators and educational institutions are caught in a landscape of change and a fundamental pedagogical paradigm shift.  These changes and disjointed efforts in making an educational paradigm shift introduce new variables into modern day learning experiences. More than ever, it is important to understand what is actually happening in formal and informal learning experiences.  Do existing models of learning apply in real settings like college-level introductory geology courses?  How do new factors like digital learning and “big data” confound or influence previously tested models of learning? In our new multi-media, information-rich world, why do people engage in learning experiences or not?  How can we, as educators, best structure formal and informal learning experiences (regardless of modality) to facilitate learning for all students? In this presentation, I’ll share a bit a bit about my professional experience and a selection of my research projects on learning experiences that seek to address these broader questions as we look towards the future: EclipseMob (NSF#1638685), a crowdsourced radio wave propagation experiment and study of public perceptions of and engagement in STEM during an eclipse; Paleobiology Database (NSF#1504718), an exploratory study of how a large specimen database can be used for inquiry-based activities and used remotely by students to conduct independent research projects; GARNET (NSF#1022917), a study of student self-regulated learning and affect in introductory geoscience courses; and LEAG, an assessment of active learning classrooms and faculty development.