Generating STEM Solutions to a Real-World Problem: Challenges and Promises
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National Institute of Education
Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
*Corresponding author: aikling.tan@nie.edu.sg


Abstract

Global education systems have placed an increasing emphasis on the teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in a more integrated and contextualised manner. However, there are many critics who challenge the advantages of integrated STEM education. Hence, instead of taking a dichotomous perspective of integrated STEM or non- STEM, the focus is placed on the quality of integrated STEM activities that students are presented with and their impact on students’ learning experiences. In this article, an integrated STEM lesson with conceptual knowledge from chemistry as the lead discipline was designed and carried out in a Grade 8 classroom. Students had to undergo the process of analysing background information followed by problem identification. Subsequently, they were presented with scientific experiments and relevant cases studies to strengthen their content knowledge. Lastly, the students engaged in group discussions to propose solutions and present information related to an interdisciplinary problem. Through this activity we sought to answer the research question: What are students’ challenges and perspectives when generating a STEM solution to a real-world problem? After analysing the students’ artifacts, video recordings of the lesson, and students’ formative assessments, we were able to identify some of the struggles that the students and teachers faced in an integrated STEM classroom, together with the improvements that are needed for a more beneficial learning experience.

Keywords: integrated STEM, rusting, chemical reactions, problem solving

          This article describes an integrated STEM activity based on the phenomenon of rusting. Rather than teaching rusting purely as a chemical reaction between iron and oxygen during chemistry lessons, we aimed to engage students with a real-world problem related to rusting of bridges and through the activity, learn to apply chemical concepts to slow down rusting. Beyond the science of rusting, the activity required students to appreciate the design of bridges and understand the economic implications related to rusting of bridges. Through presenting scientific knowledge in the context of a problem, we hoped to develop students’ ability to connect scientific knowledge, engineering concepts, technological capabilities and problemsolving abilities in their learning. The research question, “What are students’ challenges and perspectives when generating a STEM solution to a real-world problem?” forms the focus of this study.

          Curriculum integration through meaningful application of subject matter knowledge to solve real-world problems is touted to provide learners with more holistic learning experiences. For instance, Venville et al. (1998) described a technology project that engaged students with investigating traction, types of materials, power transmission systems (technology), friction, gears, pulleys, torque (science), and changing variables on standard LegoTM models (mathematics) as the students build the model (engineering). Through working on these real-world integrated STEM activities, students drew on their science, technology and mathematics knowledge and their problem-solving skills to generate solutions.

Integration of STEM

          Integration of different disciplinary knowledge can be carried out by bringing together conceptual knowledge, identifying common epistemic practices and social norms to achieve synergy in practices to enable problem-solving. An integrated curriculum requires teachers to renegotiate traditional subject boundaries, practices and outcomes. Furner and Kumar (2007, p. 186) argue that integrating disciplinary knowledge to facilitate learning makes learning “more
relevant, less fragmented, and more stimulating experiences for learners.” While there are many people supporting the benefits of the integrated STEM learning experiences, there are also critics, from STEM as well as non-STEM faculty members, who challenge its advantages and even highlight implications that an overemphasis on STEM education may be detrimental to the learning of other disciplines (Breiner et al., 2012) as well the how some STEM implementation
has trivialized the social, cultural and moral implication of STEM in the larger society. The scholars who have taken a more critical view of STEM are worried that the economic rationale for STEM in K-12 increasingly tends to exclude social, cultural, and environmental implications of STEM beyond content mastery. However, all scholars support the idea of integration as an effective method of teaching and learning various content areas, STEM or non-STEM, for a well-rounded education.

          Rather than taking a dichotomous perspective of integrated STEM vs non-STEM, we argue that what matters in integrated STEM learning experiences is the quality of integrated STEM activities that students are presented with. Here we present an example of an integrated STEM activity with conceptual knowledge from chemistry as the lead discipline. To provide a meaningful real-world context for students to understand the connections between rusting as a chemical reaction involving iron, water, and oxygen, and the commercial implication of rusting in infrastructures, students were presented with a complex, persistent and extended problem (Tan et al., 2019). Rusting of physical infrastructure is a complex problem because in order to reduce the rate of rusting, one needs to apply knowledge from
more than two of the four STEM disciplines (mainly science, mathematics, and engineering). Rust is a persistent problem for people around the world despite the availability of various solutions. Finally, the issue of rusting demands that the students engage with the activity for a sustained period of time to understand related issues and to generate plausible solutions. Using the three characteristics of “complex, persistent and extended,” we designed an activity
requiring students to determine ways to reduce or prevent rusting of a bridge that was built in a place with high humidity (such as Singapore) and to use their knowledge to predict the rate of rusting in different climatic zones.

Key STEM Concepts Used in the Activity

          Rusting has led to several infrastructural damages such as the destruction of bridges, oil pipelines, military jets, ships and nuclear power plants. It has also resulted in some deaths. In many industrial countries, hefty budgets are allocated for managing the rate of rusting and corrosion of infrastructures. The average budget for preventing rust and corrosion is between 3.4% to 4.5% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (Jacobson, 2016). The reason for the substantial sum is because rust can deem parts of a building unusable in the blink of an eye and repair costs are high. As such, effective rust prevention methods should be adopted to reduce these unnecessary accidents and expenditures.

          The chemistry behind rusting and its associated problems can be found in curricular documents in many parts of the world, from America to Australia to Asia. The inclusion of the process of rusting as a chemical change, regardless of the social or cultural context, is indicative of its importance (Australian Curriculum, Assessing and Reporting Authority, [2020)] National Resource Council, [2012]). This core idea of a chemical reaction is mirrored in the GCE “O” level chemistry syllabus in Singapore. Specifically, students are required to be able to (a) Describe the essential conditions for the corrosion (rusting) of iron as the presence of oxygen and water; prevention of rusting can be achieved by placing a barrier around the metal, e.g., painting, greasing, plastic coating, and galvanizing, and (b) Describe the sacrificial protection of iron by a more reactive metal in terms of the reactivity series where the more reactive metal corrodes
preferentially, e.g., underwater pipes have a piece of magnesium attached to them (Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board, 2020, p. 18). Table 1 details the key concepts of the integrated STEM activity.

Table 1

Key Concepts

                                                                                                       

Designing a Real-World Activity

In designing the activity, both the disciplinary paradigm and the integrated paradigm (Venville et al., 2002) were considered: the conceptual subject matter knowledge of individual disciplines and the connections of epistemic practices, conceptual knowledge and social norms across different disciplines are taken together with problem-solving to generate solutions.

          From a disciplinary perspective, science was integrated into students’ learning as students were required to describe the essential conditions for the corrosion (rusting) of iron and to identify the different types of rust prevention methods with confidence in order to complete the activity. For mathematics, students analysed data and applied their graphing techniques to present their predictions on the rate of rusting in different climatic zones. For engineering, students were challenged to generate possible solutions to prevent a bridge from rusting in an area with high humidity. They designed, illustrated, and explained their prototype as part of the engineering aspect of the lesson. The lesson, however, did not progress to allow students to build, test and refine their design. While we recognise that the design process requires students to build and test the prototype, this was not carried out during the lesson as there was insufficient time to bring the whole process to fruition. The experience that we are sharing here serves to inform the learning experiences that students often are given limited time and the potential of a more holistic learning experience is possible only when more time is made available. Technological outcomes, such as programming and computational thinking, did not feature prominently in this activity. Rather, technology was applied as a teaching and learning tool to facilitate the access of videos, slides, online quizzes, and poll throughout the lessons. The specific technological tool used during the lesson was NearpodTM, which is an award-winning online platform that allows for students’ engagement with a ready-to-run interactive lesson for K-12 teachers. Figure 1 illustrates a Nearpod function that allowed students to present their answers in front of the entire class. Students were also allowed to conduct research online. Thus, technology was heavily adopted as a facilitation and research tool for the students rather than for students to learn technological knowledge such as computational thinking. Figure 2 illustrates the connections between the disciplines and the relative depth to which each was applied in the learning.

Figure 1

Nearpod’s “Collaborate!” Tool

Implementing the Real-World Activity

          In a “traditional” teaching classroom setting, students may not fully comprehend the negative impacts of rust and thus fail to appreciate the importance of learning the chemistry behind rust formation. This activity is planned and implemented in a manner to enable students to use their knowledge of rusting to propose solutions to prevent it from happening.

Identifying the Problem

          The class described here was a class of students with average ability in science. Students were given activity worksheets consisting of the background information on rusting and the impact of rusting in infrastructures. Upon entering the Nearpod online portal, students were given access to all of the learning slides and relevant resources on their mobile devices. Students spent about 10 minutes answering questions based on what they had learned from
the background information on the topic of rusting. These questions varied with increasing difficulty; an example can be seen in Figure 3. Subsequently, students’ performances were discussed, and misconceptions were corrected by the teacher.

Figure 2

Mapping the Disciplinary Knowledge and Connections Between Disciplines to the Problem. The Intensity of the Line Indicates the Relative Depth with Which each Disciplinary Knowledge is Addressed.

Graphic © by the authors.

Figure 3

Students used Mobile Phones to Answer Questions on Nearpod.

Deciding on the Nature of the Problem

         Afterwards, students spent about 25 minutes brainstorming and identifying the problems related to the phenomenon of rusting. After the brainstorming session, students were presented with case studies on The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and Lowe’s Motor Speedway in North Carolina. They also watched related videos at their own pace as the links were available on the Nearpod portal as seen in Figure 4. Even though these cases are based in
the U.S., the cases supported students’ understanding of how rusting influences structures in different climatic conditions (zones). Additionally these cases provided links to how knowledge from different disciplines within and outside of STEM provided the nature of the problem, causes of it, potential solutions, and impact on larger social lives (tourism, sports, social life, etc.).

          After watching the video, students viewed a virtual scientific demonstration on the portal as seen in Figure 5. The nail rusting demonstration was a scientific investigation activity that aimed to teach students the conditions for rusting (Building of scientific content knowledge).

Figure 4

Student Access to Videos on Various Case Studies Related to the Rusting of Bridges and its Problems.

Figure 5

Student View of an Online Scientific Investigation Allowing Close Proximity

Planning for Potential Solutions

          With an improved understanding of the conditions for rusting and rust prevention, students worked together in groups of four to propose solutions to prevent rusting of bridges (Problem solving). Students drafted their ideas on an activity sheet and eventually uploaded their ideas onto Nearpod. This phase of the lesson took about 25 minutes. At the end of the lesson, the students plotted a graph to predict the rate of rusting (mathematical skills) in the different climatic zones (geology). The entire implementation process is simplified in Figure 6.

Figure 6.

Outline of the Implementation Process

          The time taken for each phase of the lesson (shown above) is dependent on the readiness and profile of learners. The time reflected here is the duration recorded during the actual lesson.

Evaluating the Activity

          Four main observations were made from this particular integrated STEM activity after analysing the video recording of the entire lesson and the students’ artefacts. Here we highlight some of the challenges that the students faced, the potential learning problems, and the benefits resulting from such an integrated learning framework. Furthermore, we also hope to provide insights on how we can improve the quality of the integrated STEM activity.

          The first observation obtained is that most of the students struggled to devise creative and innovative strategies on their own to reduce rusting of bridges built in warm and humid environments, as seen in Figure 7. Many of them simply suggested existing designs that adopt the use of stainless steel and paint-coating to prevent rusting. Some of them even pointed out that their solution was “basically any bridge.” Based on their proposed solutions, the majority
of the students could be given more exposure and practice to real-world integrated STEM activities to develop their creativity and innovation, particularly their abilities to pay attention to details, and problem-solving skills.

Figure 7

Solutions Lacking Creativity and Details

          Two possible reasons could explain the lack of students’ creativity in generating solutions: (1) the time allocated for brainstorming was too short, and (2) this was the students' first encounter with engineering and the newly taught concept of rusting. Thus it is understandable that many students found it challenging to derive creative yet plausible
solutions for a complex, persistent, and extended problem at the start. As such, we advise that teachers who intend to adopt an integrated STEM lesson should apportion a longer period of time for discussions and also to provide several samples of innovative designs for students to consider. This could help students move from a situation of “idea scarcity” to “idea fluency” (Crismond & Adams, 2012). Teachers may also consider providing different perspectives on the
multi-faceted problem to emphasise the endless possibilities of solutions and also enable students to weigh in on the trade-off of each proposed solution. The discussion of the trade-off included cost and availability of jobs as well as waste accumulation. This discussion clearly demonstrated that understanding a problem and solution requires knowledge from different fields, both STEM and non-STEM, including cultural, social, and budgetary concerns.

          The second observation was that students exhibited uncertainty with the problem at hand and their lack of knowledge in science and engineering resulted in many of them relying on online search engines to facilitate their idea generation. Such dependence on the Internet to generate solutions can potentially cause many students to lose sight of the process of problemsolving itself. This is a major downfall of the ease of access to technology in an integrated STEM lesson. From another perspective, teachers need to be able to guide students to think and learn from existing work that is out there, borrow ideas, and apply these ideas to devise their own solutions. For example, Figure 8 shows a student’s proposed solution involving a large umbrella over the bridge, but she expressed doubt in her work as she could not find it on the Internet.

Figure 8

A Student Wrote a “Question Mark” on Her Proposed Design, Expressing Doubt in Her Work as it was not Supported by Ideas Found on the Web.

          In such cases, teachers could scaffold students’ searches for ideas on the Internet with suggested keywords and encourage more student-generated ideas instead. An overreliance on the world wide web may be detrimental to students’ creativity and problem-solving skills.

          The third observation was that many of the students appeared to be confused and even clueless when asked to draw links to other subjects such as geography and mathematics. In this interdisciplinary activity, students had to analyse information about the four unique climatic zones in the world and predict the rate of rusting in the different countries in these zones. They were tasked to present their predictions in the form of a graph with the correct labels and axes. Only one-third of the students provided justifiable predictions based on the given information. Moreover, many of the students, who understood the information correctly, failed to provide appropriate axes and labels, as seen in Figures 9 and 10. The failure of students to represent the correct trend and pattern points to the need to focus on both content of rusting as well as the epistemic norm of graphical representation. As such, it is evident that many students struggled in an integrated learning framework that involves content and skills from more than one discipline.

Figure 9

Failure to Label the X and Y Axes Despite Making the Correct Prediction

Figure 10

Incorrect Placing of the Independent Variable (Latitude of Countries) on the Y Axis and the Dependent Variable (Rate of Rusting) on the X Axis

          This example indicates to us that teachers need to scaffold new ideas and expectations early on in the lesson. Additionally, students have differing levels of competency in different content areas (math, science, geography, history, etc.). Therefore, teachers need to provide supports to aid students to learn how different content ideas can help them in finding a solution to a real-world problem. One way to provide support for students is that teachers provide a review section consisting of all the relevant pre-requisite knowledge required from other subjects before students embark on an inter-disciplinary activity.

          The fourth and final observation showed that most students were able to see the connections between the topic of rusting and real-world scenarios. Some of their responses are noted below.

S1: “With a high rate of rusting, more things will break easily, that will cause higher money for renewal.
S2: “If we know the rate of rusting, we can learn more about how to prevent it.
S3: “(Issue of rusting is relevant in Singapore) because Singapore has many planes that protect SG’s air force.

These students were able to identify the consequences of rusting, the importance of understanding it, and its relevance in Singapore’s context. As such, through an integrated STEM activity, the majority of the students were able to articulate the relevance of their learning in the real world.

Conclusion, Limitations, and Challenges

          By engaging students in designing a way to reduce the rate of rusting, we hoped that students would learn the science behind rusting, how to engineer a bridge so that it will rust at a slower rate, and also to appreciate the economic, social and cultural implication of rusting. The problem served as the integrative mechanism for this learning to take place. Our observations of students during the lesson indicate that more time is needed for students to engage with discussion so that the focus can shift from only focusing on the correctness of the conceptual knowledge to a more holistic manner to also understand the relevance of the scientific knowledge.

          We recognise that creativity takes time and continuous effort to hone but with the right guidance and support, students were able to become familiar with engineering practices through an integrated STEM lesson. While the identification of a problem for an integrated STEM lesson is important, the success of an integrated STEM experience also relies on the implementation of the lesson. Our experiences concurred with aspects of facilitating design
processes (Crismond and Adams, 2012) and showed the importance of (1) allocating sufficient time to allow students to engage in generative idea brainstorming to develop idea fluency, (2) allowing group discussion to weigh the benefits and trade-off of ideas so as to increase confidence of solution generated, and (3) decreasing students’ reliance of the world wide web for ideas and confidence.

          Based on the observations of the lesson, one important revision that can be made to the lesson is to schedule a longer period of time for students to engage in the design process and to engage in refinements of their prototype. Secondly, teachers can arrange for just-in-time (need-related) learning for students who are unfamiliar with any aspects of the activity (for example, mathematical concepts and representations).

          In summary, students’ lack of familiarity with breaking a problem into its component parts and applying relevant subject matter knowledge to solve problems highlight the need for greater alignment between the learning context and the students’ knowledge and learning capacity (Nadelson & Seifert, 2017). Our observations during the lessons showed that while some students were able to see greater relevance in their learning and provide more holistic solutions, others required more time and scaffolding. Therefore, integrated STEM activities that are centred around real-world problems with solutions requiring the application of subject matter knowledge would require more instructional time for benefits to be deemed significant.

Ophelia Kee is a fourth-year undergraduate student who is training to become a science teacher. Her teaching
specializations are secondary school chemistry and mathematics. Ms. Kee participated in the prestigious URECA (Undergraduate Research Experience on Campus) programme under the supervision of A/P Tan Aik Ling and has presented her work at the annual Australasian Science Education Research Association (ASERA) Conference.

Tan Aik Ling is an associate professor and Deputy Head (Teaching and Curriculum Matters) at the Natural Sciences and Science Education academic group at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Dr. Tan is one of the founding members of meriSTEM@NIE, a centre that focuses on research, development and outreach in STEM education in Singapore and Asia. Her current research interests are in the area
of science classroom interaction, science teacher professional development as well as STEM curriculum development. She has published more than 45 peer-refereed journal articles, 22 book chapters and co-edited three books in the area of science and STEM education.

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