Solving Real-World Problems
August 25th, 2016 by Lori Russell

Heidi Vosbein, right, the science teacher at Mt. Graham High School in Safford, Arizona, works with students, from left, David, McKenzie and Josh, testing materials for the enzyme catalase, which speeds the breakdown of hydrogen peroxide in the cells. Students conducted multiple tests using different variables—including gauging the effect of temperature and pH on the reaction rate—recorded the results and used the data to draw conclusions. Photo by Mike Teegarden

Blended curriculum aims to engage students through relevant hands-on learning designed to equip them with critical-thinking skills

Teachers have heard it. So have parents. Many children in classrooms across the nation ask the same question as they face down a math worksheet, chemistry lab or physics equation: “Why do I need to learn this? I will never use it in real life.”

For an increasing number of students from kindergarten through high school, the answer can be found in STEM—a blended curriculum of science, technology, engineering and math—that engages kids in solving real-world problems.

Some STEM programs also incorporate the arts (STEAM), encouraging students to think and communicate creatively and to consider the aesthetic design of their project—not just its function.
“Educators have known for a long time that what we are doing is not the best way for kids,” says Cindy Moss, senior director of global STEM at Discovery Education.

Discovery Education partners with school districts around the world to transform teaching and learning and improve student achievement. It serves 3 million educators and more than 30 million students around the world.

“We have to make school more relevant to kids so they are engaged,” Cindy says. “It is about creating a culture to help kids solve problems that matter to them.”

Creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication are the foundation of STEAM. Whether considering how to rescue an injured person from the wilderness or how to provide clean drinking water to an increasing population, students work together to break the problem into smaller steps, research efforts already underway and deepen their learning through hands-on projects.

“It gives them a reason to dive into the science and weave the math together, to collect the data and be able to record it, to use the arts and drama to communicate what they learned,” Cindy says. “That’s what has been missing in schools for the last 25 years.”

Educators across the nation are finding that when kids engage in learning and solving problems that matter to them, test scores go up and absenteeism—for both teachers and students—drops.
“STEAM puts the fun back in fundamentals,” says Cindy. “It makes school a place kids want to be.”

The initiatives are not just effective in engaging students’ interest, they are essential for developing a future generation of U.S. workers.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in STEM-related fields are expected to grow to more than 9 million by 2022. That is an increase of 1 million jobs from 2012 employment levels.

Employers need workers who can solve tough problems, gather and evaluate evidence, and make sense of information.

“There are 3 million open STEM jobs that employers can’t fill because they don’t have people who have STEM skills,” says Cindy.

Several federal initiatives support expanding access to rigorous STEM courses, improving teaching, supporting active learning and expanding opportunities for all students.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top program supports schools in providing students with more personalized learning—in which the pace of and approach to instruction are uniquely tailored to meet students’ individual needs and interests—often supported by innovative technologies.

Teachers across the country are receiving resources, support, development and training through federal programs such as President Barack Obama’s Educate to Innovate campaign, which has raised more than $1 billion to improve STEM education.

Increasingly, educators are seeing STEM instruction as a way to help students from low-income areas find good jobs after graduation and escape poverty.

“We need to show kids what cool careers are available and explain that engineers can start in jobs earning $75,000 to $80,000 per year,” says Cindy.

To fill jobs related to STEM, the U.S. needs to develop teaching strategies and role models that encourage and support all students—including women and minority students, who are currently poorly represented in STEM fields, Cindy says.

Learning by Experiencing
Heidi Vosbein is not your typical high school teacher. She holds a doctorate in physics, a master’s in mathematics and has studied the interstellar medium, solid rocket fuels, sound-seafloor interactions and sound propagation in the ocean.

For the past four years, Heidi has taught math and science at Mt. Graham—an alternative high school in Safford, Arizona. Her students are kids who have not been successful in a traditional high school setting due to poor grades, behavior or life circumstances.

When Heidi first began teaching at Mt. Graham, there were no science textbooks or lab equipment. She has rewritten curriculum and secured grants to buy such basics as lab tables, glassware and safety equipment. She also solicits donations through, a website where individuals can donate directly to public school classroom projects.

Students work at their own pace in Heidi’s classroom. Despite teaching six to eight science classes and the same number of math classes all at once, she fits in up to three labs a week. She only has enough safety equipment for nine students at a time, although the average class size is 26.

“Kids don’t learn science by reading,” Heidi says. “They learn it by doing and experiencing.”
Her students have made mummies from carrots and apples, and analyzed water samples and bread mold.

After learning how to use the telescope at the local observatory, Heidi created a solar astronomy class and taught her students how to use the solar filter and radio telescope.

“Labs are a lot of work,” Heidi admits, “but you don’t learn it until you experience it. We can tell students what the wind is, but until they go out and experience it, they will never know.”

Heidi assigns online videos of experiments that cannot be done in the classroom to deepen her students’ learning.

“My approach is different because I came to teaching from a different approach,” she says.

Rather than just teach content, Heidi focuses on problem-solving principles her students can use the rest of their lives.

“If they say, ‘I have never seen this, but I know I can figure it out,’ if they come out with that attitude, they can do it,” she says.

Reaching the Youngest Students
Many learning programs begin in middle school and continue through college, but Learning Point Alaska Inc. partners with Alaska Native organizations to deliver technology-based STEM education camps to elementary-school students in villages throughout Alaska.

The organization was recognized during the 2016 White House Symposium on Early STEM.

Molly Hull, director of education for the nonprofit, brings her own equipment and often sleeps at the school when traveling to Hooper Bay—a remote coastal village 530 miles from Anchorage and accessible only by plane.

She offers robotics, coding and engineering camps for elementary school students, and trains members of the Alaska Native Yup’ik community to teach them.

“We have had students who attended the advanced robotics camp—including a second-grader—become youth leaders for the beginning robotics camp,” Molly says. “If kids can be introduced to STEM (in elementary school), they might choose a STEM course at school later on.”

Parents and grandparents play an important role in encouraging and supporting a child’s curiosity and learning.

“Adults don’t have to know the answers to a child’s questions to participate,” says Molly. “You can use the approach, ‘How can we learn this together?’”

Resources are Plentiful
Teachers, parents and community groups can access the resources they need online to promote and provide more personalized learning that fits the needs and interests of their students. Teachers can find lessons at different reading levels and in different languages. Parents can watch videos with their children about interesting STEM-related occupations and projects to do at home. helps support more than 500 U.S. K-12 schools expand their access to computer science. Students and teachers anywhere in the world can join in The Hour of Code—a free event each December designed to teach the basics of computer coding.

There are also STEM and STEAM summer camps and afterschool programs in Spanish, and those just for girls.

Almost 6 million youngsters in the U.S. participate in hands-on learning projects through 4-H.

School districts are looking to their communities for assistance. Professionals from local businesses, industries and colleges can help develop the type of workers they will need in the future by talking with students about careers in STEM-related fields and providing internships for current students, jobs for graduates and resources for the schools.

“School districts need to develop a plan and provide professional development for principals, teachers and curriculum people to help them engage students, parents and businesses to grow the capacity of everyone to teach this new and transformational way,” says Cindy. “We need to help kids understand that no matter where they live and no matter what they look like, they can learn problem-solving skills and can make the world a better place.”