Depending on your experience, you might have felt your early education was a little lackluster. Or, you may have excelled. The pre-pandemic K-12 classroom was organized such that teachers shared information and students were expected to retain it. In addition, teachers “taught to the test,” meaning that educators built their curriculum around standardized tests. These tests were designed to evaluate a school to help determine funding budgets. This puts immense pressure on students and teachers to perform well on the test, and leaves little room for a flexible teaching style designed to meet the needs of all students. Strong test-takers and independent learners excelled in this environment, but students with different learning styles did not necessarily receive the support they needed to succeed.
During the pandemic, teachers had to get creative to keep their students’ education on track. With distance learning specifically, the curriculum was forced to change: technology skills were required to even attend class and assignments had to all be completed online. Thus these 21st-century skills are naturally embedded in the new curriculum. However, new challenges arose. Holding students accountable to learn the material became more difficult, and teacher-class interactions faded away due to lack of engagement (we’ve all had our cameras off or worked on other things during a meeting). Unfortunately, inequities increase during distance learning—not every student will have access to a computer or reliable internet needed to attend classes and complete assignments. Furthermore, the social aspect of going to school disappeared overnight, which puts strain on future in-person collaborative learning. The lack of social interaction can also have detrimental effects on students’ mental health.
As schools reopen, we can’t return to these teaching methods. Instead, we have to ask how we can improve classrooms to better support students.
For our March event, we invited Jeff Hescox, Program Manager for the UC Davis Center for Integrated Computing and STEM Education (C-STEM) to speak about strategies to improve the classroom environment. Among other events, the C-STEM program provides professional development and support for STEM educators to integrate hands-on computing and robotics into K-12 curriculum. As a former STEM instructor at an at-risk school in South Central Los Angeles, Jeff shared some of his experiences with changing educational strategies to be more engaging and effective.
He suggested that teachers could collaborate and design lessons that would enable students to learn multiple disciplines within one topic, which is called interdisciplinary project-based learning.
- Never assume a student already knows a fact/concept
- Create multiple points of entry to a lesson
- Meet students at their level of understanding
For example, take the COVID-19 pandemic as an overarching topic for the project. This provides students with a relevant, concrete reason for learning the skills laid out in the learning objectives. All core subjects would then have objectives based on this core theme of the pandemic. In Math: what is the relationship between the number of people and the spread of the virus? In History: how does the Black Lives Matter movement impact how the public perceives the handling of the pandemic? In English: how would you write a guide to handling the pandemic? And so on. Each lesson would provide information on one element needed to complete the project. For example: to understand the relationship between the number of people and the spread of the virus, students need to employ algebraic concepts like linear and exponential equations.
An interdisciplinary project-based approach is challenging: it requires the collaboration of teachers across disciplines and careful backwards planning. The end goal above is to explore different facets of COVID-19. But teachers would need to plan their lesson objectives keeping the end goal in mind. This can be difficult to pace appropriately given that individual students’ learning styles.
Education can’t return to “normal” post-pandemic. The UC Davis C-STEM program, and teachers across the United States, are innovating ways to introduce interdisciplinary projects within STEM fields. If you’re interested in learning more about these teaching methods, check out their website and this article about interdisciplinary project-based learning.
Sydney Wyatt is a PhD student at the University of California, Davis.
Jessica Trinh is a PhD student at the University of California, Davis.