STEM Practices Overview

Defining STEM Practices

Within the Institute for Scientists and Engineer Educators (ISEE), we use the phrase “cognitive STEM practices” to describe the reasoning processes that scientists and engineers use to understand the natural world and solve problems. A key component of the PDP’s definition of inquiry includes these problem-solving skills. In fact, most definitions of inquiry invoke science practice or process, and these pedagogies are linked with beneficial learning outcomes. Practices of science are highly valued in all STEM disciplines and careers, although they are often discussed under the umbrella of critical thinking or problem-solving skills. Examples of these practices include Hypothesizing and Making Predictions, Explaining/Claiming Based on Evidence, Designing and Carrying Out Experiments, and Developing and Using Models. 

Practices are emphasized in essentially all STEM education standards. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) calls for the integration of eight core practices in K-12 science curriculum, while the AAAS report, “Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education” promotes similar STEM critical-thinking skills in higher education, including their incorporation into large course formats. A key component of learning STEM practices requires instructors being explicit about what the practice is, how and when it is used, and what is challenging about it. 

Benefits of Teaching STEM Practices

Research in higher education is increasingly attentive to psycho-social aspects of student experiences on campus and in the classroom. Factors such as self-efficacy, science identity, and sense of belonging are related to student learning outcomes and persistence. Science identity, in particular, is a critical component of a student’s development as a scientist and can be disrupted due to STEM culture and climates that include what happens in classrooms. This can be particularly challenging for underrepresented minority students, who may encounter situations where their bids for recognition as scientists are rebuffed because of their race, ethnicity, or gender identities. For all students, a strong identity as a scientist or engineer is linked to STEM career aspirations, graduating with a STEM degree, choosing to attend graduate school. 

Engaging and improving in STEM practices have been linked to persistence and persistence indicators when they are part of undergraduate research experiences. There are other aspects of research experiences that promote positive student outcomes, but practices, specifically, are related to science self-efficacy and science identity. Teaching practices can also lead to long-term improvements in learning. Disciplinary content is rarely engaged in an isolated setting by scientists and engineers, who instead must apply this content in higher-order level tasks. This type of high-level cognitive engagement and application is called for across all disciplines as a way to improve student learning, and science practices reflect this type of critical thinking in STEM. 

By giving students opportunities to perform and receive explicit feedback and recognition in STEM practices in large, non-lab courses, instructors tap into the potential of extracting similar benefits as research experiences, but with a larger swath of students earlier in their academic careers. Our own work as part of the HHMI initiative support this claim and show a correlation between students’ perceived engagement in STEM practices and STEM career motivation in non-lab, large-enrollment biology courses.  Our results indicate that similar factors, namely student perceived recognition as a scientist and science identity, are related to these positive outcomes.  

Teaching STEM Practices

There are several challenges associated with teaching STEM practices in non-lab courses, particularly in large lecture classes. One concern is that by focusing on science process, instructors are unable to cover as much content as they otherwise could. It is worth considering, however, how deeply students are able to understand content when there is vast coverage of many different concepts. In addition, authentic science and engineering involve the application of content via the process of science. By having students grapple with the most fundamental, core ideas in a discipline through application via STEM practices, students are able to develop a deep understanding of both content and process in a manner more relevant to how science and engineering are done. 

Another challenge in teaching practices is related to the level of authenticity associated with a task that a teacher assigns to students. While it would be difficult to maintain the level of authenticity of how science is done in research and other STEM professions, spending too much time on relatively simple and inauthentic applications of reasoning skills may not be effective. Students also benefit from opportunities to have some choice in engaging with content in general. Approaches to teaching STEM practices should strive to provide students with the space to integrate reasoning skills through iteration and timely feedback that is targeted at challenging aspects of the practices. 

STEM practices are also ripe for giving students timely, specific feedback on tasks and assignments in a manner that is decoupled from outcomes or getting the right answer. In courses where assessments and evaluations only privilege correct answers, students are not motivated to take intellectual risks. If instructors value critical-thinking skills and applying scientific concepts, but do not give feedback or assess those skills, students will likely revert to identifying the pragmatic path towards success in the class. In order to design curricular activities that tap into and improve student critical thinking, instructors should have clear expectations made explicit to students, create opportunities to prioritize iteration and feedback over correct answers, and incentivize student cognitive risk-taking through the assessment (including low-stakes assessments) of these skills.

Bringing STEM Practices into the Classroom

To incorporate STEM practices into the classroom, ISEE advocates that instructors focus on one practice learning outcome at a time and create assessment materials to diagnose student understanding. These can be used to assess student understanding and inform future teaching efforts. Assessments also outline clear student expectations, stated in terms of what students will do, so that they may be used further for frequent, low-stakes feedback. Finally, starting with assessment allows for the creation and adaptation of teaching interventions of any size to tightly align with expectations.