Learn how to promote collaboration and communication skills through STEM education with our comprehensive guide for educators and administrators.
No matter the subject you teach, let’s face it: collaboration and communication skills still rank at the top of any educator’s to-do list. Whether it’s sharing toys or “using your words” in kindergarten, or project managing a team and building a culture of empathy, understanding, and partnership in the workplace, these skills still matter, and they permeate the confines of our classrooms. Never forget, whatever you teach your pupils, you’re also teaching them to be human.
However, inter- and intrapersonal skills like these seem to couch more comfortably in the humanities and softer sciences than they do in pedagogical fan-favorite VIP subjects like STEM. Why is that? If you boil it down to co-existing, sharing, working together, and being able to work together in fruitful ways, even the most technical aspects of STEM education still very much invite productive thought and practice in collaboration and communication. While seemingly disparate, the concepts fit nicely into the educational thread of STEM disciplines.
What is STEM Education?
You’ve undoubtedly heard the term “STEM” so much in your educational experience that by now it’s downright embarrassing to admit you might not really know what it means. Fear not—while its scope might shift rather mercurially as do the vagaries of pedagogy, at its heart, STEM is a catch-all category for all things Science/Technology/Engineering/Mathematics. Although sometimes, depending on your educational upbringing, you may also squeeze in an A for “Art;” although this “participation award” inclusion of the humanities sometimes runs antithetical to the designation of the original acronym.
The goals of STEM include normalizing formal research, inquiry through the scientific method, and highlighting the use of modern technology and its computational power to help us achieve, invent, and program innovations for ourselves, our world, and the ever-growing world of challenges that we must rise to meet. Examples you might recognize of STEM education include teaching children coding at early ages, introducing them to the various elements of robotics and electronics that might be found in a MakerSpace, and challenging them to innovate existing solutions to pervasive problems using cutting-edge tools like solar panels, hybrid cars, rechargeable batteries. An arduino circuit kit, a schoolwide coding challenge, or building a solar-powered trash compactor are all examples of STEM education in practice.
Collaboration in STEM Education
So why a sudden need for collaboration in the STEM discipline? Well, quite frankly, it’s probably overlooked when our school systems churn out future IT specialists, gifted coders, and Computer Science majors—but are we also providing the next generation its leaders, innovators, motivators, and influencers? While the technical knowledge of the STEM subjects certainly ranks high, without people skills we won’t really be able to assemble teams and work across nations in any real synergy when the going gets tough.
In certain pockets of the educational world, teachers are doing innovative and impressive things, showing us how to promote collaboration in the classroom and beyond. An international science fair challenges kids from all over the world to participate in a competition to provide creative solutions to a pervasive problem such as waste removal, where the winning team from a school in Kentucky designs a solar powered, self-regulating composter. Middle Schoolers from New Jersey build little solar paneled light-bulbs alongside their virtual exchange partners in Uganda; the former clipping them onto their backpacks for a cool decoration while the kids in Africa utilize the lights in their frequent brown-outs. There’s a myriad of eye-catching ways in which STEM projects can easily be turned into fertile fields of collaboration and cross-pollination.
It goes like this: you can turn any group project, lab, experiment, or challenge you can assign kids into a collaborative effort. Under the right circumstances, you can invite the world into any class, set up a playdate across space and time, and infuse your STEM projects with new life by reframing it as an exercise in teamwork and interchange.
Communication in STEM Education
“Communication is the bridge between confusion and clarity.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. But it’s true—the quicker and more exponentially we grow in our technological capacities, the more we need to interface and share ideas. And the more we need to understand ourselves.
Sometimes, for our students, much of the world exists “out of sight, out of mind.” Of course, we know about climate change, but maybe to us that appears as yet another unnaturally warm winter, while somewhere else it’s heralded with wildfires, and yet elsewhere its presence is marked by tornadoes. Without communication, we cannot analogize these experiences, or see the whole for the parts. Interconnective courses, like virtual exchanges, that allow young people to connect and see both the differences and similarities in their experiences and to tell their stories can help our students widen their frames of reference and broaden their educational horizons.
Educators worldwide are offering up so many examples of rich and rewarding dialogues and interlocutions. Virtual summits on climate change, attended by a variety of high schools from all over the planet, yield fascinating exchanges and enrichment when students can interface and learn about how their side of the world experiences this global issue. Movements that promote skills like computer coding and IT management connecting young women’s institutions from the U.S. to those in the Middle East in an effort to normalize STEM education for women can inspire radical change and empower voices that have long been shut out of the conversation because of long standing institutional biases. These are just inspiring examples, but there’s a lot you can do right in the comfort of your own classroom.
It’s far from impossible to invite discussion and thoughtful reflection into your classes. So much of STEM has focused on data entry, analysis, and research, but there’s no reason why you can’t substitute a lab report for a class discussion or alternate between using the Scientific and the Socratic Methods. The field is ripe with learning moments that can invite fruitful discussions if you let it.
Technology in STEM Education
Of course, we have an entire world at our fingertips—it’s knowing how to use it that counts. The most recent swing in experiential learning, especially during the extended lockdown periods caused by the pandemic, has really leveraged our methods of telecommunication and video conferencing to achieve both collaboration and communication. And if you think these methods are soon going away…I’ve got news for you: I wouldn’t count on it.
A perfect example of the marriage between collaboration and communication via the use of technology in the classroom remains the virtual exchange. A project-based learning approach where students connect with peers from another school, somewhere else in the world, to complete a task, answer a question, or face a challenge, checks a lot of pedagogical boxes for the many innovative educators who have embraced these methods. Whether it’s a call in real time, or exchanging asynchronous videos, there’s a lot of great learning that can happen when students are given the opportunity, the safe place, and the prompting to engage in intellectual dialogue with one another. Even in more homogeneous classrooms, the chance to visit with another community in the world can serve as a meaningful way in how to promote diversity in the classroom.
We’ve already explored several examples of using such methods in your STEM education, but let’s try and apply them to your specific situation. Are there projects, labs, or assignments whose framework and learning goals you can keep, but also expand to include worthwhile discussion with another school abroad? Are there topics in your STEM curriculum that should warrant different voices to highlight how its very nature can change depending on where you are on the globe? Perhaps the many courses offered on systems like Level Up Village may fit handsomely into your curriculum, and your students can enjoy the variety of completing the work alongside peers from another time zone?
Assessing Collaboration and Communication Skills in STEM Education
Naturally, these projects and collaborations need to come with some sort of form of assessment for your students; as fun as they sound, we need to challenge our students and give them tools and hold them to certain standards and expectations. Truthfully, this should not be as difficult as one might fear: rubrics, quizzes on content, and participation grades in discussion can still be used. Moreover, if you’re having the students create their own videos, you can add a creativity quotient to the grade, and a factor for timeliness and meeting the basic requirements and expectations of the exchange. Finally, a presentation on what they learned through the experience could always make for a convenient project grade.
In summary, while the STEM-obsessed pedagogs of educational research continue to campaign for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics as the paramount subjects of worthwhile instruction, it’s important as educators not to forget the importance of collaboration and communication skills; they’re what will guide us to the next age of our human civilization. Without them, we’ll be working in silos and reinventing the wheel over and over again!
Think critically about how you’re approaching your STEM courses; where is there an opportunity for meaningful collaboration and dialogue with other students and educators from beyond your classroom walls, beyond your community, and even beyond the boundaries of your country? Utilizing collaborative projects such as Virtual Exchanges can really cut to the chase of reflection and great learning!