Essential Connections of STEM, PBL, and Tech Integration… What Would Dewey Think?

9/17/2014 12:00:00 AM

“Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.” – John Dewey

It has been exciting to work in both the STEM, PBL, and technology integration field. In fact, I have an opportunity to provide professional development across the country involving all three. As a long-time advocate of STEM education, technology integration, and more recently Project Based Learning (PBL), I can’t help but see how these three concepts really do complement one another. These initiatives  take on three important roles to make a wonderful classroom learning environment for students. STEM (or STEAM) includes those all important content standards that have often been taught isolated from each other.  PBL provides an important process and pedagogy that allows for the integrated delivery of this content. Technology integration acts as the conductor, glue, and amplifier allowing for increased productivity and learning opportunities.  Both STEM and PBL depend on a student need to know and inquiry, which allows for higher level learning. Technology integration provides tools to drive  this process. Additionally, they all facilitate and promote important 21st century competencies.  STEM includes the integration of the curricular areas of Science, Technology, Math, and Engineering. This integration allows for connections and an authenticity that is essential to both PBL and STEM.  Technology  provides the necessary conduit to the real world, breaking down the walls of the classroom and creating a real-world blended learning environment.

Best practice behind the disciplines of STEM are changing. The Common Core State Standards, and other state high quality standards (that have opted out of CCSS), place a strong emphasis on scientific literacy involving student writing about process. These standards also demand that students understand concepts in depth while making relationships to real world applications. It is no longer acceptable to just find the answer to a math equation. Students must be able to apply their math skills to the real world.  The Next Generation Science Standards promote the kind of application found in engineering and technology, demanding formulation of a problem that is solved by design thinking. These standards state, “Strengthening the engineering aspects of the Next Generation Science Standards will clarify for students the relevance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the four STEM fields) to everyday life.”

PBL, with its emphasis on authenticity, connections, inquiry, and process, is able to provide these disciplines a necessary pedagogy.  It allows students to own their learning while promoting the inquiry of science, resourcefulness of technology, design principles found in engineering, and application of math. Integrating the subjects encourages student innovation, promotes authentic learning, and allows students to see connections with their community and between content areas. It’s true; PBL can be the delivery method as well as the connector of separate content areas. While it is optimal to blend classes together, it is entirely possible to provide a STEM environment through teacher awareness of outside discipline areas and collaboration with other educators on school schedule.

I began with technology integration at the start of my career integrating the use of scientific recording equipment, cameras, compasses, and archaeology tools to teach content area skills in the outdoor environment back in the 70’s. I tell this story because it is important to remember that tools are the foundation for technology integration. Today there are so many additional tools that can be used.  It wasn’t until the advent of the Apple II that I started using a computer in the classroom, and at that point I discovered another amazing tool. Today’s computing devices provide both an opportunity for students to learn and inquire, as well as to produce, publish, and connect to the real world. It is the technology integration that provides the ability to amplify the content of STEM and the process of PBL. Through this amplification our students become engaged and can enter a flow, allowing for authentic and exciting learning opportunities. While the computer is important, one must think beyond the device!  Imagine what John Dewey would do with all of the technological possibilities of today!

As I reflect on my STEM practice, I am aware of the integral way PBL facilitates student learning. One of my favorite STEM projects involves a spin-off of a Rube Goldberg study. Sixth graders work in collaborative teams to design a system utilizing necessary scientific elements, while incorporating detailed constraints. They learn significant science content relating to systems and simple machines, and math content involving measurement and scale. Student teams communicate, debate, and tinker using the process of revision and reflection.  Design thinking is evident as students carefully plan using programs such as SketchUp to put thoughts on paper, and later transfer their ideas to a real working model. Technology is incorporated which includes hammers, glue guns, and, of course, the computer to produce engineering designs, learn content, and connect with the real world.  Excitement swells as they  test their contraptions with mentor engineers on that last day but, more importantly, engagement and learning are evident through the entire process.

I often use the program West Point Bridge Design to promote mathematics and physics skills with seventh grade students. Working in collaborative contractor teams, students uncover the STEM content area in order to design a computer simulated bridge. They answer the Driving Question, “How can we build a working bridge at the lowest cost possible?” Through a formative learning process students experience the rigorous math and physics found in engineering while practicing 21st century competencies.

In another STEM project that incorporates a national competition called Future City, eighth grade students use science and math to design a future city using the popular simulation SIM City. They later transform their creation by designing a model of a city built using mathematical scale. Engineer mentors provide the important guidance and public audience that leads to real world connections.

The connection between STEM, PBL, and technology integration  can be further seen through an examination of PBL’s Eight Essential Elements that are promoted by BIE, the BUCK Institute for Education. I also encourage you to browse the projects at BIE. When you find a project that encompasses multiple STEM subject areas, you may have found your next STEM opportunity. Also, look for future posts that include some PBL and STEM ideas.

The famous educator John Dewey said, “Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.” This practice is at the very center of PBL and STEM. As we look at the Next Generation Science Standards, the Common Core State Standards for math and literacy, and the other high quality standards adopted by states outside of the CCSS,  it is clear that PBL, STEM, and technology integration are a natural and essential connection.

cross-posted at

Michael Gorman oversees one-to-one laptop programs and digital professional development for Southwest Allen County Schools near Fort Wayne, Indiana.  He is a consultant for Discovery Education, ISTE, My Big Campus, and November Learning and is on the National Faculty for The Buck Institute for Education.  His awards include district Teacher of the Year, Indiana STEM Educator of the Year and Microsoft’s 365 Global Education Hero. Read more at

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