The importance of STEM education

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Chapter 4: Results and Data Analysis

Research analysis revealed trends, gaps, and emergent themes surrounding STEM and engineering education within 4-H programming. Findings were analyzed to produce eight themes emerging from the data. These findings are listed with their connections to research questions or content areas. Research Question 1: How do 4-H educators see engineering integrated within the 4-H STEM curriculum, projects, or programming? Theme 1: 4-H agents articulate STEM, including engineering, as separate content areas – often only identifying science content STEM is not seen as integrated, but separate content under one STEM umbrella 4-H agents often defined STEM as the separate content areas of science, technology, engineering, and math. They were able to give example curriculums or programming that belonged in each content area separately, but provided no indication that STEM was interpreted as an integrated concept. Rhonda stated that: STEM education is anything related to science – Natural resources, animal sciences kind of things. Technology, like in computer programming those kind of topics. Engineering – the building, the physics, that type of stuff. And then math is kind of encompassed in all of those things.  This lack of integration continued throughout statements by participants, suggesting that engineering is not seen as integrated into 4-H STEM, but rather that engineering is articulated as its own content area. Furthermore, agents articulated STEM curriculum utilization as completion of only one content area. For Nicole, when she teaches science topics such as natural resources or agriculture in her in-school or out-of-school programming, she considers herself teaching STEM, regardless of whether or not this activity includes any direct or indirect correlations to technology, engineering, or math. This data suggest that while engineering might be considered a content area of STEM, there is disconnect between how content areas can and should interact within STEM programming. STEM is heavily understood as a science first activity, specifically through scientific method. When asked what STEM programming within 4-H specifically looked like, agents gave examples dominated with scientific understandings, suggesting that STEM and science are understood as synonymous. Programs ranged from science fair, cooking, and gardening examples, and were often described through the scientific method. Agents utilized terms and phrases commonly associated with the scientific method such as hypothesis formation, methodologies and data collection including measuring and weighing, record keeping, data analysis, and statistics representation through averages and data charts. Additionally, agents often articulated the importance of understanding the scientific method as a way to defend what was discovered, clarify understanding, and work in a team. Agents also recognized both the need and connections for 4-H programming that aligns with Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs). When asked whether Ava finds herself following any SOLs in her out-of-school programming, she responded: Yes specifically scientific investigation. That, the administration has said that’s one that kids particularly struggle with and it’s one that doesn’t go away. That’s the basis of all their science classes. And we do a lot of scientific investigations. And really, I mean STEM in the garden. And even with our foods programs, we really get into the science behind food preservation; we do our canning workshops and that sort of thing. Strong background knowledge in formal and non-formal science educations suggest an additional reason for heavy utilization of science content and understandings in 4-H STEM programming. Many agents reported bachelors and masters degrees in a variety of disciplines including environmental issues, forestry and wildlife, microbiology, and general science. Additional certifications through entities such as Virginia Tech and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation added to the certifications affecting the understanding of science content. When asked whether these backgrounds were a part of STEM, agents heavily replied yes, again indicating that STEM and science are synonymous, and that STEM can be characterized as a science focused entity without requiring an understanding of technology, engineering, or math components. This level of knowledge surrounding science resulted in two common categories regarding science programming: increased comfort level and increased 4-H education. When asked about their comfort in teaching STEM curriculum, agents indicated they were very comfortable, though many specifically indicated this was only with science content. Erika specifically stated: I do feel comfortable with [STEM programming]. I’m more knowledgeable and more often focus on the sciences. I don’t, and I know your study is on engineering; I don’t rely on engineering as much I’m not quite as comfortable with that. This passage indicates that there is a connection between the level of knowledge on a specific topic and the level of perceived integration of this content into STEM and 4-H programming. In other instances, agents indicated that the idea that a lack of knowledge, particularly around engineering applications, resulted in a lack of integration of engineering content and discussion into 4-H programming. This lack of confidence in engineering will be expanded on outside of the research questions. To further elaborate on 4-H STEM programming, Erika stated, “Anyway, my background is in environmental science which is probably one of the reasons why I focus so heavily on [STEM].” Erika expanded upon this level of focus. When asked about her level of involvement with STEM programing in 4-H, she stated: “I actually do a lot of my programming with STEM. And mainly because I have a really strong environmental science and Watershed education program targeting our middle schoolers, but we actually do a unit in the 2nd grade as well with that”, therefore suggesting that a strong educational background in science can lead to a focus on and successful implementation of STEM topics.

Theme 2: Engineering characteristics exist within programming, but are absently or incorrectly labeled as engineering

When asked to specifically identify engineering connections or characteristics, agents often struggled to verbalize terms or phrases utilizing engineering understanding. In some cases, engineering was used and identified by the agent, but those engineering connections were not articulated to students at the beginning or throughout the activity. The key importance of this finding connects to research on the Nature of Science, as well as recent understandings of the Nature of Engineering. These efforts indicate that science and engineering need to be explicitly understood and articulated by educators (Clough 2006; Pleasants & Olson, 2019), or else students do not realize they are engaging in authentic practice, which leads to the generalization to science of engineering as a field. In one instance, an agent identified an engineering activity during the interview regarding vertical gardening and design of a trellis system. However, this activity was communicated to the students as a team building activity, but not as an engineering activity. Design challenges were also often communicated this way, as many agents found themselves focusing on how students worked in teams instead of on the engineering design process. At other times, agents found quick design challenges that followed multiple steps of the design process as “time-wasters” and did not articulate these activities through engineering terms, even though they were identified as such in this interview process. In other cases, agents would describe common engineering characteristics, but would never verbalize their understanding of these activities as engineering. During one of her activities, Ava stated: Yeah when they’re launching their rockets you know and they have to figure out how hard to step on the bottle, you know, are they gonna over shoot or under shoot? And does it go off to the right or off to the left? Or you know what if we added fins? What do you think would happen? And so we’ll add fins, we’ll try it that way – we’ll adjust the angle, that stuff. So they get to try different things and you know tell me what worked and what didn’t. In this instance, Ava described many components of engineering design including identifying variables around a problem, selecting possible solutions, building a prototype, testing and evaluating that prototype, redesigning, and communicating the results. Other agents articulated similar cases, many of which focused on the trying and retrying involved in design as a process. However, these steps were not communicated to the students through engineering connections, therefore suggesting that there is not a lack of engineering integrated into 4-H programming, but rather there is a lack of known engineering terminology and phrasing. For agents who more easily described the design process, they indicated that engineering had been integrated into STEM Day Camps or school programs through catapult of tower building, but that those were not entirely engineering focused. For example, Erika described that for an activity to be engineering, she would “need to find a curriculum that would kind of take, I would say, take a group through some very basic engineering design and up through something more complex over the process.” This description of engineering suggests that engineering is not seen as a content area that can be integrated into curriculum and rather exists as its own independent entity. Additional barriers appeared as reasons for a lack of engineering identification within 4-H STEM programming. For example, many agents focus on students in elementary and middle school and have found that these students do not directly ask for engineering driven curriculum. As such, agents with limited knowledge and confidence in engineering are the only catalyst likely to increase engineering programming, meaning engineering is not heavily discussed. Moreover, agents identified that design – even when not described through engineering characteristics – required a higher level of flexibility and independent learning from the students. When students would become distracted or stuck during the design, it was difficult for the agent not to redirect them or give them a specific answer, though some agents indicated they have grown more comfortable with ill-defined design curriculum over time and with increased frequency. During some of these flexible design instances, specific answers did not exist, as is the nature of the design process. In others, answers could be given, but they would defeat the learner driven process. Research Question 2: What characteristics of engineering are emphasized as important in the teaching of engineering within the 4-H curriculum, projects, or programming, and why are these characteristics important?


Theme 3: Engineering characteristics include a variety of complexities and terminologies

The most dominant characteristic associated with the concept of engineering was design and the design process. When asked to describe how engineering was characterized, Stephanie stated “giv[ing] them an opportunity to work through that engineering design process where they would identify a problem and then come up with a solution. You know try that solution out and then go back to the drawing board and tweak it and try it again.” She continued in her description of the design process by stating that:… then we talk about, well you know this robot kind of failed in its, its job as well. So now the task is to figure out how to make it more effective. And then they would have an opportunity to go back and make changes and run it again and then, you know, after they had their results we would do the same thing. You know what was your percentage? Hopefully the percentage went up. But we’d just give them several opportunities to see how high they could get, that they could get that percentage. Many agents echoed similar details, particularly around the idea of designing, redesigning, and the evaluation of what went wrong and what went well. “Troubleshooting” and “prototype” were often used to describe the design process, particularly during the redesign phase. During engineering activities, students were also encouraged to report their findings to the wider group and often completed their designs in a group setting. Of the agents who described engineering using design terms, their understanding of the process was cyclical, though very few utilized that term directly. Agents also communicated their lack of using these terms throughout the activity, stating more often that they might describe the process at the beginning of the project, but not as the students are moving through the process. Erika, however, did deliberately integrate engineering terms throughout the process. She also articulated an advanced understanding of engineering terms and applications as compared to most other agents in this study. Within the design process, agents mentioned specific concepts repeatedly. One of these was problem definition. Connections were made by the agents concerning the importance of the problem and its relationship to solving that need, and being able to utilize only certain materials to solve the problem. Christina expanded upon this idea further by stating that “as they go through the process, they determine, you know, is it possible or is it not possible or… What am I going to need to be successful in this, this project?” Another agent communicated these requirements for success as “research” and stated how she encouraged students to look for solutions that already exist that might help with the design around this specific problem. Some agents also discussed constraints, criteria and variables within the design process. While most agents did not use the terms “constraints” or “criteria”, they stated that they would limit the materials and give students requirements for their designs, as well as establish clear goals that defined what the design was required to accomplish. One agent, Madison, even went as far as to integrate monetary values into her project, therefore requiring students to determine which items they would use within a set budget. Madison described this interaction by adding that: What I think works best is if you have a kit of materials, like if you got, everybody’s got the same number of popsicle sticks or paper brands or what, you know everyone’s got the same group of equipment. Or a way you know the same ability, access to it. I know one of the, one of the things I did with junk drawer robotics, they had money, paper money and they had to purchase their, their pieces and so they were trying to make it as efficient as possible as well as make it work. This data suggest that agents are not only considering physical limitations on materials, but additional complexities are being integrated, though it is unclear if this is considered to be an engineering characteristic. For some agents, design was mentioned as a characteristic of engineering, but when giving examples of engineering curriculum or projects, design was absent. In one instance, Christina described her experience with engineering curriculum as follows: Researcher: Could you tell me more on how you see that [project] fitting your engineering characteristics Christina: Well because they have to test the strength of the magnet and its abilities to go through different kinds of objects. Researcher: Is there any design component involved in that project? Christina: Just really designing their maze and that’s about it. During this activity, Christina described how students designed a maze through which they had to navigate their magnetic prototype. However, design was not discussed with this prototype, though testing was articulated as a component of that program. In this case, where the agent titled the project as an engineering activity, terminology associated with engineering design was sparse, but the ideas surrounding the process remained. Other agents described similar situations where their engineering examples did not utilize design terminology, but did follow design processes. One final group of agents limited engineering characteristics to those embedded in building. For these agents, any type of building appeared to be classified as engineering including Lego’s, towers, and Keva Planks. In this group, however, design components were not described within the idea of building. Instead, the simple characteristic of building qualified a program as an engineering curriculum.


Chapter 1: Introduction 
Background and Setting
Statement of the Problem
4-H as a youth education initiative
4-H science initiatives
Research Questions
Theoretical Framework
Specialized Content Knowledge
Limitations and Research Subjectivity
Definition of Terms
Chapter 2: Review of Literature
The importance of STEM education
STEM education shortcomings
Models for STEM education utilization
STEM Self-Efficacy
The importance of non-formal, experiential learning
4-H’s non-formal education initiative to increase STEM
4-H experiential learning
Engineering in STEM education
4-H educator understandings of engineering
Potential improvements
Chapter 3: Methodology
Statement of the Problem
Research Questions
Research Design
Data Collection Procedures
Analysis Procedures
Chapter 4: Results and Data Analysis
Research Question 1
Theme 1: 4-H agents articulate STEM, including engineering, as separate content areas – often only identifying science content
Theme 2: Engineering characteristics exist within programming, but are absently or incorrectly labeled as engineering
Research Question 2
Theme 3: Engineering characteristics include a variety of complexities and terminologies 35
Theme 4: Agents relate engineering understanding to personal relations and Do Reflect Apply model
Theme 5: Agents identify important STEM characteristics and concepts, particularly with lesson planning considerations
Research Question 3
Theme 6: Volunteers and teachers play an important part in 4-H STEM formal and non-formal learning efforts
Theme 7: While “non-obvious” STEM curriculums exist, agents do not personally manipulate engineering programs
Theme 8: Barriers to engineering understanding including severe discomfort and low confidence
Chapter 5: Discussion, Conclusions, and Recommendations
Specialized Content Knowledge
Pedagogical Content Knowledge
Conclusions and Recommendations

STEM education in Virginia 4-H: A qualitative exploration of engineering understandings in 4-H STEM educators

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