Kid’s Curiosity: The Engine that Drives STEM Learning
By Anne Jolly
I loved watching the science mystery sleuths in the series, “Mythbusters.” This mystery-solving TV series stirred my curiosity. And it stimulated the curiosity of many of my science students as well. (I can hardly wait for “Mythbusters, Jr!”)
Curiosity is a magical state of mind that supercharges learning. Children enter the world filled with curiosity and constantly asking questions. They keenly observe the world around them and connect ideas. They build things, take things apart, constantly explore, and try new things. In a nutshell, children are great natural learners — just the kind of learners we need for successful STEM work (or any work, for that matter).
So, what happens to kids by the time they reach us in the middle grades? If our students stay curious, they will continue to imagine, explore, discover, and learn. Among many of my 8th grade students, however, curiosity seemed to be hibernating. Dr Bruce Perry in his article, Curiosity: The Fuel of Development tells us that, without curiosity, our students’ futures grow dim. Kids who are less curious will make fewer new friends, join fewer social groups, read fewer books, and take fewer hikes. No wonder a student without curiosity is harder to teach, inspire, and motivate.
Obviously, curiosity is a powerful mindset that will help our students learn, innovate, and be successful in life. So, how do we reinstall curiosity in our students? As STEM educators, how do we rebuild that imaginative mindset that inspires the innovators who change our world?
Curiosity thrives when we nurture it, cultivate it, and use it in a stimulating educational setting. And here’s a stimulating combination that works – STEM curriculum implemented through Project Based Learning. That energizing, creative, open-ended environment sets the stage for kids to investigate real-world issues and develop practical solutions.
To keep curiosity flowing through your classroom, choose from among these ideas.
- Reinforce students’ curiosity with open approval. Let your students know that you regard curiosity as one of their most important traits. As students ask questions and explore challenges and possible solutions, smile, nod, and tell them that you like the way they’re thinking. Keep their imaginative curiosity alive by letting students work with hands-on projects without discouraging them. (If you ever want stop curiosity in its tracks just say things such as: “Don’t touch. Don’t do that yet. Don’t take that apart. Don’t. . . Don’t . . . Don’t . . .”)
- Take the fear out of failure. You’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating since kids come to us believing that mistakes are failures. Curiosity involves some degree of risk for students since they’re tackling a problem and designing a solution that may or may not work. If they feel like second-class students when they don’t succeed, they may simply opt-out of learning. Let your students know that you trust them. Remind students that they learn important things when solutions don’t work out as planned. For curious kids, failure is simply part of a learning game that can take them to unintended but often wonderful places.
- Build curiosity through questioning. Ask, “What If?” A simple “what if” question during a lesson or project can build curiosity and encourage students to stretch their thinking power. Also encourage your students to think in questions. When they learn something new or see something puzzles them, encourage them to begin pondering: Why? Why not? What if? How? etc. Reinforce their thinking by pointing out how their questions help them learn faster and better.
- Develop STEM projects around things that interest your students. Many of my students were interested in solving community problems and in improving our school grounds. Some were interested in working on health issues. Still, others wanted to build energy-efficient or hurricane-proof structures. Kids maintain curiosity and interest when they have a voice in selecting the real-world projects they wrestle with solving.
- Fuel curiosity with discrepant events. Kids hunger for novelty. Feed that hunger with unexpected and surprising outcomes during demonstrations. Surprise and anticipation are guaranteed to build curiosity. One site that can get you started with using discrepant events is the Science World site: Discrepant Events and Inquiry-based Learning. The National Science Teachers Association also features a Discrepant Events Collection.
- Provide time for free, unstructured exploration. Making and Tinkering activities are ideal for stimulating curiosity that leads to innovative STEM outcomes. (See STEM, Maker Spaces, and Engaged Students.) These activities serve an important function in STEM by involving kids in hands-on research, investigating, selecting materials, etc. Making and tinkering allow kids to channel curiosity into concepts and ideas for possible solutions.
- Encourage students to work synergistically in teams of three or four. While creativity is associated with individual talent, we draw new insights and inspiration from other people’s ideas. Great inventions and breakthroughs usually result from a collaboration between people who have similar goals but different ways of thinking or seeing the world. Curiosity and creativity can bloom when students pool their collective talents to solve a problem.
One of the most exciting things about teaching STEM is seeing the curiosity build in students. Suddenly their questions are more intuitive. They begin to learn from mistakes and make more educated decisions. Passion builds, making them more eager to learn and perhaps pursue a STEM career in the future. As you look at outcomes you want for your STEM students, keep in mind that curious students add a whole new dimension to STEM teaching and learning.
About the Author:
Anne Jolly is a STEM consultant, MiddleWeb blogger, and online community organizer for the Center for Teaching Quality. She began her career as a middle school science teacher in Mobile County Schools in Alabama and is a former Alabama State Teacher of the Year. Anne has recently co-developed nationally recognized STEM curriculum with support from the National Science Foundation. She writes for a variety of publications. Her most recent book, STEM by Design, is published by Routledge Press. Find her regularly on Twitter @ajollygal, on her blog at MiddleWeb, and on her STEM by Design website.