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What’s it like to work in STEM? Why learning Science & Engineering Practices and Crosscutting Concepts matter

I get excited about synergies. It truly makes me happy when I find ways that seemingly different aspects of my world connect. One way this shows up is when I find intersections between my early career as a scientist and my work now in STEM education. Being part of the STEM Meets the Challenge of the Pandemic project—especially with the Explore STEM Careers videos—has been especially satisfying for this reason.

Doing science and teaching science come together in meaningful ways in A Framework for K-12 Science Education, the research-based guide for academic science standards that is being used in Minnesota and throughout the country. The Framework advocates for a shift in how we think about teaching science that is more authentic to the way science and engineering are really done. Before the Framework, science standards typically prioritized content—the big ideas of science that all students should know. What’s different under the Framework is an approach called “three-dimensional learning” that stresses that learning how to do science and engineering (called Science & Engineering Practices) and how to think like a scientist or engineer (called Crosscutting Concepts) are just as important as understanding big ideas of broad importance to the disciplines of science and engineering. In fact, Minnesota’s new K-12 science standards are organized around these Science & Engineering Practices, explicitly emphasizing the importance of students developing expertise in these practices throughout their schooling—in concert with developing conceptual understanding and content knowledge.

This “three-dimensional” way of teaching and learning would surely have made a difference for me. Nearly every experiment I did throughout my high school and college physics courses was focused on either verifying something from the canon of physics or reproducing a historic experiment. As such, we always knew what the results were supposed to be; we knew when we got it “right.” Sure, there was educational value in this: we got better at measurement, controlling variables, graphing, and writing lab reports. But, we weren’t learning how to do science like scientists. When I got to graduate school, it was abundantly clear I that I knew a lot of the stuff physicists know, but I didn’t know how to actually be one. In this way, I was not very well equipped for the career path I was on. This “three-dimensional” approach to teaching and learning will mean that today’s young people will be better prepared for their career possibilities than I was. 

So, what does this have to do with the STEM Meets the Challenge of the Pandemic project? Watching the Explore STEM Careers videos, I notice that when STEM professional talk about their jobs it keeps coming back to these Science & Engineering Practices and Crosscutting Concepts. The scientists and engineers we interviewed didn’t always use the same words that you find in the formal science education literature—but, nevertheless, these connections are there, and they’re real.

Whether you are geeking out about this like me, are mildly curious, or perhaps even skeptical, I hope you’ll join me for my next blog post where I’ll share some specific examples of how the Science & Engineering Practices and Crosscutting Concepts show up in these videos.

Beth Murphy, PhD
Beth Murphy, PhD

Beth is a STEM education expert who focuses on establishing partnerships, developing and leading programs and projects, delivering professional learning experiences, and conducting program evaluation that enables STEM education advocates to come together to do their best work. Beth is part of the project team for STEM Meets the Challenge of the Pandemic.