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STEM Education: Combining Motion and Motivation

October 9, 2015


“Ten years ago, there was little innovation in education,” Tom Vander Ark (@tvanderark), an advocate for innovations in learning, laments. “Every other sector was transforming itself with technology, but education largely looked like it did a hundred years ago.”[1] What Vander Ark would like to see is a culture of experimentation that permeates the education sector. The kind of experimentation he would like to see is the kind that gets students more involved in the subjects they are learning through activities. One example he discusses incorporates a Fantasy Football-like approach for teaching geopolitics. The experiment was started by a teacher named Eric Nelson, who wondered if he could get his students more excited about current events by using the same ideas behind his favorite hobby, Fantasy Football. Vander Ark writes:

“He built a spreadsheet and came up with a game  —  get kids to pick world leaders and keep score based on how many times they were showing up in a daily news search. It was like Fantasy Football for Social Studies. His students loved it. So he went to an event called Startup Weekend Education. Investors and teachers loved it, told him to keep going. So he did. We then invited him to a 3-day workshop we call Essentials, so he could create a more extensive test. That test worked too. He learned a bunch and kept tweaking. … He stayed in the classroom for a year, testing, growing it, talking to partners like Rand McNally. This year, he upped his own personal investment and left the classroom to build his program out.”

His website, Fantasy Geopolitics, explains more about how the game works. Vander Ark observes, “This is how a lot of education experiments can happen, and right now.” He then asks, “How can we provide support, encouragement, and training at these early stages  —  when ideas are being formed, and perhaps most importantly, when they can be tested at a small scale without risking hundreds of kids’ academic records?” In his article, he goes on to explain some of the barriers experimentation faces in today’s school systems. When I founded, along with a few colleagues, The Project for STEM Competitiveness, we were fortunate enough to be working with a private school whose administrators had the flexibility to experiment. Not all schools are that lucky. What we wanted to do was introduce a project-based, problem-solving approach into schools near where we live. We firmly believe that by showing students how STEM subjects can help them solve real-world problems they will begin to appreciate the opportunities that STEM skills open for them. We are not trying to turn every student into a scientist, technologist, engineer, or mathematician; but, we are trying to help them understand how science and engineering methodologies can help them cope with the challenges they face throughout their lives. I suspect the kind of experimentation Vander Ark is trying to promote meshes well with our approach.


One of the other things I like about activities in education (beyond their ability to motivate) is that they get students up and moving. Scott McQuigg (@ScottMcQuigg), co-founder and CEO of GoNoodle, asserts, “Asking young students to sit still, listen, focus, complete assignments, not talk, and enjoy learning — all at the same time — [doesn’t work].”[2] He explains that most of us have tried that approach and found it difficult and the results disappointing. He continues:

“Among dozens & dozens of teaching philosophies, there’s a common thread. Students succeed when we think strategically about how they learn, and the world they live in. One crucial aspect of this is movement. Physical activity. Wiggling. The act of simply getting students up and out of their seats. Research shows that the brain actually lights up differently after a short episode of movement, and neural pathways are more speedy and efficient amongst fit kids.


One new study out of the University of Illinois shows a link between cortical thickness (sections of gray matter within the brain associated with maturation), fitness, and math scores. To put it simply, the more-fit kids in the study showed thinner cortical sections, signifying higher brain maturation. They also outscored their less-fit peers in the study’s math test.”

McQuigg concludes, “As we think strategically about how to structure next-gen classrooms, the word ‘active’ belongs in the vocab list alongside blended, personalized, project-based, and many others. Teachers and administrators are making movement an hourly part of the instructional day, not only to benefit classroom culture and student health, but to make learning more effective.” The kind of STEM-related problem-solving projects that I would like to see embraced by school systems require students to get out of their chairs, collaborate with one another, and feel the satisfaction of understanding how they can apply what they are learning to real-life challenges. And we shouldn’t wait until students reach high school to get them involved. Dr. Matthew Lynch (@Lynch39083) explains, “It is no longer enough for American students to just get by in comparison to each other in STEM subjects; global competition is proving that students in the U.S. need more focus in these subjects to lead the worldwide marketplace as adults. This year, expect teachers as early as pre-K to start putting as much emphasis on STEM learning as reading and letter formation.”[3] If you start the project-based problem-solving approach when students are young, they will expect (and look forward to) continuing that approach throughout their education. They will anticipate being both motivated and in motion.


[1] Tom Vander Ark and Matt Candler, “In Education, How Do We Create a Culture of Experimentation?Bright, 3 September 2015.
[2] Scott McQuigg, “The Essential Role of Movement in Learning,” Getting Smart, 21 September 2015.
[3] Matthew Lynch, “3 Ways to Revolutionize STEM Education in the United States,” Education Week, 29 August 2015.

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