Empower Your Students to be the STEM Problem Solvers of the Future

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By: Libba Lyons

In celebration of STEM/STEAM Day (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math) on November 8th, I wanted to share some reflections on the science of climate change and how important it is that educators prepare students now to be the problem solvers of the future.

I am deeply concerned about the effects of climate change on our environment. So, I was drawn to a recent interview conducted by McKinsey & Company with Katharine Hayhoe, Chief Scientist for The Nature Conservancy and Endowed Professor in Public Policy and Public Law at Texas Tech University. In 2021, she published a book called Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World. McKinsey spoke to her as part of their Author Talks series.

Since reading and listening to this interview, I have read Dr. Hayhoe’s book. In reflecting on her words, I see three guiding principles for teachers as they help their students grow into the scientists, technologists, engineers, artists, and mathematicians of tomorrow. These principles can be summarized in three words: agency, voice, and love.

1. Agency

One of the most striking statements about climate change in Dr. Hayhoe’s interview was this:

If we don’t think that we can fix it, if we don’t think that we can make a difference, if we have no sense of efficacy, fear paralyzes us…And neuroscience agrees. As I talk about in my book, neuroscience shows that if we overload people with fear and they don’t know how to respond, it quite literally paralyzes us. Here’s the thing: if we don’t act, we are doomed. We must act. We must have agency. And to have agency, we must understand that we have efficacy. And to have efficacy, we must understand that if we do something, we can make a difference.

Her reference to agency struck a chord with me because it is the cornerstone of our work at Instructional Empowerment (IE). To achieve our social mission, we are committed to helping students develop a strong sense of agency. Efficacy and agency are bound together. I cannot have agency if I believe that I am helpless, and if I believe I am helpless, I will graduate without seeing the real power that I have to tackle the big problems of the world like climate change.

We see in many schools that students do not have the opportunity to develop agency. Students wait for their teachers to tell them what do to because the classroom environment is not designed to build students’ skills of self-regulation. Instead of students taking charge of their learning, they rely on their teacher to direct their learning and develop a sense of helplessness. Classroom environments of low agency and low rigor convey to students that they are incapable of being successful learners.

What happens to children when they grow up with this deep sense of inadequacy? What happens when they don’t recognize the power within themselves and the collective efficacy of working with others to address and overcome challenges? As adults, how can they have the skills and confidence they need to be the next innovators of STEM/STEAM?

Teachers, also, are being robbed of agency by scripted curricula and overlapping, top-down mandates about what and how they are to teach. This is leading to demotivation and burnout and is prompting many teachers to leave the profession. What happens when teachers no longer believe that they can make a difference in the lives of their students?

Faced with the threat of climate change, if we continue to produce generations of adults who do not believe in themselves and their own abilities, what does this portend for our nation and for the world?

Too often, students wait for teachers to tell them what to do because the classroom environment is not designed to build student agency. 3 guiding principles can grow students into the STEM leaders of tomorrow. @IE_empower… Click To Tweet

2. Voice

The first step forward in solving the problem of climate change, says Hayhoe, is one simple thing that anyone can do: Talk about it. No problem gets solved without bringing it to light. Open discussion of problems also brings with it many ideas for solutions.

This applies to students, too. For students to exercise agency as learners, they must have the opportunity to speak, use their voice in bringing problems to the surface, and expressing their ideas in constructive ways.

In her book, Hayhoe provides an excellent example of the power of student voice that she learned from Kristin Milks, a high school science teacher in the Midwest. Milks elicits her students’ voices as they learn about climate change. First, she asks her students what they want to know about it. She prints their questions and displays them on the wall throughout the semester. She frames all her lessons around what students want to know and tells her students which of their questions the day’s lesson will address. Her students are highly motivated by this approach. It reveals to them that they already know something about the science of climate change, that they care about it, and that their ideas matter. Second, the teacher designs classroom experiments for her students that closely mirror the same experiments that climate scientists employ. Students learn from these real-world, hands-on experiments that they have the capacity to understand the flow of logic on which all science is built.

As another example of student voice in action, Hayhoe describes the collaborative problem-solving of a team of students in Lubbock, Texas, who recently won the U. S. Army’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics competition with their “Carbon Keepers” project. With this project, students measured how carbon levels change with drought, wildfires, and fertilizer. They studied how farmers could store carbon in the soil as organic matter and shared their findings with local farmers, ranchers, and community groups. These students are demonstrating agency, voice, and essential skills of self-regulation that will allow them to become tomorrow’s scientists, engineers, and inventors. Soon they will be tackling the challenge of climate change and making a big difference for the welfare of everyone on the planet.

As our Applied Research Center works with teachers throughout the United States, and they see the academic growth in their students who are developing greater agency and voice as learners, they often say to us, “I didn’t know my students could do this.” Sometimes the teachers themselves struggle to find own their voices and recognize their own abilities. During a recent professional development session, a teacher approached our facilitator with tears in her eyes and said, “I’m an experienced teacher and I didn’t know any of the things you are teaching us to do.” The facilitator reassured her that many of the strategies we share are things that no teacher learned in pre-service education and are not part of the legacy instructional systems in which we were all brought up. Teachers, too, are more capable than they have been led to believe and their voice matters. Once they recognize that truth, we have observed that nothing can hold them back. Both they and their students flourish as they let their voices be heard.

3. Love

My first thought was that perhaps the word “love” might be too vague to convey the idea that shines out from Hayhoe’s writing. But the action that she calls for portrays a strong love – a love of our planet and each other – that calls us to do what we can.

In our Applied Research Center’s work with student academic teams, we insist that learning is both an individual and collective responsibility. Teams develop a love of learning and care about each other’s learning. This does not mean that the more academically advanced students shoulder the work while others drift. It means that all students in the team pull their load, but when a student is struggling, their team assists as peer tutors and advisors before they call on the teacher to bring further support to their colleague. All students want to be successful, and they want their fellows to be successful as well. They learn to love their teammates and they love themselves. The reach of their caring extends well beyond their personal concerns, and they want to be part of a purpose bigger than themselves. Someday soon, as climate scientists, engineers, or simply educated citizens, that purpose may well be overcoming the damage done to the Earth.

“Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.” – Brené Brown

We Can Make a Difference

In her book, Hayhoe illustrates the many solutions to climate change that are underway, and the diverse teams of people all over the world who are working on promising ideas. As dire as the consequences are for our climate, we are learning that we can make a difference when we work together. Making a difference requires action, and action requires that we have a sense of empowerment and efficacy – both individually and collectively.

As Katharine Hayhoe says, despite the significant threat of climate change that affects all of us, there is hope. I see hope in the eyes of students in our partner schools as they feel the empowerment of agency in learning. I see it in the rekindled passion and amplified voice for education that teachers experience as they watch their students grow as independent, critical thinkers. I see it in the mutual support and bonds of affection among diverse teams of students all focused on learning.

IE’s work with our partner districts and schools gives me hope that the solution to climate change, and other difficult problems facing our nation and the world, can and will be solved. Together, we can prepare students for greater and different challenges guided by the principles of agency, voice, and love. If we project these students into the future, we can see them engaged in all manner of occupations where they will find solutions so that all can live peacefully and well on our healing planet.

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Hayhoe, Katharine. (2021). Saving us: A climate scientist’s case for hope and healing in a divided world. Simon & Schuster.

McKinsey & Company. (2021, November 8). Author talks: There is no vaccine for climate change. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/mckinsey-on-books/author-talks-there-is-no-vaccine-for-climate-change


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