Developing Critical Thinking Skills Through STEM

Published : Monday, November 26, 2018 | 9:07 AM

Critical thinking skills have become a top priority over recent years. Educators and employers are well aware of the importance of being able to really think, rather than just memorizing knowledge and procedures. The Next Generation Science Standards recognize this, and schools are switching direction to better meet students’ needs and prepare them for their future.

STEM education, an approach that integrates science, technology, engineering, and math to tackle real-world problems through hands-on activities, has been shown to have great benefits for children’s development. A key part of this is its role in developing critical thinking skills.

What exactly is critical thinking? It involves looking deeper, and not just accepting information at face value. It requires independence of thought, consideration of alternative viewpoints, and creativity. In Bloom’s taxonomy, it corresponds to the higher order thinking skills of analysis, evaluation, and synthesis. A critical thinker will ask questions, make connections, and find new ways to apply their understanding.

It is not hard to see why our society has recognized the importance of these skills, with an economy that is continuously changing, and technologies and practices that continue to evolve. For today’s students to be prepared for tomorrow’s world, critical thinking is essential. We cannot teach them to use the tools they will use in the future, because they haven’t been invented yet. We cannot teach them to know the things they will need to know, because the problems are unknown. We can, however, prepare them to understand issues, discover answers, and develop solutions for themselves.

Why are STEM projects a particularly effective way to develop critical thinking skills? A good STEM program presents students with real problems, possibly that have not yet been solved in the “real world.” This empowers students by demonstrating that they have a role to play and a contribution to make, as well as letting them know that it is not possible to simply tell them the answers. In a good STEM learning environment, the teacher acts more as a guide than as the expert with all the pre-defined answers.

In STEM activities, students will be encouraged to ask their own questions and explore problems for themselves. They will come up with solutions, put them into practice, and be able to evaluate them. This gives them much-needed “permission” to think independently and creatively, something that can often be stifled in other contexts, and this stretches their critical thinking. The Engineering Design Process often provides a framework for good STEM projects, allowing all these essential skills to be practiced.
STEM also integrates different subject areas, better reflecting real-world situations, and encouraging students to look at the problem from multiple perspectives, which is another key element of critical thinking. This also means that they learn, in an integrated way, how to use technologies to further their understanding or to find new applications for their learning.

Critical thinking does not just prepare students for educational achievement and employment, but also helps them to function better as citizens and in their own lives. Of course, the beauty of critical thinking skills is that, no matter where they are developed, they can be applied in all areas of life, allowing us to better respond to whatever challenges arise in any context. Additionally, the confidence and self-esteem students can gain from participating in STEM projects that allow them to fully use their thinking skills, is invaluable.

Evidence shows that afterschool programs of high quality provide good environments for developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills. It has also been found that explicit teaching of thinking skills increases students’ motivation to learn. Students may be more at ease in a supportive, low-pressure setting, away from their regular classroom. A place where open discussion, the challenging of assumptions, and experimentation are not just allowed but encouraged, is the perfect place for critical thinking skills to flourish.

This is the environment that STEM World in Pasadena aims to provide. Through a range of afterschool and weekend workshops, homeschool classes, and camps, students are given the space and support they need to grow as their critical thinking skills evolve. There are options for ages 6 to adult, so it is never too early or too late to develop the all-important critical thinking skills.

Find details of current workshops and upcoming camps here: https://www.stemworld.net/programs.htm

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