X-STEM Conference

xperience STEM thumb

September 22nd, 2014

This past July, a group of educators, researchers, evaluators, and policymakers gathered in Denver for the X-STEM conference, organized by the University of Colorado’s Experiential Science Education Research Collaborative. The term “experiential learning” encompasses a family of similar approaches to learning, including inquiry-based learning, service learning, and discovery learning. A core idea common to these approaches is that people learn best by doing, and that when they engage in interesting and challenging activities, what they learn about STEM goes beyond any content knowledge or skills acquired through the experience. The STEM education outcomes focused on most at the conference were so-called non-cognitive outcomes such as emotion, confidence, and inspiration.

The first two days of the conference were filled with extended off-site experiences around the greater Denver area that included scuba diving, yoga, orienteering, and more. The experiences were designed to highlight potential STEM connections, and participants were encouraged to reflect upon the potential for STEM learning to occur far outside the familiar and comfortable confines of the classroom. Participants documented and shared their learning experiences with each other in small groups. On the concluding day of the conference, attendees assembled at the Denver Convention Center for a full day of interactive sessions organized into three strands: informal learning, K-12 education, and higher education.

In one of the informal learning breakout sessions, Brad McClain, co-director of XSci, introduced a tool called the Experiential Learning Variables and Indicators Scale, which goes by the acronym… wait for it… ELVIS! The scale is intended as a lens to help educators design experiential learning moments, and spells out seven components of extraordinary learning experiences that can be rated from low to high intensity for any particular experience.

The Elvis Scale

The ELVIS approach to defining extraordinary learning experiences is built around the idea that learning can and should inspire. Inspiration is a tricky construct, because it is inherently unpredictable and comes from within the learner. McClain suggested that conference participants think about ELVIS as defining conditions that are supportive for inspiration, but not expect that every learner will be inspired by every experience. In fact, optimizing each of these dimensions simultaneously may not be a good idea. He compared it to turning every bar of a stereo equalizer way up – the music begins to distort and become overwhelming. He suggested instead that educators work to tune the different dimensions of experiences to the particular needs of individual settings and learners.

Another session in the informal learning strand focused on the importance of documenting experiential learning, both to encourage self-reflection and to better facilitate sharing with learners and other educators. During the session, Julie Brown from National Geographic asked participants to reflect on their experiences during the first two days of the conference. Those who shared recounted emotions, sights, smells, and sounds of learning—and then discussed how simple media tools such as smart phones, digital video cameras, and social media sharing sites could be used to develop and share educational narratives of learning.

A third and culminating session in the informal strand was a first-person report by a group of teachers who had visited Africa together as part of an experience organized by the University of Colorado. The question posed was “What makes learning an adventure?” The teachers reflected on how the experience involved risk, unknown outcomes, and the need to move beyond their daily comfort zones. When they began the trip, many didn’t know what to expect and wondered if they were truly up to the task. But, after the experience, they reported a renewed trust in themselves as learners and, as a result, felt that they are more prepared to take risks in their classrooms. One teacher noted that, “experiential learning taught me that there are multiple levels of success.” She recounted that she used to prefer activities for her students that were easy for her to manage and that led to safe, predictable outcomes, and that she is now seeking activities that will challenge her students (and herself), encourage risk taking, and require different ways of thinking.

Another teacher spoke about how “this trip was a dream come true…since I’ve always wanted to see Olduvai gorge since I studied it in college.” She explained how, on the trip, “Something powerful and deep marked me. My personality and pedagogy—everything—changed because of the people who went with me and who I met there.” She described herself as now being more confident in the classroom; a risk-taker who no longer shies away from educational challenges and who has developed a “deep faith that everything will work out for the best.”

A third teacher reflected upon the way that she and her colleagues were together on the same journey, yet each experienced it differently as individuals: “We all bring our own background and own scripts to it. For me it was an awakening—there was a void in what I do as a middle school science teacher. Tanzania showed me why I had to truly share my passions. I shared some of my experiences with my students before, but never my passions. I need students to join me in my adventures. So we have started a middle-school hiking club.” She had been a serious backpacker and hiker before her trip, but she now realized that that should be part of her professional identity as well: “My students need to be out there with me rather than just hearing me talk about it.”

At its core, the kind of experiential learning explored and discussed at this conference is about finding the interests and passions inside each learner and those they learn with, both as an educator and a student. Teaching in the formal education sector in the U.S. is not typically thought of as a space that encourages educators to experiment and take risks, or where it is easy to imagine how diverse interests and passions could be woven around a common set of standards and expectations.

The theory of action of the kind of learning that these teachers experienced is that by stepping away from the role of “expert in charge” they were able to re-engage, as learners, in hands-on, interest-driven education. They struggled, took risks, and were ultimately changed. The take-home message of the Xperience STEM conference was that this kind of first-person powerful learning is what we should aspire to in STEM education. The conference provided a showcase and a workshop for how to think about inspiration as an outcome, and it was a strong example of how professional development through informal learning experience can be transformative  for educators working in any setting. Links to the conference documentation can be found on the Conference site.