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The 100 Year Old Educational Theory That Helps Kids Love STEAM

I don’t remember much about 7th grade science.

I know that I enjoyed the class. I remember that we all liked the teacher. I recall it was my favorite subject that year. And yet, I couldn’t tell you many details about the facts I learned.

But I can tell you that 7th grade was the year that I fell in love with science.

It was the projects.

Every month, our teacher would create a contest that required us to design & build something. We would go head-to-head, and the winner would earn bragging rights until the next showdown.

We built rubber band race cars to see whose was fastest. We made balsa wood bridges to see whose could sustain the most weight.

The Great 7th Grade Egg Drop

My favorite project was the “Egg Drop”. Each student needed to construct a container that could keep a raw egg intact after being dropped from a height of 6 feet.

But there were constraints. The container had to be no bigger than 1,000 cubic centimeters and materials had to cost less than $10. Finalists were dropped again…this time from 10 feet up. The tie-breaker was a weigh-in, with the lightest container winning the prize.

It was so much fun! I drafted a half-dozen container designs. Created a prototype. Ran tests at home (sorry Mom, but you know the saying about breaking a few eggs?).

And even though my container didn’t make it to the winner’s circle, I learned about materials science, structural engineering & design trade-offs. Without knowing the mathematical relationship between distance, acceleration & force, I gained an intuitive understanding of basic physics.

All because my teacher gave me the opportunity for hands-on learning.

Hands-on Learning Builds Better Learners

Sometimes referred to as Constructivism or the “Discovery Model”, hands-on learning emphasizes play & exploration. It has influenced everything from museum design to early childhood education.

And it has the potential to change the way we teach science, technology, engineering, arts & math—or STEAM.

By encouraging active participation, hands-on learning helps students to have fun, gain confidence & remember more. Rather then passively consuming facts from a textbook or lecture, a child can connect those facts to something that she can see, touch & affect.

It’s also the way that children interact with an increasingly technological world. Open most apps for the first time and you won’t see a user manual. You’ll see a brief visual tutorial that provides a springboard for self-led exploration.

By empowering a child to take a hands-on approach, you are doing more than helping her to learn science (or math or design…). You are helping her to think scientifically.

To make observations. To be curious. To test. To repeat. To draw her own conclusions.

To ask herself, “How else can I apply this?”

4 Ways to Foster Hands-on Learning

Constructivism doesn’t have to be confined to the classroom. There are some simple steps that you can take to create opportunities for hands-on learning at home.

1. Instigate Experimentation

Whether she's working on a project, following a recipe or playing on the computer, you can ask the question: “I wonder what would happen if…?”

Encourage your girl to never be content with simply following the instructions. There is always room to change things up and see what happens next.

2. Ask Questions

As a parent, you want to help your child, especially when she is struggling with a challenging subject. It can be so tempting to provide an answer or give hints.

But providing the right answer might not be the best way to help her. Sometimes it comes down to asking the right questions.

A good question can inspire a girl’s curiosity and help her to guide her own path to learning. By asking questions, she’ll start to look to herself for answers rather than seeking out direction from an authority figure like a parent, teacher or boss.

3. Promote Independence

Avoid the temptation to step in and guide the lesson. Remember: for it to be “hands-on,” it has to be her hands.

Hang back and allow your girl to do the work. Be content with imperfect results. There is greater value in self-led discovery than in achieving a perfection. In fact, the pursuit of perfection can be downright damaging to your girl’s chances of success…but that’s a topic for another post!

4. Tell Stories

When the activity or project is complete, ask her to tell you what she liked about it. What did she feel like while she was working? What was her favorite part of the experience? What would she do differently?

Then help her to find the larger context for her story. Talk about the information and lessons behind the activity. Ask more questions like, “How else could you use what you’ve just learned?”

By taking an experience and weaving it into a story, a child remembers the lesson long after the activity is done.

It has been a long time since 7th grade science, and I’ve forgotten everything I did back then. But those projects inspired a lifelong love of science & gave me stories I’ll never lose.


If you’re interested in learning more, here are some thought-provoking articles on Constructivism & Hands-on Learning:

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