Connecting Content and Context: Whittle's Approach to STEM Learning

Connecting Content and Context: Whittle's Approach to STEM Learning

By Page Stites, Founding Faculty Member


I recently had the pleasure of taking a long car ride with four elementary school students, two of whom will be in Whittle’s founding third and fifth grade classes next year (full disclosure: those two happen to be my own children).

We were listening to an episode of the excellent podcast “Forever Ago” about the history of clocks and timekeeping. The episode ended with a question about what alarm clocks will look like in the future, which got us started on our own discussion of the topic. I asked the kids for their ideas, and pretty soon we were off on an imaginative exploration of creative ideas, impossible scenarios, and wild brainstorming.

After about fifteen minutes, the kids had arrived at a plan for a robot that would cook four meals a day and use a system of ramps, springs, pulleys, and Nerf guns (don’t ask!) to deliver the food to the table. The kids did most of the work of describing their design and solving the problems it presented—all I had to do was listen and ask good questions at the right moments to keep the discussion going.

Student in class


Distinguishing content and context

Over the course of my teaching career, I’ve come to appreciate how much students learn not just from what we often intend to teach them (the content we choose), but also from all of the other experiences they have when they’re in school (the context of their learning). In so many cases, we’re not intentional enough about that context, which is why I’m so excited about our approach at Whittle. Our STEM program is a great example of how we’re being thoughtful about both the content and the context.


Student using microscope


The content of STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—is of course extremely important. In an increasingly tech-driven, information-based global economy, the foundation of technical skills students can build through the study of the STEM disciplines is essential for anyone who wants to study these disciplines further in college or apply them in a career setting. Beyond skill development and careers, the ideas and concepts of these disciplines are beautiful and elegant, and they represent some of the greatest intellectual achievements of human thought.


Understanding how fields of study converge

Whittle’s integrated approach to STEM, in which we teach across the traditional science disciplines and incorporate technology, engineering, and math, provides students with a powerful way to learn about the rich interconnectedness of STEM content.

If you look at the growing technical fields out there, you’ll notice that they’re interdisciplinary: bioinformatics, geoengineering, biophysics, nanomedicine, and the like. We believe there’s power in learning STEM content this way; for example, a complex life sciences topic such as cellular membrane transport requires an understanding of content traditionally segregated into other science disciplines, such as electric potential energy, thermodynamics, and the chemistry of ionic compounds, among other topics. Instead of keeping those topics in silos, our approach will help students understand and appreciate how all of these concepts relate and connect.


Student doing science project


In addition to the content of STEM, we’re equally intentional about the context of our students’ learning experiences, which takes me back to the car ride with my kids and their friends. Whittle’s project-based curriculum opens the doors to student creativity and, in the hands of skilled teachers, allows for access to the rich world of ideas within the STEM disciplines.

In a classroom setting, I might have extended the discussion of alarm clocks into a project where the kids would use the design thinking process to identify challenges, conduct research, generate more ideas, use our engineering design labs to build prototypes, and then refine and reiterate their processes until they come up with something new and interesting. Along the way, they might have opportunities to learn about mechanical systems, basic electronics, and any number of other STEM topics. (Physics of Nerf guns, anyone?)


Encouraging an attitude of innovation

To me, this is the crucial element that sets the Whittle School apart. Plenty of schools do a great job of teaching the content, but they don’t always pay attention to the totality of their students’ experiences or the context of their learning. Without this, learning experiences aren’t as meaningful, purposeful, or deep.


Student using microscope


Our projects allow us to situate student learning experiences in real-world contexts, which helps our students understand how the topics they’re investigating relate to their lives and to real issues and challenges the world faces today. Most importantly, it lets them use the practices of science and engineering to design and build solutions to those challenges.

By simultaneously integrating our STEM content into an interdisciplinary progression and working deliberately to allow for powerful contextual learning, we’ll help students develop deep mastery of STEM skills and concepts. We’ll also empower them to make a difference and take action by designing solutions to real challenges that face the world by cultivating their innate senses of wonder and curiosity about the world and how it works.