I had always been enthralled by STEM. Every type of science interested me: geology, astrology, chemistry, math, robotics, you name it. I saw STEM as a channel for creativity and passion to solve real world problems. A profound desire to serve humanity drove this fascination further. This continued unabated until, around the age of 12, I asked an important question:

Why do we build bad things?

That question was simple on the surface, yet its implications were profound. The more I dove into that question, the more I became disenchanted with STEM’s whole “saving the world” rhetoric. I noticed that iPhones were as effective connecting us as they were separating us. I saw that nuclear energy could be used for progress or for missiles, that knives could be used for cooking or murder (and in extreme scenarios, both). And as the pandemic of world issues became more alarming, I began to question more deeply the claims that hard, scientific, analytic thought was the only rational way to face this storm.

This investigation was brought to full fruition when I joined my school’s robotic team. I was surrounded by the analytic, the critic, and the cynic, the brilliant in mind, the rational, the curious, the scientific. I was one among sixty enlivened students of science, each and every one more engaged in their craft and more intellectual than the last. These students were crazy smart.

STEM, Project Based Learning, PBL, Learner Centered Design

But, we were engaged in competition. First as a collective, against other schools trying to win robotics competitions in our cities, regions, states, and countries. But second and most importantly, amongst ourselves. Sixty, bright and joyful students vying for the coveted ten or so major roles in building the robot. That environment engendered a feeling of competition that began to strain relationships between students, facilitate a culture of backbiting, and almost disallowed us from thinking, learning and operating truly as a collective team. Unfortunately, most people were either unconscious about it or chose to ignore it, and in that way there was a low-level of unity that allowed us to reach great successes as a team.

But after our robotics team almost won the international championship, our size almost doubled. One's chance of playing a major role on the development of the team were almost cut in half, and many of us became victims of our own ego. Social pressures forced us into cliques. We excluded those within our own team that did not fall in our favor. Learning and knowledge became a commodity that those in positions of responsibility began to control, and the social strain on each individual member became, quite frankly, ridiculous. And though much of this happened on the subconscious level, I left halfway through my second season, sick to my stomach, completely uninterested in anything STEM.

What scared me the most, was that I saw the issues of the world today reflected in this small group of people. I saw a system of STEM education that failed to teach its students social consciousness. Ethics became a topic outside of the realm most were willing to venture. We are teaching students to become engaged with intellectual discovery and disengaged with social reality. And that is exactly why we have brilliant minds who design ICBMs, chemical weapons, and apps to encourage public shaming.

Project-based learning has so much potential to do otherwise. Every well designed project is centered around an essential question and when that question is carefully focused on the issues of humanity, students are directed to explore the many veins and avenues in which that problem accompanies. They’ll discover that world hunger has immense cultural, social, and economic implications that accompany every sustainable farming technique they design. They’ll discover that developing truthfulness is just as important as building new technologies for criminal justice systems. They’ll discover that understanding and empathizing with the culture of a warring nation is just as important as building defenses to keep our communities safe.

More so, now than ever, educators have the responsibility to raise a generation of young people who can abandon the old-world ideas and systems that have caused many of humanity's problems. Imagine how much more effective they could be, if they learned it by doing it.

Learner-Perspective Coach Dayyan Sisson is currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in Computer Science at UC San Diego.

Visit our 21st Century Competencies page to find free resources that support collaborative team building and other 21st century skills.

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