Chad Dorsey

In It for the Journey: The Road to Powerful STEM Learning

What’s the difference between just driving somewhere and taking a road trip? Plenty! Over the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of opening my children’s eyes to the incomparable joys of the road trip: the unexpected roadside attraction, the anticipation of unknown intrigue just around the next curve. So what do road trips have to do with data and STEM learning? As it turns out, just about everything.

This issue of our newsletter highlights some important ideas about STEM teaching and learning. In particular, it addresses significant ideas about teaching and learning with data. And just as a road trip sets the stage for something undiscovered to appear around every corner, these articles describe the rich mysteries of data exploration and scientific investigation. Whether they’re describing what it’s like for students to uncover experimentation on their own or outlining the many ways learners can reveal a complex dataset’s hidden stories, each article tells a tale of excitement and discovery. Our work on InquirySpace’s investigation environment and curriculum makes a strong case for giving students the tools to uncover the world’s mysteries themselves. Driven by a sense of ownership over their own learning and empowered by the tools and techniques of scientific investigation, students can arrive at some of the most important ideas in science through their own power of reasoning. Providing students with the means to explore phenomena closely, the tools to analyze and iterate quickly and confidently, and just the right degree of scaffolding can open their eyes to their own personal capacity for discovery.

Allowing students to appreciate and explore a dataset’s mystery offers rich opportunities for individual discovery. In particular, the messy, multivariable datasets of today’s world are a far cry from the traditional classroom’s two-column tables. Such straightforward, bivariate datasets render the very concept of exploring data practically moot. The richness of more complex data, however, not only invites students to explore but makes diving deep practically mandatory. And, when learners are constructively “awash in data,” a dozen discoveries await in the next chart or graph. As Isaac Asimov once reminded us, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka’ but ‘That’s funny…'”

Training our road trip eyes

Let’s appreciate the view of the road trip veteran whose keen eyes can turn that odd, nondescript road sign into a detour that makes the entire experience unforgettable. So it is when learners acquire a taste for making their own STEM discoveries. Observations that once slipped past unremarked suddenly become excuses to pause, tinker, and observe. When we give learners the opportunity to investigate the world more closely, we outfit them with mental tools that apply far beyond merely a single STEM subject. Once a student begins to see the world as groups of molecules in vibrational harmony, she’ll never look at a puddle or a piece of metal the same way again. Once a learner discovers for himself how electricity operates or how the body defeats disease, his perspective on circuit-powered devices or approach to an annual flu shot has been forever altered.

Most importantly, however, the more broad the experience, the more resonant and lasting it becomes. The moment a student discovers that an investigation of her own design reveals new and meaningful understanding, the world of science comes into reach. The instant his personal exploration of a complex dataset yields a novel and useful pattern, understanding data becomes exciting. The effects of these realizations stretch far beyond STEM learning itself. Each glimpse brings learners one step closer to seeing unanswered questions not as barriers but as invitations to investigation. By providing extended opportunities to grapple with and answer the world’s mysteries, STEM learning is actually exercising students’ most important muscle of all— the confidence and ability to tackle and solve problems. STEM learning is certainly not the only place learners can build the essential, lifelong skill of problem solving. But few other places in the formal curriculum offer opportunities as numerous or takeaways as powerful. Because novel discovery is at the core of every concept in every STEM subject, each new idea can become a chance to hone students’ abilities and eagerness for problem solving. Seizing these opportunities means viewing all STEM learning through this wider lens.

Technology’s role

At first, many critical topics seem improbably far from the realm of individual exploration and discovery. How can a student experiment with climate change? Tease patterns from an especially messy dataset? Test personal ideas about the workings of a complex system? Through tools, models, and simulations, technology can turn all of these questions and more into opportunities for individual exploration.

Technology is a powerful tool for STEM discovery. It allows students to turn improbable topics into opportunities to grapple with and solve problems. In the laboratory, technology can strip away burdensome or time-consuming tasks, tighten cycles of analysis, and bring core elements of scientific investigation into relief. Fast, accurate sensors. Computer-controlled devices and switches. Customizable data control and collection software. Designed for exploring complex data, these tools transform the classroom from a place where students carry out predetermined procedures to a world where they design and revise unique experiments to ask and answer their own questions. The more we bring learners into this world, the more we help them become part of the process of doing science in all of its stages. Perhaps most importantly, technology provides a space where learners experience aspects of scientific investigation they may otherwise miss entirely. In particular, technology’s flexibility and power can allow productive access to the critical phase of “messing around” with experimental apparatus, procedures, measurement techniques, and datasets, providing easily accessible ways to investigate the questions it generates. The fuzzy margin between initial encounter and systematic experimentation is where problem solving hits its stride and true ingenuity takes off. And it may hold the biggest opportunity for STEM learning in the coming decades.

Traditional approaches typically underplay these essential stages. Classrooms that lack technology’s power are often forced to push them aside entirely. This is the “final destination” approach to STEM learning—blindly speeding to the last stop. The importance of the road trip is its focus on the journey, which allows us to see the world in all its spectacular nuance. With that in mind, build a detour or two into your classroom, put students in the driver’s seat, and use the full potential of technology to empower students. Every time you do, you take them on the journey of a lifetime.

Chad Dorsey ( is President of the Concord Consortium.