America’s Navy’s STEM for the Classroom Program is Using Problem-Based Learning to Advance a Generation of Innovators

It’s a cliché saying by now, but most of us can agree that the future is techand we largely have the U.S. military to thank for the most influential tech of the 21st Century – the internet. In 1969, an arm of the U.S. Department of Defense created a computer systems network called ARPANET that was the genesis for the world wide web as we know it today – creating the systems network that would eventually allow citizens everywhere to enjoy instant communication with people across the globe, world news, e-commerce, and more. Now, the U.S. Navy has their sights set on encouraging the next generation of students towards STEM degrees so students everywhere can help manufacture the next major innovations of this century. 

In 2013, America’s Navy launched the Navy STEM for the Classroom program in partnership with Discovery Education, to provide teachers everywhere with the digital resources necessary to teach STEM subjects and guide students towards STEM careers and STEM innovation. Featuring activities focused on real-world scenarios, the Navy STEM for the Classroom program offers students unique insights into the problems that are facing the world today and how they can help solve them. 

One of the key focuses of the Navy STEM for the Classroom program is problem-based learning. In recent years, numerous studies have shown that problem-based learning (a student-centered approach where students learn about a subject by working in groups to solve an open-ended problem) is a learning method that is especially efficacious when teaching students 21st Century skills. According to the Center for Teaching Innovation, problem-based learning encourages skills such as managing projects and leadership roles, self-awareness and evaluation of group processes, working independently, self-directed learning, and more. In order to prepare students for 21st Century STEM jobs – which are increasingly autonomous, self-directed and require quick-thinking and improvisation – it is essential that students learn how to deal with problems, understand their competing variables, and produce logical solutions.  

America’s Navy is pushing the boundaries of problem-based learning by presenting students with real-world scenarios, specifically within STEM careers of the Navy. Here are just some of the problem-based learning activities that the Navy STEM for the Classroom program offers:  

  1. Digital Interactive: Hands-on learning through trial and error is critical to problem-based learning and to a successful and confident student. The digital interactive, Navy STEM Challenges, features a variety of STEM challenges, including real-life scenarios such as helicopter rescues, drone surveillance, and disease control. In this activity, students must work together to complete their missions using prior knowledge while also gaining essential STEM skills and experience.  
  1. Robotics and Future Technology: In this lesson plan, students are asked open ended questions about the nature of robotics and artificial intelligence, i.e. how robots can be trained, what robots can do that a person cannot, and concludes with an overall design challenge to create a robot that can extinguish fires.  
  1. Jets in Flight: Airplanes are an amazing engineering feat, and students can learn the science behind them through the Jets in Flight Lesson Plan. Students are prompted with open-ended questions about the necessary conditions for take-off, how to create conceptual models, and the physical principles of flight. Using real-world examples to explain tough subjects is the ideal way to get students invested, involved, and inspired to create new innovative technologies.  

In a report by the U.S Department of Labor Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, “Companies can no longer afford to buck decisions up and down the management ladder; decisions must be made right at the point of production or point of service. As a result, frontline workers have to deal with the unfamiliar, atypical, and irregular…[and] generate initial hypotheses…[and] stay on top of the latest technologies.” If educators hope to prepare their students for their future careers, then presenting problem-based learning activities, that center on open-ended questions, may be the most soluble method in pedagogy right now. Problem-based learning can help prepare students for what they will encounter once they enter the workforce – engineering, healthcare, environmental, and technological challenges that will need to be reviewed, assessed, and solved in the years ahead. 

As we navigate the Information Age – an era that is inextricably intertwined with newer and greater technologies – there is an imperative that students gain a formal understanding of STEM and how STEM subjects inform our past, present, and future. According to the Smithsonian Science Education Center, as of last year, “2.4 million STEM jobs [went] unfilled.” It is our job as educators to fill that gap, and teach students how to engage, understand, and get involved with STEM subjects – and how impactful that can be for the future. On the whole, problem-based learning methods and the resources provided by the U.S. Navy may be one of the best ways to do so.    

By Theresa Duncan, Discovery Education and Contributor Karen Wells, NBCTMidland High School