Spatial Mathematics, Engineering, and Science: Toward an Integrated STEM Education

The goal of this project is to develop a provisional learning progression spanning grades K-5 that articulates and tests the potential of experiencing, describing, and representing space as the core of an integrated STEM education. The science of space has an extensive scope within and across disciplinary boundaries of science, mathematics and engineering; the project will create a coherent approach to elementary instruction in which mathematical reasoning about space is systematically cultivated.

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The goal of Spatial Mathematics, Engineering, and Science: Toward an Integrated STEM Education is to develop a provisional learning progression spanning grades K-5 that articulates and tests the potential of experiencing, describing, and representing space as the core of an integrated STEM education. The science of space has an extensive scope within and across disciplinary boundaries of science, mathematics and engineering, the project will create a coherent approach to elementary instruction in which mathematical reasoning about space is systematically cultivated. Simultaneously, researchers are exploring the potential of spatial mathematics as a resource for engineering design of kinematic machines and for the development of mechanistic reasoning about the behavior of these machines. Work across these disciplines situates and motivates the mathematical work and also provides opportunities to investigate the intersections and contrasts among signature disciplinary practices, such as definition and proof in mathematics, design in engineering, and modeling in science. The research and development is being conducted in a middle school which is a full partner in the project.

In partnership, researchers and participating teachers are designing and implementing curricular approaches intended to support spatial knowledge and reasoning. Professional development will enhance and capitalize on teachers' roles as specialists in student thinking. The research consists of design studies conducted in 12 participating classrooms, K-5, and small-scale teaching experiments conducted with children across the same grade span. The research will establish provisional pathways and landmarks in learning about space, as well as the curricular activities and teacher practices necessary to support integrated STEM learning.

The project is novel in three ways. First, it provides children with early and systematic access to multiple geometries (e.g., plane, cylinder, sphere) to develop sophisticated understandings of powerful, yet experientally accessible concepts, such as straight, and STEM-related practices, such as model, definition and proof. Second, both the National Research Council Science/Engineering and the Common Core State Standards Mathematics highlight the role of practices in the development of disciplinary knowledge, and this project is providing a practical avenue for coordinating the co-development of disciplinary practices and knowledge. Third, the unifying theme of space is threaded through problems and contexts in mathematics, science and engineering, which provide a sound basis for generative STEM integration-integration that does not lose sight of the distinctive practices in different disciplines, but, instead, leverages these distinctions to produce multiple ways of knowing about space. Research and development is being conducted with underrepresented populations of students who are typically underserved in STEM education. Although the numbers of students reached in this phase of the work are relatively modest, the longer-term potential is great, because instruction anchored in space may be more accessible to students who struggle with traditional forms of mathematics education. The increased attention to integrated STEM education at the national level also ensures that this effort is likely to contribute to the knowledge base required to advance interdisciplinary forms of schooling.

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