Reveling In STEM Education As An Adult Learner

Image: Getty ID# 750415461 / Man Fixing Drone

Enjoy Building Your Knowledge Base At Any Age

Written by: Andrew B. Raupp / @stemceo

Practical science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills are crucial in order to prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s world.

There are many who are working hard to provide our youth with what they need to succeed in STEM careers. This can be difficult, however, for those who didn’t experience a robust education themselves.

There are many reasons why otherwise capable adults feel left behind when it comes to subjects like math and science. If you’ve ever uttered the phrase, “I’m just not a math person,” you’re definitely not alone. You were probably taught only one way to solve math problems, and your science classes may have been chock-full of things to memorize but light on experimentation and real-world problem-solving.

Image: Getty ID# 1035176072 / Engineer Teaching Young Girl How To Code

You can be forgiven if that antiquated form of pedagogy turned you off — or worse if it didn’t help you retain important STEM skills. But you don’t have to settle for a gap in your knowledge if you missed out on a high-quality STEM education the first time around. There are many ways to continue learning as an adult — and to have fun while doing it.

Taking The Leap

It’s never too late to learn something new, but why should an adult with a job and family obligations make time to learn more about STEM subjects?

Image: Getty ID# 508065709 / Adult Learning STEM

Lifelong learning has been shown to reduce cognitive decline that results from aging. While studies are somewhat conflicted over exactly what type of “brain training” can prevent or slow down Alzheimer’s disease, keeping an active mind busy with novel tasks is an important way to stay sharp as you get older. The “use it or lose it” rule means that taking the time to study higher math or dive into a scientific topic that interests you is a great way to keep those neurons firing.

Pumping up your STEM skills also puts you in a position to mentor youth in these fields. Parents and grandparents who continue to explore these subjects will model intellectual curiosity and a willingness to experiment that will have a positive influence on the next generation of learners. Sharing enthusiasm for STEM and feeling comfortable discussing it is an important way to keep young children interested while staying sharp.

Image: Dallas Arboretum / Student Lead walkSTEM Tour June 8th, 2018 (with permission / Koshi Dhingra)

Mentorship can go beyond family. Any adult with an interest in teaching and learning can take their newfound knowledge and start an after-school club, lead a STEM walk or make a cameo appearance to talk about your current or former career at a nearby school. You never know whose imagination you’ll spark when you share your interests with the next generation of thinkers, inventors and entrepreneurs.

How Adults Learn

As you search for opportunities to learn more about STEM, it’s important to remember that adults learn differently than children do. Adult brains have finished developing, so absorbing new information requires a different neurological process. Instead of building new neural pathways, adult brains need to draw connections from the existing schema, or thought patterns, and new ideas. This means that adults will learn best when new information is made relevant to their current experiences and interests. STEM is well-suited to adult learning in this regard, as hands-on experimentation allows you to make scientific ideas practical in everyday life.

Image: Getty ID# 168619592 / Neuron 3D Biomedical Illustration

Adults also need flexibility in their learning to fit new courses into their busy lives. Asynchronous online courses that allow you to log on and study at your convenience are ideal. It’s also important for adult learners to feel respected by their instructors and comfortable trying something new. While children don’t mind falling off a bike as they learn, adults are often uncomfortable with the idea of failure, especially in public. Look for learning opportunities designed for adults so you get an environment that makes you feel good about yourself as you try something new. It’s much easier to keep an open mind for learning when you’re at ease in your surroundings.

Pursuing STEM at Any Age

No matter where you are in life, there are plenty of ways to dive back into STEM. Try these ideas to get started:

  • Keep reading for leisure and knowledge: Sometimes all it takes to get started is access to interesting material. Try subscribing to high-quality publications so you have great resources at your fingertips. You can also use RSS aggregators like Feedspot or Paper.li to fetch content for you.
  • Face-to-face adult education classes: Many communities offer day and night classes on topics of interest, including coding boot camps. Your local community college is also a good place to start looking for practical classes that will provide legit skills to beef up your STEM knowledge base. These classes are often inexpensive and geared toward making learning fun and social for adults
Image: Getty ID# 1070179830 / Young Woman Working On Her Laptop
  • Open educational resources (OERs): There are thousands of lesson plans, games and videos online that address every imaginable STEM topic. Search for videos on HippoCampus, or look for premade lessons on OER Commons. This is a great way to find enrichment materials for the STEM-curious kids in your life, too.
  • Massive open online courses (MOOCs): These are online courses that cover a wide range of topics. Information may be delivered via text, video or a recorded lecture, and there are often assessments to check your understanding along the way. Some well-known options are EdX, Coursera and Khan Academy. Many are free or are relatively inexpensive, and most can be completed at your own pace.

If you’re looking for a low-key way to dip a toe into STEM learning, this California organization makes butterfly growing kits complete with caterpillars to feed, nurture and watch in amazement as they emerge from their chrysalides. Butterflies are important pollinators, and working with them can boost your mental health.

Image: Getty ID# 177795929 / Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)

Even the simplest act of experiencing nature is a wonderful way to begin adding a healthy dose of STEM into your daily routine — and it doesn’t require batteries.

This article was originally featured in Forbes Community Voice™ on April 19th, 2019.


Andrew B. Raupp is the Founder / Executive Director @stemdotorg

“Democratizing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education through sound policy & practice… Applying STEM to better understand it.”

Originally Published: https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2019/04/19/reveling-in-stem-education-as-an-adult-learner/#95ccb8e3c9e7

Honoring Learners With Special Needs In STEM And Beyond

Image: Getty / Student Engaging With Teacher On Laptop

The Inspirational Story of NASCAR’s Armani Williams

Written by: Andrew B. Raupp / @stemceo

Most 17-year-olds are excited to get their driver’s licenses to gain a little freedom. For Armani Williams, driving is less a rite of passage than a passion. In 2017, he made his debut on the NASCAR circuit.

Armani also has autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In an interview, Williams described his biggest challenges as communication and social interaction. Like many with autism, he says he struggled with sensory processing issues that were overwhelming at times. A screaming loud race track could seem impossible to deal with, as could the complexity of his studies — but he has learned to step back to take stock of his surroundings, search online for what he needs assistance figuring out and proactively work with others to avoid misunderstandings.

Armani also pointed out that ASD isn’t only about deficits and credits his ability to concentrate for hours behind the wheel to the intense focus that is often an attribute of autistic individuals. According to Autism Speaks, an individual with ASD may display varying degrees, and a combination of, sensory processing challenges, social-emotional difficulties and speech-language deficits impacting functional communication. These challenges could profoundly interrupt health, learning and skill attainment without adequate support and intervention.

Image: Getty + NASCAR via Mike Tedesco/ Armani Williams K&N Pro Series West at Evergreen Speedway

STEM For Students With Special Needs

When Armani and I had the opportunity to initially connect at a local leadership event, he inspired me to draw upon my experience as an educator and think deeply about how to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) accessibility for students with special needs. I have always been passionate about leveling the playing field to bring STEM to all, but much of my work up until now has focused on socioeconomic and gender inequality in STEM education. This is a worthy goal, of course, but we’d be remiss not to include students with special needs in our efforts to make sure every child gets a solid background for success in STEM.

I believe students with ASD and other challenges can thrive in fields as complex as collegiate-level mechanical engineering (Armani’s current passion) and beyond. But how do we make sure all students get the support that they need to excel?

Making STEM More Inclusive

There are many approaches I think we should explore to accommodate special needs students in the classroom, and many of these strategies could overlap to help make STEM subjects easier to grasp for those with special needs.

• Growth Mindset: Change the language and reward systems in STEM classrooms to recognize grit and the ability to keep trying to solve problems in the face of failure, a concept explored in a 2017 EdTech interview piece. After all, the scientific method is all about experimentation, and the only failed experiment is one you don’t learn from. Praising kids for effort rather than achievement is a great place to start building a growth mindset that could be beneficial for those who learn in different ways.

• Hands-On Work: The best STEM teaching I’ve seen offers plenty of real-world opportunities to observe forces in action and ways to experiment with everyday items to understand how thing work. Whether it’s by offering coding opportunities or getting outside to explore nature, tangible learning can make STEM come alive for all students — but it could be especially valuable in helping those who learn differently internalize abstract concepts and develop a deeper interest.

• Flipped Classrooms: Homework can be a real struggle for students if they’re sent home to practice concepts they don’t fully understand. In a flipped classroom, however, background information is given ahead of time in the form of videos or articles to read at home. Students can come to school with questions and then put new concepts into action under the direct guidance of their teacher — support that could make a huge difference in comprehension for students who learn differently.

Image: ResearchGate via Alessandra Giglio / Flipped Classroom: A Graphical Definition

 Embrace Technology: As the EdTech interview discussed, well-designed learning apps could make STEM subjects more accessible to special needs students by providing targeted, individualized practice. Voice-to-text software could make writing easier so students can flourish in STEM even if their writing skills or fine motor skills lag. Text readers and video lessons might also help students with reading difficulties keep up and make sure that a learning difficulty doesn’t derail success in STEM.

• Regular Movement And Flexible Lesson PlansSustaining self-regulationand focus may be typical challenges for children with special needs — though fidgeting is pretty much universal. That means that all students could benefit from movement breaks (as described by MiddleWeb) during lessons and the opportunity to move around the classroom for a change of pace. Staying flexible and creative with learning centers and differentiated activities in the classroom could help everyone participate. By making the most common accommodations available to all instead of making them something special, you can normalize varying learning styles, set them up for success and decrease stigma.

Image: Motorsports Tribune via Luis Torres / Armani Williams’ #34 Racecar

The Final Lap

When I learned about Armani, it became clear to me that it’s easy to assume we know what ASD looks like or what a student with special needs is capable of. In reality, however, there is no single type of student with special needs. Every person is an individual with a full range of challenges as well as unique strengths. I believe our job as educators is to support all students as individuals and make sure they get what they need to thrive.

To make this happen, we first need to erase some of the stigma surrounding challenges like ASD. I believe it’s a myth that these students can’t succeed in STEM or other academic subjects. Armani is one example; for another take on life with ASD, I strongly recommend the series Atypical on Netflix. It does an excellent job of putting a human face on a condition that isn’t well understood but must be if we are to succeed in making STEM education truly accessible to all.


Image: Mediapunch + Shutterstock / Atypical Cast at PaleyFest LA

This article was originally featured in Forbes Community Voice™ on February 26th, 2019.


Andrew B. Raupp is the Founder / Executive Director @stemdotorg.

“Democratizing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education through sound policy & practice…”