Non-profit organisation InsightSTEM provides a host of explorative learning techniques to help people become more comfortable with science, technology, engineering and mathematics – and not a text book in sight

The Good Business column catches up with people who are leading social change. It is created in collaboration with Impact Hub Islington, a co-working and business incubation space in London for socially minded entrepreneurs.

Bethany: Jake, tell us about your business.

Jake: InsightSTEM is a non-profit organisation based out of Arizona. Our main goals are to democratise science knowledge and education. We want people to be more connected to, comfortable with and excited by science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). We’ve focused on knowledge through exploration in various ways.

Who is your audience?

Individuals and groups of all ages. We help families become more engaged with teaching their children about science. We support and connect online teachers in schools around the world. Also, we work with kindergarten teachers because often they’re very uncomfortable teaching science; their curriculum is focused on numeracy and literacy instead of scientific and critical thinking and exploration.

We’re also working on a project with the American Association of the Advancement of Science where we’re connecting teachers with scientists and students in science and communication fields. They’re developing better ways to communicate science content through exploration.

“We want people to be more connected to, comfortable with and excited by science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”

How is InsightSTEM’s approach to science more democratic?

We give students a lot more opportunity to get hands-on and try things while still having the same learning outcomes that would be expected from reading a chapter of a textbook or something that’s strictly ‘teacher-directed’. Our approach incorporates kids working together on a project but reflecting everyone’s contribution to [the project] and giving real ownership over the results.

It also functions to address a lot more learning styles (kinesthetic, visual, auditory) because everyone is working together. One example might be a physics experiment with the frequency of sound in different length pipes: the groups could make a panpipe-type musical instrument, learn how to tune that and also predict how the length of pipe varies the note. Then the teacher could say, ‘How could you make me a note with exactly this frequency?’ All of that data is connected to something they built and are genuinely exploring. So [learning outcomes] fall into place much more easily.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced incorporating InsightSTEM into more traditional science learning environments?

It’s hard for a university to support this methodology if it’s not already part of their mission. So our organisation lets us go and actually put rubber to the road with teachers and families. For teachers, there’s often this feeling that they have to cover everything in a large textbook, and it’s easier to do if you simply work from front to back. So we provide professional development for teachers to work with local education authorities, helping them demonstrate how this [approach to science education] is still giving students the same results [as rote learning]. Similarly, we help graduate students encourage established faculty members on a more grassroots level to move away from a strictly traditional lecture-and-notes method.

Can InsightSTEM reach those who struggle when it comes to sciences and maths?

Definitely. Our wider reach extends to those who are not necessarily so ‘sciencey’. For example, a lot of parents are scared to get involved in their children’s science homework because they’re not confident themselves about science. So we support ordinary families as a little learning community, giving them the opportunity to learn about science together.

For individuals, we try to get science into unexpected places. For instance, we’ve done an Astronomy Cocktail Hour where we’ve taken over a bar and had various astronomers dotted around to talk to directly. We posted astronomy questions in the bathroom stalls to prompt people to have conversations about them (e.g., how does the moon affect the tides?).

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What about an app? Are any plans in the works?

Yes. InsightSTEM is working on an Android app called Cell Phone Science Kit, which should launch at the end of 2015. Most cell phones now have a huge amount of sensors inside them that can record information about your environment. So we’re aiming to develop a new release experiment every month that allows you to do experiments for yourself and your environment [on your mobile phone]; and you can share your results with other people. [The app] is a great way of delivering a scientific impact to a large group of people and making science more accessible and social.

There is at present a real shortage of students to fill STEM professions. Do you think the InsightSTEM approach could help address this imbalance in the future?

I think InsightSTEM makes people more comfortable approaching science as a thing to do. I think our family focus reflects this because it’s parents that often influence what kids end up doing. So yes, I think in the future, with programmes like these, people will feel more comfortable with science education. Even people who aren’t in the STEM fields, just being more comfortable about [learning about science] – a more scientifically literate society is a really important outcome for us as well.

Photo title: InsightSTEM aim to explore science everywhere - even in your spoon at lunchtime

Photo credit: © Crystal Breeding/InsightSTEM