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| February 2023 |

Guest Op-Ed: The Vital Importance of the Scientific Process and STEM Education

Parents know that one of every young child’s favorite words is “Why?” This quest to understand why the world around us works the way it does is an intrinsic part of the human experience and the driving force behind all the discoveries and advancements humans have made since we first began to walk upright. Without this innate drive to understand why, the human condition would never change.

The iterative process used to understand the “why” of things is at the heart of all science. The scientific process starts with an observation (a “fact”) and a tentative explanation of what is causing the observed fact—the “why” (often called a “hypothesis” or “theory”). The tentative explanation is then applied to similar facts to determine if it accurately predicts the observed results. Depending on the accuracy of the predicted results, the explanation is confirmed, discarded or revised. This process is repeated over and over until the explanation consistently predicts the observed results accurately. Once that happens, the hypothesis or theory is considered “proven,” at least until something new comes along that potentially undermines the validity of the theory or hypothesis. Then the process starts all over again.

Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) K-12 education exposes students to a variety of theories and hypotheses—some proven and some still under investigation—but that isn’t its primary goal. The true focus of STEM K-12 education—and the reason it’s critical in today’s world—is teaching children how to use the scientific process to understand the “whys” of the world. It is designed to encourage students to be inquisitive, think critically, solve problems, collaborate with others and be the best versions of themselves that they can be. The skills students develop through STEM K-12 education provide them with the foundation they need to understand and assess the theories of today and develop the theories of tomorrow.

A recent example of how STEM K-12 educational programs can inspire Montana’s youth is the live-streamed conversation between students from various schools on the Flathead Reservation and Nicole Mann, the first Native American woman in space and the spacecraft commander for NASA’s SpaceX Crew-5 mission to the International Space Station. The students prerecorded their questions and then watched as Nicole answered those questions in real time from the Space Station. Several months earlier, some of the older students had the opportunity to spend almost a week at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where they watched a rocket launch, among other activities. The teachers involved in both events have said they could see the interest and wonder on the students’ faces and the impact those experiences were having on the students (as well as their impact on the teachers themselves).

Montana’s in-school and out-of-school K-12 STEM educational programs must continue to develop our children’s science process skills to prepare them for the world of the future. Today’s STEM students will be tomorrow’s STEM professionals, ensuring America continues to be a leader in scientific and technological advancements.

 

Ryan Hannahoe is the Executive Director of Montana Learning Center at Canyon Ferry Lake. The Learning Center offers hands-on STEM programs designed to excite Montana students and teachers about, and further their interest in, a variety of STEM fields.

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