LabLearner’s Research Base
LabLearner program of science education has been in use for well over a decade across the U.S. with outstanding results and sustainability. This is largely because of the way in which the program was developed and scientifically tested. The entire LabLearner approach to curriculum, assessment, and teacher training began in the 1990s by teams of scientists from a wide range of basic science domains, as well as neurocognitive scientists, physicians, neuroimaging radiologists, educational psychologists, practicing public and private school PreK-12 educators, and educational administrators.
Given the profile of LabLearner developers, it is not surprising that the basis of the program is firmly grounded in the neurocognitive and biomedical sciences. However, the key to LabLearner’s “usability” and success in schools across the country is largely due to the inclusion of practicing educators in the development process. PreK-12 educators brought and continue to bring practical classroom intelligence to LabLearner curriculum design, day to day instruction, and meaningful student assessment.
As a result of preliminary research, LabLearner developed its own version of what is known as the information processing model as the basis and guide for curriculum and program development. The LabLearner Information Processing Model8 is shown in Figure 1. Without being able to go into detail here, it must suffice to say that each of the many steps and interactions between brain functions depicted in the model have been recognized and exploited by LabLearner developers for maximum cognitive impact on students in curriculum development as well as in teacher professional development.
Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) studies are providing important and fascinating insight into understanding the important neurocognitive processes involved in human learning and memory depicted in the information processing model. For example, Figure 2 highlights research results that point to the exquisite relationship of executive functions and mathematical operations9, while Figure 3 depicts the distinctive patterns of neural activation between mathematical operations and language processing10.
LabLearner personnel continue to follow this line of scientific research at The Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine Magnetic Resonance Imaging Core Facility. We are particularly interested in work dealing with the interaction between the executive neural network and the default mode network in creativity and scientific thinking and discovery11, 12. We are also focusing on the relationship between executive functions (EF) and critical thinking (CT) as a means of actively promoting and teaching students critical thinking skills through STEM education13. To understand the relationship between CT and EF, we must explore how EF orchestrates the functioning of information processing in the brain and exactly how information processing leads to learning and memory. We must also strive to understand how both teachers and the curriculum itself, if designed in a spiraling manner, can help in the development of EF and CT in the classroom. A visual summary of this concept in relation to Bloom’s Taxonomy (a concept understood by all practicing educators) is shown in Figure 4.
The early phases of LabLearner development and testing involved both public and private universities with funding from the National Science Foundation, The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The strength of the LabLearner reputation led Chairman Senator Edward Kennedy to call upon Dr. Keith Verner, LabLearner’s founder, to testify before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, along with Senator John Glenn and Dr. Rita Caldwell, then Director of the National Science Foundation, at its hearing on NSF reauthorization14. Dr. Verner’s testimony was devoted to the important impact of PreK-12 science education on the development of a strong American STEM system of education – one that would permit American students to compete internationally.
In summary, LabLearner has devoted nearly twenty years of development and testing to produce and constantly refine its state-of-the-art science education program.
STEM as the Foundation of STEAM and STREAM Education
STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Since the introduction of this acronym, however, other academic domains have been added to the STEM base. Thus, STEAM adds Art to the mix, while STREAM adds Reading and/or Religion. The danger here, of course, is that the two fundamental academic domains of science and mathematics are at risk of being diluted in the process. K-12 schools always have and likely will always teach language arts (Reading). Why then must this subject be added to the STEM curriculum? Will language arts not be taught outside the STEM domain? Surely, all of literature will not be omitted from elsewhere in the curriculum. The same question may be asked regarding Art and Religion in STEM curricula. Of course there are correlations and applications between science, technology, engineering, mathematics, art, reading, and religion. Such correlations and applications no doubt extend to each and every other academic domain as well. However, attempts to integrate all these academic subjects into a STEM-like curriculum must not be permitted to diminish the rigor of the science and mathematics curriculum!
Science and Mathematics as the Foundation of STEM
Fears of decreased performance in mathematics and science as a result of the STEM movement are beginning to surface and be taken seriously. Matt Larson, former President of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) expressed concern in regard to the potential dilution of mathematics education through unfocused inclusion in STEM curricula stating, “There is no universally agreed-upon definition of what constitutes STEM education. This complicates matters and allows each entity to define STEM education in its own way to fit its experiences, biases, and agendas—NCTM included. In some cases, this leads to math or science classrooms where students build bridges or program robots but fail to acquire a deep understanding of grade level (or beyond) math or science learning standards“15.
He went on to say, “If students are not equipped to pursue a post-secondary STEM major and career, is it really an effective K–12 STEM program? My answer is no. No number of fun activities or shiny technology will overcome this fatal shortcoming.”
Turning to science education, Scholastic Teacher Magazine recently highlighted the foundational importance of science in a recent article providing advice to educators for planning and developing integrated STEM curricula entitled Start with Science16. In it they state, “Teachers all across the country are using science as a natural starting point for cross-curricular adventures in learning. Once you decide to use science as the core for an integrated curriculum, teaching and learning will never be the same. You’ll accomplish more in less time than ever before, and your students will acquire and develop the kinds of process skills that can help them learn effectively in all subject areas.” In conclusion, they make the important assertion that, “Research indicates that experienced-based science improves children’s language, reading, and thinking skills”.
Finally, we must stop to consider that the latest national report card shows NO improvement in U.S. mathematics or science scores over the past 10 years17, 18. This is truly an alarming report because the drive to improve STEM education has been a national focus in PreK-12 systems over this same decade! Needless to say, science and mathematics education must form a solid base of rigor for all future STEM, STEAM and STREAM programs. As discussed further below, LabLearner schools have obtained stunning improvements in STEM education over this exact same timeframe.