Adaptive Expertise: Studying STEM Learning in an Out-of-School Program Februrary 2013
Everyone agrees that schools need to do a much better job of
preparing students for learning and work in science, technology,
engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. Unfortunately,
discussions of STEM learning are too often driven by scores on
large-scale standardized tests, argues Lee Martin, assistant professor
in the School of Education.
Martin, who studies people’s efforts to enhance their own
learning environments, with a particular focus on mathematical
thinking and learning, would rather the focus be on attributes
that indicate an “ability to learn and innovate in novel
contexts,” or adaptive expertise.
“We need to provide youth with STEM education that goes beyond
the acquisition of knowledge and skills,” said Martin. “It must
also build confidence, perseverance, curiosity, and the ability
to plan and adapt in complex projects. These are attributes
essential in STEM, but also in art, design and other occupations,
as well as in everyday life.”
With a small grant from the Spencer Foundation for his project
“Adaptive Expertise in ‘Do-It-Yourself’ Engineering Design
Projects,” Martin is studying the development of adaptive
expertise in an out-of-school engineering and design club in
which 12-18 year olds work with adult mentors to complete
projects of their own choosing. Past projects range from an
animated cardboard diorama to a ride-on flight stimulator.
According to Martin, the program under study has a number of
characteristics that research has shown can foster the
development of adaptive expertise, including “the ability to
develop knowledge in response to problems; frequent opportunities
for sharing, reflection and critique; and an emphasis on
experimentation and conceptual understanding.
Martin aims to understand when and how youth respond or adapt
over time to impasses that arise during their projects as well as
how youth talk about themselves as participants in STEM thinking,
learning and doing. He also hopes to create and define new
measures for adaptive expertise, particularly in informal
“Ultimately, my study will document how adaptive expertise
develops, provide concrete hypotheses about how it can be
fostered, and document how youth become connected to a community
of STEM learners,” said Martin.