Research Lee Martin

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 learning environments.

“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.

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