There is a long-understood disconnect between the knowledge-based high school STEM classroom and the mastery-based nature of postsecondary STEM. In the latter, continual reversion to fundamental concepts while stressing laboratory experiences and the interdisciplinary nature of STEM allows for thematic continuity between courses. Unfortunately, interconnectivity of disciplines is easily overlooked by students in the knowledge-based learning environment which often leaves them under-inspired and therefore disinterested to pursue these disciplines at the post-secondary level. Open questions therefore remain on how to appeal to students’ natural curiosity, and to embrace the “soft skills” essential in achieving a successful STEM career: open-mindedness, teamwork, and grit. Importantly, demonstration of these skills as a prerequisite to scientific achievement would better engage students from diverse backgrounds who frequently garner inherent problem-solving techniques through lived experience, but struggle to maintain representation at the post-secondary level.
To address this discrepancy between learning styles we implemented Discovery, a capstone-style, inquiry-based educational partnership between select secondary schools and educators from the Toronto District School Board and Engineering graduate students from the University of Toronto.
Discovery engages students from participating schools on a mandatory basis, representing 10-15% of each student’s final course grade. Over multiple weeks within university learning spaces, students engage in activities outlining outcome-oriented design and experimental planning using the scientific method. Learning is focused on execution and iteration of independent projects where students present outcomes to their teachers, peers, and university students in a final research symposium setting.
Our research study “Enhancing senior high school student engagement and academic performance using an inclusive and scalable inquiry-based program” examines the impact of the inquiry-based Discovery approach. Holistically we found that students flourish in the open-ended, realistic model of scientific workflow. Student performance in the collective Discovery grade significantly exceeded classroom performance, and 47% of participating students scored at least 15% higher on their Discovery project than in their final course mark.
Interestingly, this revealed that a student’s course grade is not a statistically significant predictor of their final Discovery grade or engagement and establishes that success in STEM is not solely rooted in knowledge-based command. Collectively, students ranked Discovery content high on a perceived challenge scale but for those who participated over multiple terms, we observed a significant cumulative benefit to Discovery grades as students became more comfortable and effective within this inquiry-based learning model.
Additionally, we were excited to identify a cohort of students who thrived in the Discovery atmosphere despite struggling to succeed in the knowledge-based classroom environment. These students clearly benefitted from the opportunity to engage within this unique learning environment not generally available to secondary students. Looking ahead, this population represents an important group of stakeholders when considering post-secondary retention of STEM-interested students.
Finally, we were also interested to observe excellent attendance at Discovery sessions: 91% of all students in this 5-semester study exhibited perfect attendance, despite having to travel independently across the city to participate in full-day programming. In contrast, truancy was a significant issue at the school as 61% of students missed more than 4 days per semester and 15% of students missed more than 16 days per semester. Reflection on the Discovery experience revealed that 85% of students were interested to participate in future programming, while 72% of students indicated greater likelihood in pursuing future STEM courses or degree programs as a result of program participation.
These early results are not abnormal given similar educational initiatives oriented around active or inquiry-based learning. However, the quantitative metrics we have garnered validate an evidence-based framework that can be adapted on a case-by-case basis and implemented by similar initiatives in other communities. Many questions remain with regards to continued study of Discovery program outcomes, including whether participation enhances student grades in the long-term, increases post-secondary admission or graduation rates, and/or changes students’ sustained interest level in STEM.
We are now focused on addressing these questions, but summarize our current study with a strong endorsement of educational partnerships that expose secondary student cohorts to post-secondary resources while leveraging classroom teachers’ insight and access, which we suggest may produce an outsized impact on students that might otherwise be ‘left behind’. We anticipate that our study will support institutional rethinking as to how we should inspire, identify, and maintain STEM minds through students’ entire educational trajectories.