Bringing STEM to Life: The Role of Hands-On Learning

ALI Staff | Published  August 11, 2023

The old saying “learn by doing” captures the essence of hands-on learning. Let’s dive deep into this learning style to learn more about its impact on student achievement. 


Students learning with manipulatives


Why Hands-On-Learning Matters

At its core, hands-on learning means students are building, creating, discussing, and problem-solving rather than merely listening or reading.

Hands-on learning isn't just fun – it aligns with how our brains naturally work.

When we interact with our environment, we form stronger memories and better understand concepts.

Think about when you learned to ride a bike. You didn’t just read about it or watch someone else do it. You hopped on, tried it, and learned from each wobble and fall.

Hands-on learning allows students to experience what they're learning.


The Appeal of Hands-On Learning

The rise in the popularity of hands-on learning isn’t out of the blue.

Students have always enjoyed hands-on learning because it gives them opportunities to interact with the subject, lesson, or activity in a meaningful way. This experience allows students to learn more and take ownership of that learning. 

Hands-on learning stands out as one of the most effective learning strategies, especially for complex subjects in STEM.


Reaching the Hands-On Learner

More teachers and experts recognize the need to adapt to various learning styles since not all students succeed in a traditional classroom setting.

Some students thrive when they're moving, touching, and doing.

For these active learners, hands-on methods can make the difference between dreading school and loving it.

Using Hands-on learning in the classroom allows students to develop the tools, skills, and experiences that create passion in lifelong learners.


The Science Behind Hands-On Learning

Imagine you're learning to bake a cake. Would you rather read about it or actually mix the ingredients and bake it yourself?

Most of us would choose to bake. It's not just because baking is fun but because our brains actually prefer it.

When we dive in and experience things firsthand, our brains light up in ways they don't when we're just passively taking in information. But why is that?


Building Brain Roads: The Magic of Neural Pathways

Just like cities have roads to help people get around, our brains have something similar called neural pathways.

These pathways help our thoughts and memories move around. When we learn something new, we build new pathways. And the more we practice or repeat that thing, the stronger and faster these pathways become.

Think of hands-on learning as the fast track to building these roads. When we actually do something, instead of just hearing or reading about it, our brain builds stronger and more numerous pathways.


Learning By Doing: Making Memories Stick

Our brain makes strong memories by trying things out, making mistakes, and figuring out how to fix them.

It's about more than just getting the right answer but understanding why it's the right answer.

And that deep understanding helps us use what we've learned in real life.


The Brain Loves Variety: Mixing Up Learning Styles

When we engage in hands-on learning, we're not just touching or doing.

We're also seeing, hearing, and sometimes even tasting or smelling!

The more ways we learn something, the more chances our brain has to remember it.

That's another reason why doing and experiencing things for ourselves is such a powerful way to learn. We're giving our brains more tools to hold onto information.


Who Truly Benefits from Hands-On Learning?

Everyone, regardless of their preferred learning style, can benefit from hands-on experiences.

Some students like looking at pictures or reading (visual learners). Some prefer listening to explanations or songs (auditory learners). Others learn best when moving around or touching things (kinesthetic learners).

The best part? Hands-on learning works for all of them. Hands-on learning doesn't just make school fun; it also helps students understand better.

When students can learn in a way that works best for them, they are more likely to feel invested in the lesson. This makes challenging subjects both easier and more exciting. 


Hands-On Learning in Science

Engaging directly in scientific activities allows students to grasp abstract concepts and foster a genuine interest in the mysteries of the world.

Science isn’t just about memorizing facts from a textbook; it’s about experiencing, questioning, and understanding the phenomena surrounding us.


The Value of Conducting Experiments and Observations

Conducting experiments and making observations are fundamental in science.

When students mix chemicals in a test tube or observe the stars at night, they gather information firsthand.

This isn’t just memorizing facts from a book; it’s real, active learning. Observing and experimenting help students see patterns, ask questions, and understand the world more profoundly.


Building Models and Simulations to Understand Better

Not every scientific concept can be directly observed.

We can't visit the center of the Earth or travel to distant galaxies (not yet, at least!). That's where models and simulations come into play.

Students can visualize and grasp complex ideas by building models, like a volcano out of clay or a DNA strand with candy.

Simulations, such as computer programs that show how planets move in space, help bring these far-off or hidden concepts to life. They make intangible ideas tangible, enhancing comprehension. 


The Importance of Exploring and Manipulating Materials and Tools

Ever played with slime? Or maybe built a tower with blocks?

These activities aren't just fun; they teach us about the properties of different materials.

By poking, prodding, stretching, and stacking, students learn how things work. This hands-on exploration lays the foundation for understanding more advanced science topics later.

Plus, using tools, whether a simple magnifying glass or a more complex microscope, empowers students to investigate the world on their own terms.

Tactile exploration is crucial for understanding many scientific principles and lays the groundwork for advanced topics in the future.


Hands-On Learning in Math

Math isn’t just about formulas and calculations.

It's about understanding the logic and reasoning behind every number and equation.

Bringing math into the physical world through hands-on learning can change how students perceive and interact with these concepts.


Making Math Tangible: Manipulatives

Consider teaching fractions. Students use fraction tiles, piecing together different parts to understand how they make a whole.

Then there's algebra. Algebra tiles, colored tiles representing different values, help students visualize and solve equations.

They can see what variables, constants, and coefficients look like!

When learning to solve simple word problems, elementary students benefit from using representative manipulatives in the early stages of their learning.

Tangible math becomes something students can touch, move, and truly understand.


Using Technology and Interactive Tools to Bring Math and Data to Life

The digital world offers a treasure trove of tools tailored for hands-on math learning.

Beyond flashy graphics or game-like interfaces, specific apps and software not only help illustrate math concepts in dynamic ways but also allow students to manipulate and better understand various kinds of data.

For instance, plotting software can let students see how changing one variable impacts a graph in real-time.

It's not about replacing traditional learning but enhancing it.

Interactive tech tools can simplify the complex, making the intricacies of math more accessible and relevant to our increasingly digital lives.


Hands-On Learning in Early Childhood

Hands-on learning in early childhood is like planting a seed. It starts small, but it grows into something big and strong. When kids get to touch, play, and explore, they learn better and faster.


Why Early Experiences Matter

Every time a child touches or plays with something new, they build new neural pathways in their brain. These connections help them learn and remember.

Hands-on experiences are key because they make these connections stronger.

When a child stacks blocks or plays with sand, it’s not just a game; they're setting the stage for further learning. It's this type of hands-on learning that becomes a strong foundation for their future education. 


Strategies for Early Childhood Educators

Teachers know that the right materials can spark a child's interest.

It’s crucial to choose learning tools that can be used in many different ways and provide many opportunities for free exploration.

For example, blocks help children learn about shapes, colors, and sizes but can also be used to build a castle or a pirate ship.

Cardboard tubes can be used to explore rolling and can also be used to experiment with visual effects, not to mention that you can build a whole lot of stuff from them.

By using versatile materials, educators allow students to explore and discover on their own terms.

Using these materials effectively is key. It doesn't just involve giving children items and letting them play.

Instead, it's about providing direction and purpose.

Educators can guide children's exploration by asking questions related to the activity.

For example, teachers can ask: "How can you arrange these blocks?" or “What do you notice about which tubes roll and which don’t?”

By doing this, they enhance the learning experience, ensuring it's both educational and engaging.


Selecting Hands-On Curriculum

Having a robust hands-on STEM curriculum is critical. But how do teachers and schools decide which hands-on lessons are best? Here are some things they think about:


Making the Right Choice: Evaluating Hands-on Curriculum Options

  • Educational Standards: The curriculum should align with your state's appropriate STEM standards.

  • Easy to use: Teachers should have no trouble using these lessons. They need materials that are easy to find and use, as well as clear and robust teacher guides and manuals.

  • Real hands-on experiences: Lessons shouldn't just say they're "hands-on". They should really let students touch, build, create, and explore. That's how kids truly learn and remember things.


The Impact of Hands-On Education

Hands-on learning is more than a classroom trend. It's a proven way to engage all kinds of students.

By allowing kids to touch, build, and explore, they don't just memorize facts.

Instead, they learn deeply and truly understand concepts.

Hands-on methods are shaping the future of education from elementary school to high school.

With hands-on learning, students aren't just reading about the world - they are actively participating in it, making learning come to life.




Which STEM subjects are of interest to you?

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