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STEM and Classical Education

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

One of the great misunderstandings about a classical education is that it ignores math, the sciences, and technology in lieu of the arts and humanities. At Herron Classical Schools, subject matter is interconnected and allows students to apply what they learn in one subject to that of another.

We asked computer science and engineering teacher Matthew Baron how our model benefits students who may not consider a classical school because of the assumption that they will not get the project-based learning that is so prevalent at STEM-focused schools.  

What are the advantages of classical methodology when teaching STEM-related subjects?

I see two clear advantages to students: 1) The classical method supports the most meaningful outcomes for project-based learning and helps students develop high quality products.  2.) Students are pushed to develop communication, presentation, reading, and writing skills while pursuing hands-on learning which, in my professional experience, are often the deciding factors of a project's quality. 

Classical education centers on the trivium of grammar, logic and rhetoric. How do you incorporate these phases into your curriculum?

Project-based learning is always directed towards creativity and is hands-on in experience, but people get paid money to work in STEM because they can apply their content knowledge to new solutions. Planning through the trivium is what makes our project-based learning experiences effective and leads to incorporation of content knowledge that can be applied to real-world problems. 

How does this play out in your classes?

In a month-long unit in my Introduction to Computer Science class students investigate and identify common design elements of websites to begin the design process. Next, they work through Trivium learning goals; they memorize and explain common lines of code that create them (grammar step), identify key problems and situations for their uses and correct errors in programmatic thinking of related examples (logic), then step into a creative design period where they build their own solution to the problem (rhetoric). The familiarity with content makes the creative solutions stronger and more marketable. I have received feedback from our design review partners in IUPUI's School of Informatics and Computing that the technical quality of the solutions that we create is superior to a wholly self-directed approach to project-based learning.

That sounds impressive.

Yes, students rise to the occasion when we expect high standards. I see this in their exam results, too. In my Introduction to Computer Science class, I give exams where students have an hour to read a case study of a client’s problem, then design and program a solution. Students often complete one project-level task rather than a series of multiple choice or paper questions.

In Introduction to Engineering Design, we work in four-week design cycles. In our third unit, we did an introductory activity discussing how common electronic devices work (microwaves, televisions, etc.).  My first year teaching this course, we simply took the devices apart and discussed what made them work using only what we could observe. This year, I incorporated grammar level lessons on the purpose of common electronics parts and logic lessons where students build simple circuits on breadboards to apply  their understanding of common parts on the behavior of devices. When students completed their final design reviews, they were able to produce higher quality explanations and diagrams of the inner workings of the device. 

You also teach Advanced Placement Computer Science. Tell us more about that.

I have project coding assignments in my AP Computer Science class, but I also challenge students to evaluate their own learning constantly through grammar and logic level problems. I find that my students’ ability to explain their answers and create quality solutions is vastly improved compared to courses where students use a solely rhetoric approach that asks them to create solutions but doesn't ingrain basic understanding that supports them. 

Our classical schools emphasize communication and reasoning through reading and writing (not as isolated skills). Why are these skills necessary to succeed in STEM fields? 

As a graduate of the honors program in the University of Virginia's School of Engineering and Applied Science, all of my courses were project-based. In my university coursework, heavy emphasis was placed on presentation, articulation, and report-writing, perhaps even more so than completing projects or developing content knowledge. I often find that high school students have the predisposition to tinker and can easily develop new ideas, but at the beginning of the semester, they struggle to articulate why their ideas have value and explain their reasoning behind design decisions. The emphasis on reasoning, reading, and writing in their other classes at Herron Classical Schools, supplements project-based learning and prepares them well for university coursework and professional life. 

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