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Students build a working prototype with Sphero Blueprint Build parts as part of an experiential learning lesson.

For subject matters as dynamic as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) it only makes sense to use dynamic teaching and learning methods. Experiential learning is one such approach, which gets students to participate in hands-on experiences to develop a deeper understanding of concepts and their critical thinking skills. As we’ll see in more detail throughout this article, the experiential learning philosophy encourages the use of skills, like creative problem-solving, communication, and critical analysis, that are essential in any STEM career.   

What is Experiential Learning? 

Experiential learning is an educational theory that emphasizes the importance of first-hand experience in the understanding and formation of new ideas and concepts. Experiential learning was developed in the 1980s by education theorist David Allen Kolb, who wrote that “knowledge is created through the transformation of experience”. As part of his work, he came up with the cycle of experiential learning, which breaks down the main facets of the educational framework into four key elements. They are:  

  • Concrete experience: this involves acquiring experiences through doing.  
  • Reflective observation: this stage consists of reflecting on the experience to build an understanding of it.  
  • Abstract conceptualization: in this stage, reflections are digested to come up with new ideas or reformed ideas.  
  • Active experimentation: in this final stage, knowledge can be put to use to test and explore new ideas.   

In practice, experiential learning encourages students to be meaningfully engaged in lessons and learning by participating in hands-on activities. After their participation, as students reflect on the experience gained through interactive lessons, the experience becomes knowledge, which ultimately equips the student to come with new ideas and apply those ideas in new experiences to continue the learning cycle.   

How Experiential Learning Develops Critical Thinking Skills 

Integrating the principles of experiential learning in the classroom (i.e. introducing hands-on activities and reflective discussions) not only enables students to learn the subject matter at hand, but it also helps to instill critical thinking and problem-solving skills that will serve students for their whole lives and in whatever career path they pursue.  

Experiential learning puts students in dynamic situations requiring collaborative and creative problem-solving and invites them to reflect on their experiences and problem-solving processes. This combination of hands-on experience and reflection helps students to use creative thinking to come up with innovative solutions, as well as to better digest information and understand the decision-making process. In the end, experiential learning helps develop critical thinking skills by emphasizing the ability to critically analyze experiences and form new ideas based on them. 

Experiential Learning Examples in STEM 

In STEM subjects especially, taking an experiential approach to education helps to get students involved in what they are learning. It can also ultimately result in a deeper understanding of STEM concepts and a superior ability to apply those concepts in a diversity of contexts. Below are some examples of experiential learning in STEM activities: 

Sphero Blueprint Wheel and Axle Activity 

 offers an accessible way for students to learn about foundational engineering concepts in a hands-on way. Many of the lessons developed for the Sphero Blueprint actually follow the experiential learning philosophy of combining interactivity with reflection to establish a deep understanding of things like simple machines. In the wheel and axle lesson, for example, students begin by learning about the simple machine and its applications. After the basics have been covered, they then build a wheel and axle system themselves with the objective of understanding and measuring its mechanical advantage. When this activity is complete, the class discusses why the wheel and axle has the mechanical advantage it does, and students can then take this knowledge into the next lesson. This more complex project involves using Blueprint to design and build a car with wheels, axles, and a rubber band that can stop at a specific distance.  

Sphero BOLT Tractor Pull Activity 

In the tractor pull activity, suitable for grades three to eight, Newton's laws of force and motion are explored by building and testing a Sphero-powered tractor. There are several steps in this project, including designing and building a tractor using inexpensive materials, programming a Sphero BOLT to pull the tractor over a five-meter track, and testing out how varying tractor loads influence the speed of the Sphero robot. Before putting the Sphero-powered tractors to the test, ask students to predict how long the travel time will be with different load weights based on existing knowledge of the relationship between force, mass, and acceleration. After testing the tractors and noting down the data, discuss the results and compare them to the predictions. This debriefing at the end of the first activity will help students better understand how mass influences force and acceleration and equip them to continue the experiment with more variables, like increased speed.    

The Sphero Global Challenge 

The Sphero Global Challenge is a robotics competition open to students between the ages of four and 14. While every edition of the challenge is based on a different theme (for example, Season 4’s theme was “Sphero Goes Incognito”), the goal of the challenge is to deepen computational thinking, engineering, and programming skills using Sphero’s robots and engineering solutions, like BOLT, Blueprint, and RVR+. For the challenge’s various events, students apply their knowledge and skills to complete missions and compete against other teams. In the process, they also gain new knowledge and valuable experience. Throughout the challenge, coaches can support the student teams by initiating discussions where students talk through their projects, problems they’ve encountered, and possible solutions. The challenge also allows students to see what other teams and schools are coming up with, which opens their minds to a diversity of solutions and experiences.   

Exploring Other Educational Theories 

Experiential learning is one of several educational theories that has influenced how teachers plan their curricula and engage with students. Other learning theories, like constructivism and connectivism, also have merit and can be used to enhance STEM education. You can learn more about educational theories and their connection to STEM here. 


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