Collective STEM literacy: Pushing us all forward
Written by Sarah Keenan
We usually think of literacy as an individual competence – whether it has to do with our ability to read and write or to understand and apply scientific concepts. Scientific literacy, and STEM literacy more broadly, is the ability to make sense of the science in our world; but how does this develop? Sense-making, knowledge about and interaction with scientific concepts happens constantly – beyond the walls of school, beyond books, and definitely extending beyond adult authority figures who hold the “right” answers. This kind of literacy learning is a social and collective act: collaboration with peers helps youth decide what counts as important knowledge and gives them the opportunity to scaffold each others’ growth, as their individual strengths and understandings combine to develop a strong, collective STEM literacy.
In Making4Change, youth take action on community problems that hold meaning for them, engineering and designing solutions to these problems with an eye for green energy technologies. By exploring the ways in which our community culture shapes the nature of problems, the STEM literacy of the youth in this program is tapped into a community need. This gives them a platform to highlight their own STEM literacies beyond what might be recognized in school, and to challenge existing solutions.
Every project in M4C is shaped by the collective STEM literacy of the groups – every participant influences the direction of the project. By developing solutions with a group, individual competencies needed to achieve the goal of the project are identified and unite youth by giving them each a chance to share their STEM abilities. Each year we find students position themselves as experts in certain STEM literacies (for example: soldering, light bulb energy usage, etc.) in such a way that their peers can take advantage of this knowledge, building their individual STEM literacy and while contributing back to the collective literacy and ability of the group.
A lot of time our time in M4C is spent in groups, with youth members leading and mentors giving advice to help develop the collective STEM abilities of the group. For the most part our sessions take place in one room, which allows for a crossing of boundaries between projects, so youth are able to share skills and knowledge across different groups. The “expert feedback” days are an opportunity to expand the collective nature of this literacy, as youth present their inventions to professionals, receive their feedback and use outside expertise to inform the direction of their project and push their own abilities.
M4C provides a place where STEM is connected with the daily lives of youth, legitimizing their interests and abilities, giving them a platform to showcase their expertise and collaborate with their peers. As these youth frame STEM as useful to themselves and their projects, individual abilities build a collective literacy that pushes every person’s ability to act as an agent for the public good.