An Effective STEM+C Model of Teaching and Learning: What is the role of Geography in this model?

nm observatory

A Paper Presentation Submitted and Accepted for NCGE 2015 Conference

Presented August 8, 2015 by:

  • Julia Parra, New Mexico State University, New Mexico Geographic Alliance
  • Karen Thomas-Brown, University of Michigan-Dearborn, Michigan Geographic Alliance

Presentation Description

Dr. Parra and Dr. Thomas-Brown are identifying teaching and learning concepts for the development of an Effective STEM+C Model of Teaching and Learning, currently being referred to as Discover STEM+C. For this paper and presentation, Dr. Parra and Dr. Thomas-Brown will share this model under development along with the grant submissions under development and the Discover STEM curriculum that will be taught in spring 2016 by Dr. Parra. Dr. Parra and Dr. Thomas-Brown hope to engage the participants in a conversation that will improve the model, the course, and any other projects under development.

Link to Slides


  • Julia Parra, New Mexico State University, New Mexico Geographic Alliance
  • Karen Thomas-Brown, University of Michigan-Dearborn, Michigan Geographic Alliance
  • Karin Wiburg, New Mexico State University
  • Brad McClain, XSci Co-Director, University of Colorado Boulder
  • Michael DeMers, New Mexico State University, New Mexico Geographic Alliance
  • Enrico Pontelli, New Mexico State University
  • Rajaa Shindi, Dona Ana Community College

Note from Julia Parra – The Discover STEM+C Model of Teaching and Learning is a project under development. It is, of course, premature to say that this is an effective model, EXCEPT, that it thus far, it has been an effective model for me, and I am compelled to share.

The purpose of this project is to increase access to and ownership of STEM+C knowledge by K-12 teachers as a result of their engagement in challenging, personally meaningful and transformational curriculum of “extraordinary experiences.” The Discover STEM+C project builds on the three areas of promise, 1) the Experiential Science Education Research Collaboration (XSci) STEM-based experiential learning projects and research from the University of Colorado, Boulder, specifically the XNI model that stands on three legs that are specifically oriented to STEM learning – experiential learning, narrative study of lives, and science identity; 2) the existing understanding of computing and computational thinking integrated with STEM-based extraordinary experiences across interdisciplinary content areas, and 3) a focus on Geography as a STEM discipline.


XSci and XNI

The XNI model is from the Experiential Science Education Research Collaboration (XSci) STEM-based experiential learning projects and research from the University of Colorado, Boulder. The XNI model combines three fields of study into an innovative lens for guiding research and practice: (1) Experiential learning theory (educational research); (2) The Narrative study of lives (psychology) and; (3) Identity theory (sociology).

XNI Model

Importantly, this model situates narrative as the mediator between experience and identity as the predominant pathway for meaning making and the establishment of personal relevance to learning, a relatively innovative concept within educational contexts.


For the purposes of this paper presentation, we will focus on experiential learning.

STEM-Based Experiential Learning

The primary pedagogical approach for the Discover STEM+C curriculum is the use of STEM-based experiential learning to develop “extraordinary experiences” for teachers based on the research conducted by the Experiential Science Education Research Collaborative (XSci, n.d.). XSci’s Operational Definition of Experiential Learning is, “[a] transactional learning strategy in which educators and learners co-engage in direct experience and focused reflection, in concert with private personal interpretative processes on the part of the learner, to construct knowledge, develop skills, and contextualize the meaning of the experience.”

A key component for the development of Discover STEM+C curriculum is XSci’s Experiential Learning Variables and Indicators Scale (ELVIS), which is, “ a tool for designing and assessing teaching and learning efforts in terms of their “experiential-ness” and “synthesizes many of the best-known and well-researched models for experiential learning and boils them down into a very practical instrument that includes seven core characteristics of experiential learning: These characteristics include 1) locus of control, 2) physical involvement, 3) intellectual involvement, 4) social & emotional involvement, 5) narrative transport, 6) perceived risk, and 7) embedded reflection” XSci (n.d.).


Computing and Computational Thinking

A major goal of Discover STEM+C is to explore the computing and computational thinking as a strategy for the learning design process of structuring and processing teacher’s learning through extraordinary experiences as well as making computing and computational thinking an integral component of what teachers do as part of the Discover STEM+ extraordinary experiences. Computing as identified by the recent, 2015 NSF STEM+C CFP broadly “refers to the whole set of fundamental concepts and skills that will allow students to creatively apply and adapt computation across a range of application domains, to ‘bend digital technology to one’s needs, purposes, and will’ (Briggs & Snyder, 2012).” Of note, this project does not fully reflect a satisfactory role for computing and computational thinking. We are seeking funding for this purpose.

The Role of Geography as a STEM Discipline

The National Science Foundation considers all science and engineering fields supported by that organization to be STEM fields.  Geography is among those disciplines supported by research initiatives of NSF.  Among the more exciting and vital emergent sub-disciplines of Geography is geospatial science, which is essentially a combination of geocomputation, geographic information science, geographic information technologies and geographic information systems applications.  Ultimately it is the culmination of over 2500 years of geographic research encapsulated by the tools and methodologies of modern computer science and driving many of computer science’s more powerful scientific technologies.  These technologies include autonomous vehicles, earth satellite sensing devices, geographic information systems and global positioning systems, and large networks of automated environmental probes to mention just a few.

Among the hallmarks of geography as a science is that it is the only discipline that focuses on the entire earth and all of its physical systems – what once went under the moniker of  “earth system science.” What makes it more relevant today than ever is that it combines the knowledge of the physical earth -(geomorphology, geology, hydrology, oceanography etc), biological (biogeography), and atmospheric conditions (climatology and meteorology)  with human systems of land use and man’s impacts on the earth as well as the controls the earth places on man (human environment) into visual and intractable representations. This makes geography a very timely and relevant science in which to study the development of a sense of scientific competence in students as they incorporate existing knowledge of physics, chemistry, biology, earth science, and computational thinking. Geography as science is immediately relevant.

The crucial tie in this research becomes the audience, the learners themselves. Millennial learners are not technology immigrants, the role of technology in their daily lives is indispensable, hence, rhetoric, why not incorporate more technology into their STEM learning. No only do today’s millennial learners demonstrate high levels of motivation to learn (Dede 2005), their tech-savvy adds another dimension to their learning needs and categorizations of learning styles. Hence, we are developing a model that allows for a wide range of field, and laboratory experiences; reflective experiential co-learning; and reflective engagement and analysis of narratives gleaned from lived experiences provided a holistic and well rounded approach to the development of the learners’ science identity, and in this instance geospatial literacy.

Finally, geospatial science is among the most highly paid and highest demand disciplines in the United States today.  The US Department of Labor estimates an annual growth of nearly 35% and the commercial geospatial sector is doubling every year (  There is a growing demand in homeland security, regulated industries (e.g. utilities, telecommunications, transportation and education) as well as many private enterprises. In the context of this proposal, being able to show the learner that what they are learning has immediate application will enhance their level of enthusiasm to learn science. Geography is an ideal STEM discipline for STEM+C endeavors.

Discover STEM+C Curriculum Project

The aim of the proposed curriculum is to, 1) help teachers advance from a lack of comfort with STEM+C ideas to an ability to develop and share STEM+C content as a result of profound personal STEM+C-based experiential learning, and 2) is for teachers to experience the power of computational thinking and computing for processing and enhancing their STEM experiences.

The curriculum will include a set of activities, computational tools, and outcomes that can be utilized by teachers for their own learning and for designing learning opportunities for their own students.

Participating teachers will use computing devices as a natural part of engaging in Discovery STEM+C. For example, they will

  • use wearable cameras while engaged in challenging STEM+C activities;
  • create videos and edit videos as part of developing a narrative for their newly developing science identity;
  • use GIS devices and software while exploring a range of landscapes including desert, mountainous, and lake terrains;
  • use apps to control Sphero robot balls; and use the web and computation to find answers to their questions.

In addition computational thinking will be used as a basis for understanding their STEM experiences and solving problems suggested by the teachers during and after their experiences.  They will learn to create abstractions  at appropriate levels; collect data to help solve problems and answer geospatial scientific questions; and use editing devices to create simulations and movies about aspects of the geospatial STEM experiences and reflections. Teachers will be able to use CT models such as data-driven analysis and algorithmic thinking to design solutions to problems they have identified in their experiences.

In order to provide an example of the kind of experiential and reflection activities, Dr. Julia Parra, has developed a sample of what a STEM+C teacher professional development intervention might look like.


  • Engage with the Discover STEM+C Pedagogical Models including the app for ELVIS.
  • Explore documentary story-telling strategies and techniques (including the phases of pre-production, production, and post-production as well as narrative construction)
  • Receive Adventure Backpacks, ideally they contain:
    • hat, water, sunscreen, snacks, pens;
    • iPad with rugged case (note for grant – team might need a mobile wifi device added to budget);
    • Field Guide – Notebook with Handouts for concepts including ELVIS, pedagogical models, storyboards for narrative documentary, QR codes for further online resources, etc.;
    • copy of XSci documentary video, Inspire Me! AFRICA;
    • GoPro Hero Camera and accessories;
    • Lego pack for introduction and question/answer activities; and
    • robot kit (Sphero


This lake adventure combines the exciting sport of Stand-Up-Paddleboarding and/or Kayaking (no experience necessary) with STEM+C activities and documentary filmmaking using Go-Pro camera systems. This experience includes an educational cross section of geography, lake and marine ecology, the physics of buoyancy and hydrodynamic design, human-environment interaction in lake environment, documentary filmmaking and STEM+C-related personal narrative, Go-Pro camera operation, and editing software.

Adventurers will:

  • Engage in concept mapping and question asking (use concept mapping for letters in STEM+C to create a set of questions)
  • Prepare for data collection and manipulation
  • Explore the geography of Elephant Butte Lake with maps, satellite imaging-geospatial mapping, and robots
  • Stand-up-paddleboard or kayak on Elephant Butte Lake (this is for the area of Las Cruces, NM)
  • Learn proper safety, equipment, and techniques (balance, turning, strokes, falling, and recovery and including conversations regarding the physics of buoyancy and hydrodynamic design, issues of water, etc.)
  • Explore and respect the lake and marine environment with this low-impact sport (including water sampling and analysis for algal blooms, pH, phosphorous and other trace nutrients)
  • Use a Go-Pro camera system to record experiences
  • Use ELVIS to evaluate the experiential nature of this activity


  • Create Documentary Video (Engage in post-production and narrative construction to edit and share personal documentary shorts in high definition)
  • Engage in post-experience activities to support reflection and the take-aways for personal individualized classroom use.


This curriculum project started as a small idea for a class and grew into a collaborative project – the submission of a grant proposal for NSF STEM+C, currently under review. By sharing this paper at the NCGE 2015 Conference, we hope to share the concepts for this collaborative curriculum project and receive feedback from participants.

References (Full Project References as of August 6, 2015)

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Brickhouse, N. W., Lowery, P., & Schultz, K. (2000). What kind of a girl does science? The construction of school science identities. Journal of research in science teaching, 37(5), 441-458.

Briggs, A., & Snyder, L. (2012). Computer science principles and the CS 10K initiative. ACM Inroads, 3(2), 29-31.

Computer Science Teachers Association & International Society for Technology in Education. (2011). Retrieved from:

Experiential Science Education Research Collaboration (n.d.). Retrieved from:

Hersh, R. H., & Merrow, J. (Eds.). (2005). Declining by degrees: Higher education at risk. New York: Macmillan Publishing.

Hunter, A. B., Laursen, S. L., & Seymour, E. (2006). Becoming a scientist: The role of undergraduate research in students’ cognitive, personal, and professional development. Science Education, 91(1), 36-74.

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President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC 2005). Computational Science: Ensuring America’s Competitiveness, Report to the President. National Coordination Office for Information Technology Research and Development, Washington, DC.

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Resnick, M. (1995). New paradigms for computing, new paradigms for thinking. In Computers and exploratory learning (pp. 31-43). Springer Berlin Heidelberg. Retrieved April 12, 2015 from

Smith, K. A., Douglas, T. C., & Cox, M. F. (2009). Supportive teaching and learning strategies in STEM education. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2009(117), 19-32.

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