Contextualizing STEM in the Real World and Redefining Failure

by Najee Ellerbe


Students learn fire dynamics from Dan Madrzykowski, Ph.D., Research Director for the UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute (FSRI)

Middle school is a time of social, emotional, physical and learning transitions. In order to keep students engaged, we must demonstrate to students that the material they are learning is both relevant to their immediate lives and grounded in a real world of importance. It is up to us to create learning experiences that show students that STEM is not just a common acronym, but a world full of inquiry, investigation, failure and meaning.

Kelly Keena, Ph.D., director of communications and education at Underwriters Laboratories (UL), described the importance of connecting the middle school classroom learning to the real world. “It is disingenuous to students to say they need to learn a particular topic without a particular reason why,” said Keena. “In STEM education, we have to demonstrate to students how and why the concepts they learn in the classroom are also applicable in the field.”

This is the reasoning behind UL Xplorlabs®, an online educational platform where students can “solve through science.” Xplorlabs consists of modules in which students explore compelling real-world topics while applying scientific concepts and practicing processes of design and engineering. There is a problem, you’re here to solve it. With interactive videos, instructional experiences and hands-on classroom activities based on problems encountered by UL employees, students learn about STEM skills and STEM careers. For instance, the Fire Forensics module was built to take the scientific concepts of fire dynamics and place them in gripping real-world context of fire forensics based on the framework of claims, evidence and reasoning. Students become the fire investigator solving a virtual burn scene. Online curriculum is paired with safe, hands-on lab activities in which students use candles to further investigate fire dynamics.

The Xplorlabs modules are intended to create a direct conduit from the science and engineering practiced by UL straight into secondary classrooms. UL works around the globe “building trust in the safety, security and sustainability of products, organizations and supply chains.”[1] Today, 14,000 UL staff are working for the mission of a safer world. The iconic UL mark appears on 22 billion products every year. Underwriters Laboratories researchers solve safety issues around the world in the areas of fire science, chemical safety, transportation, supply chains, and energy. In order for UL to fulfill this critical mission, STEM talent is a critical factor. UL will require secondary students entering the workforce with the knowledge and skills to satisfy this mission.

Through Xplorlabs, the expertise of UL researchers, scientists and engineers is combined with the expertise of each educator facilitating the learning. Xplorlabs was built intentionally with a trust-the-teacher approach; Xplorlabs provides the content and platform, teachers apply their expert lens for instruction. If educators need more support, each module is scaffolded to build on knowledge and skills for the students. The goal of the resource is to be supportive and flexible.

Xplorlabs paves the way for tailored community collaborations. For example, in Cobb County, Georgia, staff from 25 middle schools and 65 firefighters were trained to work together to deliver the Xplorlabs: Fire Forensics module to middle school students. Firefighters join the classroom during fire labs and explore the fire triangle, heat transfer and the heat of combustion. As teachers design community-based activities that organically built upon and extended the concepts that students learn during the module, firefighters form mentor relationships with students and introduce them to specific career tracks relevant to what they are learning. While the module is already designed to ground scientific concepts in real-world applications, these activities and relationships further cement students’ understanding of and connections to the material.

Focusing on the real-world context of a STEM lesson deepens both student comprehension and interest. We know that students’ engagement in STEM education are in steep decline during middle school. It is also a time of uncertainty and fear of failure. In addition to real-world application, one of the most important skills that students can learn in their formative years is how to redefine failure as an opportunity to glean meaningful insights and a step closer to success.

UL is built on the understanding that failure is natural. As a matter of fact, it’s even essential. Keena noted, “Ask any scientist or engineer and you would be hard pressed to find someone who has not experienced failure.Failure is a necessary step of scientific research and testing. Scientists make claims and then set out with multiple hypotheses, including those that are necessarily wrong. Accepting this opens UL up to exploring the interesting challenges of ensuring products can fail safely. When UL scientists administer abuse tests to products for safety, they are tested “with intent to fail.”

This is reflected in the Xplorlabs Portable Electrical Power module. During the online portion of the module, students virtually administer abuse tests to hoverboards and lithium-ion batteries. The tests in the module are based on the actual tests performed by UL scientists and engineers in the battery lab. These tests can result in an explosion or flames – and for students, a deeper understanding of phenomena like thermal runaway. Through a virtual lab approach, students are able to experience their learning safely and remotely.

Xplorlabs has become a successful educational platform earning the “Best Ed Tech of 2018” Award by Common Sense Education. By witnessing real-world situations in which hypotheses are tested and reevaluated, students are able to shift their understandings of failure. And by combining the expertise of teachers, community leaders, and UL scientists and engineers, the program engages students and gives them context for the concepts in their curriculum. Together, these factors make it easier for kids to spark and retain engagement in STEM experiences.