PBL, STEAM, & CTE: Validation through Triangulation

Many people are familiar with, and proponents for, STEM Education. For those of you who aren’t, STEM is Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Many argue that STEM should be STEAM through the addition of the Arts through the application of creativity, innovation, and design thinking. In a previous blog, “Healing the Root of STEM,” I touched on improving STE(A)M education through rethinking the purpose of STEM and preparing students through Project Based Learning. I also hinted at including CTE by changing it to ScTEAM.

In this blog I want to look closer at key components of all three in order to validate their best practices through triangulation. I hope to do this by identifying ways that STEAM, CTE, and PBL have a unique three-way symbiotic relationship. Merriam (2009) notes that “the use of multiple theories to confirm emerging findings” is an accepted method of determining validity in qualitative research. Merriam referred to “crystallization” as when there are three or more converging data points, and many others refer to this convergence as “triangulation.” (For further reading on how I have applied these theories in case study research as it applies to CTE, STE(A)M, and PBL, please see my doctoral thesis titled Teachers’ and Administrators’ Views of Organizational Improvement and Student Success in a Themed Professional Learning Community.)

BIE’s model for Gold Standard Project Based Learning is made up of several Essential Project Design Elements. The key focus of PBL is “learning the key knowledge, understanding, and success skills for any content area,” not solely STE(A)M and CTE. But when applied to STE(A)M and CTE, you must identify where there are “natural fits.” I’m going to take some time in this blog to identify where some of those natural fits are likely to be found. In your comments, I would love to hear your suggestions for further natural fits, and personal stories for where these natural fit have worked for you.

Career-Tech Clusters Alignment
Career Technical Education (CTE) nationally has sixteen College & Career Clusters in which they align “themed pathways”, preparing students simultaneously for high wage, high need, or high skill jobs and various levels of post-secondary education ranging from industry specific certification programs to four-year degrees. 

At first glance, some of these clusters obviously include STE(A)M, such as Architecture & Construction, Information Technology, Health Sciences, and Manufacturing… one of these clusters is even called STEM! However, looking closer within the smaller paths, within each pathway (or cluster), you can find applied science, technology, engineering, art, and/or mathematics in each. So, with CTE, one or more of the STE(A)M subjects naturally is embedded within it, especially when applied to key knowledge, understanding, & success skills. Sound familiar? That’s the focus at the center of Gold Standard PBL! So what about the Essential Project Design Elements of PBL as applying STE(A)M within CTE?

For the purposes of this blog, I’ll focus on only one of the seven PBL design elements: Challenging Problem or Question. Let’s use the CTE cluster of Architecture & Construction for example. The state of California has developed CTE Standards for fifteen of the National CTE Standards (they actually don’t recognize STEM as a cluster). For Engineering and Architecture, standard 4.0 applies technology (aka STE(A)M) and 5.0 problem solving and critical thinking (aka PBL). 

For instance, what if an Engineering and Architecture Pathway student was asked to use CAD to design a home using passive solar construction techniques, much like the Anasazi did before electricity and indoor plumbing? Then what if they took it to the next level by building a scaled model of their design, and presented it with CAD drawings to a local architect, engineer, and drafter, explaining how their design would provide passive solar cooling in the summer and ambient and direct light heating in the winter? Integrating CTE and STE(A)M in this manner raises the bar to the rigorous level of PBL.

STE(A)M Is Everywhere
So what about a sector that might not appear to be related to STE(A)M at first? I looked through the sixteen sectors trying to identify one I thought might be the most difficult to apply STE(A)M to. I did consider Education & Training and Human Services, however they are social sciences, and therefore STE(A)M since they are a form of science, including applications that integrate the sciences such as Kismet.  This research reminded me that there are times that some, not all, of the letters in STE(A)M are present, in a particular standard, or activity, or PBL, and these also follow within the broader umbrella of STE(A)M education.  Feel free to disagree, but I settled on Hospitality and Tourism as a cluster I thought would be challenging to identify as inherently STE(A)M by nature.  I am admitting my bias in choosing this as an example, because it was difficult for me to find obvious applications of rigorous technology and engineering.  However, once again, I found that standard 4.0 applies technology and 5.0 applies problem solving and critical thinking. Then I realized that all of the CTE industry sectors have these same standards, so they apply to STE(A)M and PBL in the same manner as the example above from Architecture and Engineering.

But that felt like a bit of a cop-out. So I dug further. The first standard I found in A1.0 states “Demonstrate an understanding of key aspects of the food science…” so there is the S in STE(A)M! Then in A3.3 “produce a product that integrates the use of procedures for preventing the spread of food-borne pathogens and illness, cross-contacts, and contaminants.” STE(A)M again, and PBL!


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