Every teacher knows how important it is to keep their students engaged. As noted by the University of Washington’s Center for Teaching and Learning, “engaging students in the learning process increases their attention and focus, motivates them to practice higher-level critical thinking skills, and promotes meaningful learning experiences.”
It’s also one of the best feelings in the world. Teaching a highly engaged class is like telling a story where the audience is hanging onto every word. There’s nothing like looking out over a classroom and seeing your students excitedly talking about and working on their projects. Watching them test theories, make discoveries, and create projects that are breathtaking in their creativity and ingenuity … there’s just nothing better!
That’s what we want for you. And if there’s a shortcut to keeping students’ minds engaged, it’s keeping their hands engaged.
Backed By Research
When we talk about hands-on learning, we’re referring to experiential learning, or “learning by doing”. When it comes to the academic literature, the effects of experiential learning on student engagement are real, and they are pronounced.
In Coming to Your Senses, researchers from University College London found that, “Learning through exploration is a powerful way of introducing children to computer science concepts.” It went on to say:
Our study has demonstrated how to embed the process of critical thinking in learning about computing in such a way that enables children to readily and enjoyably engage with these topics when beginning to learn about computing. As such, it can better equip them with not just the ability to understand how an aspect of a technology works, but also the ability to question it and probe its limitations.
In Teaching for Understanding, researchers at the University of Virginia found that third graders taught a science lesson with experiential methods “produced higher achievement at all levels of thought for learners of all ability levels” when compared to the control group.
That holds true for assessments conducted during a research trial. But how does experiential learning fare when it comes to standardized tests? In Learning by Experience in a Standardized Testing Culture, researchers at Hope College tested how STEAM students performed on standardized tests. They found that:
- Students in the experiential program perceived school as more enjoyable.
- Learning to successfully collaborate was a key factor leading to positive experiences for students.
- Students showed evidence of noncognitive skill growth.
- Students in the experiential program progressed appropriately on standardized tests and did not differ significantly from their counterparts in traditional classes.
Finally, in Towards Smart Rooms for Children, researchers from The Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya found that, “Construction kits such as SAM Labs are designed to promote learning through hands-on exploration.”
Designed For Hands-on
The conclusion is clear: hands-on learning is an excellent way to boost student engagement and student achievement, and physical tools such as SAM Labs are designed with this kind of learning in mind.
In a survey of current customers, we asked about their reasons for using SAM Labs with students. Our hands-on approach was the #1 response.
You might be saying to yourself, “I see that tools like SAM Labs have physical components”—in our case, our physical kits—”but is that all it takes to teach in a hands-on way?” And that’s a smart question to ask, because anyone could add a few gadgets to their product and call it hands-on, but that doesn’t mean it’s true.
To be truly useful for teaching experiential lessons, it’s important that the philosophy of “learning by doing” be baked into the product’s design from the very beginning. That means:
- It should be open-ended. This not only allows students to find their own answer, it means they won’t have multiple-choice answers to choose from, requiring them to internalize and apply their knowledge in order to complete the lesson.
- Students should be allowed to fail. As we all know, small failures—of trying one method, finding it doesn’t work, analyzing why, and selecting a new, better method—happen all the time in adult life. Tools that cannot be used in “invalid” configurations—such as two DC motors accidentally programmed to turn in opposite directions, causing the SAM Labs car to spin in place—prevents students from the opportunity to analyze their missteps (to debug) and learn.
- It should encourage students to implement their knowledge, so they are active participants in their educations rather than passive consumers.
- It should bring student projects to life. Digital tools are amazing, and creating digital prototypes can be enormously powerful … to some students. But other students will remain unengaged if their creations are confined to the screen. That’s why combining the digital and physical is so powerful, as it makes projects more real when your students can see their creations moving around in real life.
To be considered an appropriate tool for hands-on learning, a product must have all of these attributes and more. That’s what allows for the high levels of student engagement (and achievement) that hands-on learning provides.
Hands-on Learning Is Highly Engaging
That’s why we designed SAM Labs to combine a digital coding platform, physical construction kits, and standards-aligned curriculum to bring hands-on learning to K-8 students around the world. Proudly dubbed the “Lego of the Internet generation,” we give students the tools to become inventors, and what’s more hands on than inventing cool new projects?
But don’t take our word for it. Take it from these educators, who found success using SAM Labs in their classrooms:
“My favorite thing about using SAM Labs is the way it helps students use coding and hands-on materials to create a sensory experience that tells a story to show their science learning.” – Kiki Hueneke, Lakeridge Middle School
“If you are going to teach coding you NEED something to use like SAM Labs that allows them to physically code and SEE outputs from their codes actually doing something! It is so much more meaningful than simply coding on a screen.” – Beth Chappelear, Heritage Middle School
“The students get very excited when we use them and they love using them. That makes learning fun. – Mark Meyer, Immanuel Lutheran School
Or see it for yourself:
You can also visit the Competition Showcase for even more student projects. They show just how engaged students can be when they learn with their hands, and how fun it is to teach them as well
There’s just nothing better!
Stephen is an author, writer, and storyteller. As the Content Manager for SAM Labs, Stephen spends his time talking to educators and crafting cool free resources to help them teach STEAM & coding with confidence. In his free time he enjoys writing fantasy novels, playing board games, kayaking, scuba diving, and being ridiculously tall.