STEM into STEAM: Using Object-Based Learning to Develop Critical and Creative Thinking Among Students

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A National Symposium

November 19–20, 2020

Virtual Symposium


Developing critical and creative thinking in students is a goal of many higher education instructors (Kukhareva et al., 2020), as these skills can be used at all levels of learning and across disciplines. Critical and creative thinking is the ability to perform a variety of skills, including analyzing facts, generating and organizing ideas, defending opinions, making comparisons, evaluating arguments, solving problems, and producing unique solutions (Marapodi, 2003). Critical thinking has long been a buzzword in academia; it is crucial for students to develop critical thinking as a general lifelong skill that can be applied to the real world upon graduation (Oljar & Koulkal, 2019). However, with no specified definitions or criteria for these terms, or training for integrating critical and creative thinking, instructors struggle to implement such skills beyond standard practices (Haston, 2020).

Object-based learning (OBL) is an active-learning approach with tremendous potential to develop critical and creative thinking, particularly in the STEM classroom. Object-based learning is “a mode of education which involves the active integration of objects into the learning environment” (Chatterjee & Hannan, 2016). Employing discovery in learning, object-based learning provides opportunities for students to engage in deeper, authenticated learning that goes beyond a traditional STEM course curriculum.

Object-Based Learning: Overview

Object- based learning (OBL) inspires close observation and deep critical thinking through the experience of multisensory engagement (Thogersen et al., 2018). Students under the guidance of instructors work closely with curated objects, which in turn stimulates interest in acquiring and applying knowledge to other contexts in and out of the classroom. Central to object-based learning is the idea that working with objects mediates and strengthens learning because this interaction has a long-lasting effect on memory (Romanek & Lynch, 2008). Object-based learning is student-centered in that it promotes the building of knowledge by drawing on authentic object interaction experiences that cannot be easily replicated with 2D representations (Miles, 2018).

Objects in object-based learning can also be referred to as primary sources or material culture. They can include artworks, artifacts, archival materials, museum collections, or common, everyday objects. Instructors should be mindful that part of the object-based learning process is selecting suitable objects that align with learning outcomes for their coursework. These objects should demand sustained engagement from students as they attempt to decipher and interpret their purposes, socio-cultural significance, and how they were made (German & Harris, 2017). Object-based learning typically takes place in galleries, libraries, archives, or museums, otherwise known as GLAMs. However, object-based learning can take place within the classroom if working with everyday objects or digital representations. Another part of the object-based learning process for instructors is to cultivate partnerships with staff in GLAMs in order to coordinate access to objects and feasible methods of engagement.

Object Based Learning: Benefits and Challenges

The University of College London’s website on teaching and object-based learning cites various benefits of this type of teaching strategy, including directly connecting students to course content; encouraging students to engage all of their senses; helping students collaborate during discussions and draw conclusions based on evidentiary support; and promoting the value of GLAMs. With teachers acting as conduits of learning between student and object, there are many possibilities for students to develop critical and creative thinking skills. Students can observe objects to ask deeper questions, solve complex problems provided by instructors, interact with peers on group projects, or even re-interpret objects via creative means. These activities or exercises can be done through major assessments, classroom discussions, or using technology such as AR/VR to replicate images. Ultimately, contact with objects enhances a student’s understanding of research and material culture, and provides them with rare access to experiential learning (Chatterjee & Hannan, 2016).

When trying to implement object-based learning in the classroom, there are common challenges instructors may face. One is time. Instructors need sufficient time to lesson plan, select and gain access to objects, and coordinate with GLAM staff. When instructors also have to teach a core curriculum, it may not seem worth it to embark on object-based learning strategies or search for primary sources through a vast museum collection. Another challenge is limitation of access to certain objects. Not all objects located within special collections or galleries can be handled by students due to their fragile conditions. Instructors “need to consider the needs of the learners, but also the needs of the objects” (Chatterjee & Hannan, 2016). Finally, instructors may not have the proper training or resources to implement object-based learning in the classroom. Both faculty and students need time to familiarize themselves with object-based learning and what is expected of them. This was made even more evident from a study that was conducted involving fifteen instructors from the humanities and social sciences at the University of Miami. The goal of the study was to understand how the university can best support instructors using objects to facilitate learning. It was found that training was critical to incorporate objects successfully into the learning process. That same study found that success was also dependent on choosing objects that had valuable connections to the course material (Baydoun et al., 2020).

Object-Based Learning at the University of Miami

At the University of Miami (UM), faculty are encouraged to implement object-based learning in their courses through the Mellon CREATE grant program. The CREATE grants are designed to enhance learning and engagement at the university by facilitating close collaboration and resource-sharing (Welcome to CREATE). Specifically, awards made under this program are intended to promote the integration of objects in the University of Miami’s libraries and Lowe Art Museum’s permanent collections into object-centered teaching, learning, and scholarship. Awarded recipients have included a professor of art history, who asked her students to create virtual and real 3D-printed models of Greek and Roman sculptures using photogrammetry, and a professor in medicine, who employed visual-thinking strategies when looking at artifacts to improve clinical skills.

According to the Australian Curriculum, “activities that foster critical and creative thinking should include both independent and collaborative tasks and entail some sort of transition or tension between ways of thinking” (Critical and Creative Thinking). It further states that “critical and creative thinking can be encouraged simultaneously through activities that integrate, reason, logic, imagination and innovation.” In the spring of 2019, Assistant Professor in Practice Dr. Ines Basalo incorporated object-based learning into her engineering materials science course. In Dr. Basalo’s course, students learned about the structure and properties of metals and ceramics and one of her goals was to stimulate interest in the role that minerals play in the design of engineering systems. Typically, Dr. Basalo would teach these concepts through interactive lectures, homework exercises, and quizzes. However, she wanted to engage her students in a more hands-on, exploratory approach. Therefore Dr. Basalo decided to incorporate object-based learning into her teaching of the course. At the University of Miami’s on-campus Lowe Art Museum, Dr. Basalo worked with senior instructional designer Renee Evans and identified several artifacts that originated from different parts of the world and at different time periods. Students worked in groups to research the region and time period, completed a questionnaire at the museum individually and as a group, and created a PowerPoint presentation along with an audio guide for the Lowe Art Museum to use. The interaction was three-fold: students interacted with the subject, object and peers. Kukhareva and Koulle (2020) argue that it is ‘the interaction with the discipline that is being facilitated through the interaction with artifacts and with peers.” Overall, students enjoyed participating in the activity, and Dr. Basalo plans on working with the Lowe Art Museum in the future on more object-based learning activities.

Implementation Recommendations and Conclusion

Prior to implementing object-based learning in courses, instructors should consider learning outcomes, teaching and learning strategies, object distribution, and the questions they would like students to investigate about the object. Once those areas have been addressed, instructors should think about how the object will be introduced to students, how peer-to-peer interaction will be facilitated, and how students will apply what they have learned to real-world contexts. Finally, instructors will need to consider how students will be assessed, the tangible products that students will create as evidence of their learning, and any necessary grading criteria.

A powerful concept of object-based learning is the potential to place the student into the same position as those who created or curated the objects (Valdespino & Larson, 2019). Interacting closely with objects stimulates students’ awe and curiosity, which are central to the object-based learning approach. Object-based learning is a mode of discovery through which the object itself becomes an essential critical and creative thinking tool for students.


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Spring 2021: Curriculum Innovation for Transformative Learning