A recent article published in Edutopia (‘Why Students Forget – and what you can do about it’, 12 Oct 2017) gives some food for thought about the effectiveness of interdisciplinary approaches to learning such as STEM.

 

Researching the role of memory, neuroscientists have identified that the goal of memory is not just to store information but to optimise decision making in chaotic, quickly changing environments. Their proposition is that forgetting is an evolutionary strategy; ‘a purposeful process of evaluating and discarding information that doesn’t promote the survival of the species’.

 

We typically think of memory as a storage receptacle; experiences stored away for future retrieval. Science has revealed our memories are a much more active participant in our thinking than this. Researchers ask us to think of our memories as spiderwebs – ‘strands of recollections distributed across millions of connected neurons’. New learning is encoded across these networks converting experience to memory. Repeatedly accessing a stored but fading memory ignites these neural networks and encodes the concept associated with the memory more deeply.

This is fundamental to the ‘stickiness’ of learning; making and layering many connections over existing networks and widening the spider web.

STEM thinking helps to build these networks; layering connected but different concepts and approaches to the neural spiderweb. This is the toolbox students draw from when faced with a problem-solving task; searching through prior learning and identifying an appropriate strategy from their strongly coded memory network and applying it to a new task.

This approach applies equally to any new task we face as students, teachers, mentors, researchers, collaborators and designers. Making connections from diverse disciplines and different perspectives builds our own neural pathways and makes new learning stick.

As architects and designers, how do we create the optimum opportunity for this cross fertilisation of ideas? At a recent STEM conference one of the speakers reflected on how this happens for professional scientists; not when they are focussed on their individual research in the lab but when they get together and talk about their work in the pub! Design of space that encourages these incidental intersections of learning and sharing of ideas through socialisation is key to supporting the layering of memory and enhancing the stickiness of learning.