Making Learning Accessible at Any Age: A Dive into STEM and Neuroplasticity

Embark on a journey with us to uncover fundamental facts and discoveries about the brain and memory mechanisms.

Amidst the tense political and social climates in nations like Bulgaria, it’s common for the spotlight to shy away from the education system. Many find it easier to utilize their energy, both mental and physical, crafting forceful Facebook comments about what’s going wrong instead of focusing on what can be altered positively. It’s a simple task to point out flaws and offer advice; it’s significantly harder to incite change within oneself to stand true to a cause.

Herein, we delve into the innate biological capabilities that individuals of all ages possess, enabling them to develop enhanced creative thinking skills and impart them to future generations. Teachers, often bogged down by paperwork, feelings of underappreciation, stress, and personal dilemmas, may find it challenging to step outside their comfort zones, especially as they age and their schedules become saturated. Nonetheless, neurobiology findings highlight that change isn’t an impossible feat.

STEM education is designed to enable learners to discern solutions to problems, prioritizing creativity over rote learning. Teachers should act as guides toward answers, not as repositories of them. Students should encounter those dopamine-fueled “Aha!” moments, a pleasure that propels motivation to delve deeper into problems until they’re resolved. Stimulating students’ desire to learn in this manner, thereby enhancing out-of-the-box creative thinking, increases the occurrence of these enlightening moments. While often perceived as sporadic sparks of genius, they are actually derived from a three-part informational processing procedure involving divergent, convergent, and analogical thinking—processes that have evolved over millennia and are universally inherent. Notably, their influence over the brain is consistent and enduring.

How does the brain allow us to learn anything at any age?

Here, the concept of neuroplasticity or synaptic plasticity (when referencing a single nerve cell) comes into play. In essence, it is the brain’s ability to structurally and functionally modify itself throughout an individual’s life in response to environmental interactions. When we learn, our neural connections alter, forming new ones or dismantling old ones. Forming new connections, or remembering, is a product of at least two neurons transmitting signals to each other simultaneously, creating a synapse. Realistically, information is “stored” amidst numerous neuron clusters, with the strength and number of connections determining the resilience of the memory.

Research has evidenced that learning new things fosters the creation of new nerve cells, with effective learning strategies enhancing this effect. Exploration and spatial activities have been proven to induce neurogenesis in the hippocampus, an area of the brain vital for memory and learning. For instance, an experiment involving novice taxi drivers learning London’s complex road network exhibited increased neuronal density in the hippocampus. Visualizing neurons’ intricate network in the brain, likening it to New York’s road system, offers a relatable metaphor: Just as multiple roads in New York lead to a notable landmark like the Empire State Building, multiple neural connections manage storage of the same information, safeguarding it against easy erasure from memory.

Can a teacher develop STEM thinking and transfer it to others?

The crux of the answer is:

Repetition is the mother of knowledge!

Not mere mechanical repetition of information until memorized, but engaging the brain from various perspectives to activate similar or identical neural pathways, strengthening connections, and embedding information in memory. In STEM, the same answer is often approached from different angles, utilizing divergent, convergent, and associative thinking. Age becomes irrelevant, while dedication and attitude prevail. Teachers (in this scenario, also learners) derive their own conclusions, increasing those pleasurable “Aha!” moments and enhancing retention. Integrating different disciplines activates various brain areas responsible for distinct functions, forging new connections. Engaging regularly in exercises demanding creative thinking and teamwork enhances proficiency in them, elucidating the mystery behind STEM. Regardless of who you are or your background, scientifically, it is possible to redirect your thought processes as long as you remain dedicated to training them.

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