The project was not exactly going as planned—Carrie Allen had a classroom overrun with fruit flies. Her first graders were studying composting, and they were getting more of an ecology lesson than they’d expected. But at Richfield STEM School, an inquiry-based K–5 school in Richfield, Minnesota, both teachers and students take fruit-fly invasions in stride.
“The kids came up with the idea that we should make traps for the fruit flies,” explains Allen. Students then tested to see which traps worked the best—giving them a chance to incorporate the classic engineering-design process (ask, imagine, plan, create, improve).
“I can’t imagine not teaching like this anymore,” says Allen. “It just opens up so many other possibilities for the kids.”
STEM has been a hot topic lately, as politicians and business leaders worry over the lack of qualified workers in the sciences and engineering. Though much public discussion focuses on higher education and high school curriculum, educators and others are realizing that for students to really get hooked on the sciences, STEM instruction has to start early. That’s where Richfield STEM and other newly minted K–8 programs come into play. Elementary educators need not fear the shift in emphasis. In fact, as generalists, they are uniquely qualified to lead inquiry-based STEM lessons.
Blur the Lines
As the head of the National Center for STEM Elementary Education at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota, Yvonne Ng is used to taking the intimidation factor out of STEM. She has found that one of the main challenges for teachers new to the curriculum is overcoming their discomfort with math, science, and, especially, engineering. The best STEM instruction is open-ended and inquiry-based, but this format, she says, can seem chaotic to elementary teachers.
Monica Foss advises that teachers embrace the chaos. “It’s always messy in here,” says Foss, an engineering specialist at Cedar Park Elementary STEM School in Apple Valley, Minnesota.
Teachers need to let go of the idea that they always have to have the answer, says Foss. “They have to be willing to live with mess and muddiness.”
Good STEM instruction blurs the lines between subject areas. As a consequence, STEM projects can be integrated into lessons in language arts, culture, and history.
In the Richfield district, all students are required to go through a unit on Duke Ellington; the STEM school adds another level, explains Principal Joey Page. After listening to Ellington’s music, students answer questions such as “How does sound work?” or “How did they make that instrument?” Page says the school is hoping to have students take apart one of its decommissioned pianos as part of the unit.
Hilburn Academy, in Raleigh, North Carolina, is in its second year of making the transition from a traditional curriculum to a STEAM school (the A is for arts). Elements of the traditional classroom remain, says Principal Gregory Ford, but the engineering-design process is used for all subjects. For example, guided reading groups may be tasked with coming up with solutions for a problem posed in their informational texts.
The biggest challenge for Ford’s teachers is finding time for open-ended learning. So they, like their students, work in groups to find solutions.
“It requires lots and lots of planning and collaboration with your teammates,” Ford says. “There’s really no existing inventory of these highly integrated STEAM lessons.”
And how does Hilburn Academy define STEAM?
“STEAM is a philosophy of education, not a program,” Ford says. “It is not the ‘what’ of curriculum; it is actually the ‘how.’”
Look Outside the iPad
It takes work to develop a STEM program. But districts don’t have to be flush with cash and expensive digital technology to implement it.
“Pretty much anything around us is technology,” says Richfield’s Allen. “That’s one thing we’re teaching the kids, too: Everything around us was created or engineered to solve a problem.”
Sophisticated STEM projects can be built around a simple tool such as a temperature probe, says David Carter, coauthor of a number of lab manuals, including Elementary Science With Vernier. For example, third graders could set out to create a vessel that keeps water as warm as possible. The science part comes into play as students learn the concept of heat transfer; the engineering side involves designing the best thermos. The temperature sensor itself allows students to record data, track their experiments, and improve their designs.
The motion-sensor project is another favorite of Carter’s. “They get the concept that this graph is telling a story,” he says. “They’re seeing this mathematical concept.” That, he explains, gets to the real advantage of STEM: “It’s easy because kids love it.”
At Dr. Albert Einstein Academy in Elizabeth, New Jersey, technology can be as simple as a doorstop. Teachers often struggled to prop open heavy classroom doors, so they tasked students to design a better way to do it. (One early version was a sand-filled water bottle flattened in the middle. Another version made use of a cork-and-magnet device.) Tracy Espiritu, a science coach at the K–8 STEAM school, says a lot of teachers start with the question: “What is technology?”
The school has three criteria for teaching STEAM (here, the A is for architecture): Projects should be about solving a problem; students must apply the engineering-design process; and technology should be considered a resource, not a subject.
Perhaps the most important lesson they learn along the way: Failure is part of the process.
The key to STEM (or STEAM) education is reinforcing the engineering-design process, says Espiritu, who worked in aerospace engineering before teaching middle school science. “Engineers, they don’t get it right the first time,” she says.
The learning process is a cycle. With each iteration, the design improves, says Espiritu. “Students get frustrated because they want the answer right away. You need that frustration. That’s how you learn.”
It took Allen a while to grasp the necessity of letting her kids fail. You want students to feel good about the experience, she says, but it’s okay for them to feel the discomfort that comes when something is not working.
Students at Minnesota’s Cedar Park Elementary face their first design challenge in kindergarten by building a boat out of clay, says Foss, the engineering specialist. Introducing kids to the engineering process—having them start again and fix the mistakes—at that age is much easier because they haven’t yet developed a fear of failure.
“We definitely need more scientists and engineers,” says Foss, but more than that, “we need a population that understands science and the engineering process.”
“This Is What We Need to Do Today”
STEM is continuing to gain steam, but will it sustain momentum?
Ng has seen increasing demand for her organization’s elementary STEM teacher certification program, which is offered through St. Catherine University, but still, she says, “whether it’s here to stay is a really good question.”
As with any new approach, challenges remain.
Public education needs STEM to remain relevant, says Ford, of Hilburn Academy. And students immediately grasp that relevance. He recalls one second-grade teacher remarking that students used to come into class and ask, “What are we doing today?” Now they say, “This is what we need to do today.”
Start with the basics. You don’t need a cartload of iPads to teach STEM. Begin by looking out your front door. Does your school have a courtyard? Start a garden. Try a “tech take-apart” lesson by disassembling old TVs or VCRs. Students can build bridges out of manila folders or boats out of clay (see above); they can incorporate the engineering-design process (ask, imagine, plan, create, improve) into a variety of art projects.
Reach out to local institutions. Whether there’s a nature center or a tech company next door to your school, your neighbors are the best folks to start with when you’re seeking resources for STEM initiatives. And be sure to cultivate partnerships with local businesses and colleges, too.
See what the state offers. Many state education departments have set up websites with STEM resources. Visit stemconnector.org and click on “State by State” to find links to organizations in your area. The site serves as a clearinghouse of resources offered by corporations, nonprofits, and professional organizations.