3 Tips for Integrating STEM Learning Experiences in the Elementary Classroom

By Anne Jolly

 

Kids spring into the world STEM-ready. From birth, they are problem-solvers trying to make sense of the world around them. They’re fascinated with building things—and with taking things apart to see how they work. They constantly discover and explore. It’s fun!

Imagine those children entering school – bringing with them that wonderful sense of curiosity and inquisitiveness. What an opportunity for teachers – the adults who are in the ideal position to sustain and build on this love of learning. What’s the best way to do this? The solution is to immerse your students in STEM – a student-centered learning approach that naturally leads them into exploring and engineering solutions for real problems.

Elementary STEM opens up new worlds for kids and makes learning more fun at the same time it provides deeper learning. Offering STEM-style learning experiences in the early grades also builds a foundation that will energize STEM education throughout the K-12 school experience (which is why you’re reading this post from a middle grades blogger!).

Sound daunting? In a recent blog post, teacher Chelle Hendershot suggests you start simple – perhaps by changing the kinds of questions you ask your students. Add words like design, experiment, and model to your classroom vocabulary. Ask yourself which lessons can be presented as a problem or question. Think about ways you might be able to group your science, math, social studies, and reading blocks into a bundle that revolves around a problem that kids can research and solve.

But before you start planning STEM lessons, consider three important cautions.

  1. Elementary kids should experience Integrated STEM. That may bring up two questions for you: (1) What is integrated STEM? (2) How is this different from the way I’m teaching science and math now?

Stop now and watch this simple, 4-minute video: STEM Integration in K-12 Education – it’s a Fast-Draw whiteboard video (the animated kind) from the National Academy of Sciences. This gives a clear, concise overview of what we mean by integrated STEM and what it might look like in your classroom. After you watch it, answer this question: What is integrated STEM?

What an advantage you have as an elementary teacher in teaching integrated STEM! For starters, you may get to teach all (or many) subject areas to the same kids all day. That creates the power and opportunity to integrate subjects and to tighten the connections between science, technology, and mathematics for your lucky students.

 

  1. You should know some basic STEM guidelines.  Read over the guidelines below. If you have a word processing program at hand, you may want to copy and paste the headings for each guideline into a document. Later you can turn them into a checklist to help you keep track of which guidelines each lesson meets. You can plan to address those that are unmet in other lessons. Keep in mind that every STEM lesson you teach should meet several of these guidelines. Over time, your lessons should cover all of the guidelines. However, it’s okay if you don’t cover all of these guidelines in the same lesson.

Guidelines for STEM lessons:

  • The lesson focuses on a real and compelling problem/engineering challenge. Kids are interested in and relate to the problem. Real problems abound – environmental issues, health problems, safety concerns, problems that kids come up with, etc. One of my favorite sites for problem-solving ideas is PBS’s Design Squad. Checkout the activities and lesson plans sections.
  • The lesson uses an engineering design process as the approach for solving problems. I recommend you use the engineering design process shown from the Engineering is Elementary site. Each step is clearly explained. Bonus! This website also has some STEM (a.k.a. engineering) lessons you can use. There’s plenty of free curriculum for you that’s well-developed and on target. (For example, click on “Our Products” in the red bar and then click on “Engineering Adventures.”)
  • The lesson uses problem-based learning (PBL) teaching methods. It also allows for different acceptable and creative solutions to the problem. No cookie-cutter approaches for STEM. Let kids figure it out, with enough guidance from you to keep them on track, but avoid telling them how to solve the problem.  Each team of kids might even wind up developing a different solution for the problem.
  • The lesson involves students in integrating and applying meaningful math and science content. What they are learning in class has a real purpose, and subjects are not really “separate.”
  • The lesson leads students to design and create a technology or model of a possible solution for the problem. This goes beyond pencil and paper solutions and involves kids in constructing, testing, and evaluating their products. You may want to checkout Defined STEM’s online library of hands-on lessons that ask students to solve a real-world problem by designing and creating a product.
  • The lesson gives students opportunities to fail with no risk attached. Elementary kids need to feel “safe” when their STEM prototypes don’t work. Notice I said WHEN they don’t work, and not IF they don’t work. When engineers design prototypes, they often don’t expect that they will work the first time. They expect to learn from what doesn’t work, then go back and redesign. The same is true of your students.
  • The lesson is adaptable and accessible to all children. All children have a role to play in designing solutions for challenges.
  • The lesson successfully engages students in purposeful teamwork. You may want to download this Student Teaming Tips guide and apply anything that seems to be of value for your students.
  • The lesson involves students appropriately communicating their design and results.

Which of these do you need/want more information about? I have some previous posts on STEM lessons herehere, and here. Keep in mind that while those posts are aimed at middle-level teachers, they contain some solid, relevant information for you as well.

 

  1. Watch this video – The Engineering Design Process in Action! It clearly demonstrates how to use the engineering design process and explains how to lead STEM lessons. You’ll see elementary STEM lessons in action. This may well be one of the best resources you’ll locate. View it with paper and pencil in hand.

You can find free STEM lesson ideas on the internet (here’s one site to explore). Be sure to check lessons you select against the criteria I’ve shared here. And congratulations on being willing to learn, plan and conduct STEM lessons with your students. You are fostering a lifelong love of learning.

 

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