Tips for helping students understand STEM and how it connects to all subjects and careers.
By Kelsey Bednar
The STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) initiative has been gaining traction in the global workforce and classrooms for the past 10 years. The world “STEM” means different things to different people, but more and more educators agree that it is more than just teaching science, technology, engineering, and math content. STEM teaching and learning involves real-world problem solving using technical knowledge and skills from all subjects – including the arts and social sciences.
Most educators recognize this, but many students still don’t see how reading/writing, arts, and social studies are used in STEM careers. Many think that if they are passionate about fashion design, music, or art, they don’t need to focus on STEM subjects or aren’t candidates for STEM jobs. They don’t know that creative directors from major fashion labels are experimenting with smart fabrics and 3D printing of clothing. They may not have heard of professionals like David Cope, a musicology professor who writes computer programs capable of producing symphonies and operas. And they might realize their passion for drawing can translate into a career in augmented reality. Teachers are working hard every day to break these misconceptions related to STEM, but it is an ongoing challenge.
So how can teachers help their students better understand STEM and the role it can play in their future?
The answer is by focusing on STREAMS in the classroom.
STREAMS is a widely-used acronym that stands for Science, Technology, Reading/Writing, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics, and Social Sciences. It’s a curricular focus that can be used in the classroom to help students understand how: A.) learning across subject areas ties together and, B.) how learning in all areas can be applied to a variety of STEM fields and potential careers.
If you peered into a K- 8 classroom with a STREAMS focus, you would see students engaging in the work of STEM professionals in a way that incorporates content knowledge from all areas. This includes- as you may have guessed- the arts and humanities. To achieve this integrated focus, many teachers are using cross-curricular projects that drive student learning while still addressing important standards and learning outcomes.
For example, let’s imagine middle school students were asked to design a prosthetic limb for an adult. This would be a fantastic STEM project! Throughout the engineering design process students would be required to apply their understanding of materials science, forces and motion, geometry, measurement, and proportionality, to name a few. And while this project might really engage some students, it might not garner the same excitement from all.
With some modifications, this same experience could be repurposed as a STREAMS project. In addition to designing the limb, students could interview an amputee and write about the ways in which a new prosthesis increases the quality of life for its wearers. Students could also be asked to design sleek, appealing footwear that clients could use in conjunction with the new prosthetic. Or, students might be asked to complete a geographic analysis to determine areas in the world where prosthetics are in highest demand and why to learn about the environments in which the prosthesis they create will have to function.
With each of these additional project dimensions, students can see how writing, art and design, and geography are connected to the prosthetics industry. And this might be just what students need to pique their interest in a field they had not previously considered.
The more STREAMS experiences students have in grades K-8, the better they are able to see that STEM is more than just “STEM” content – it is also a way of thinking that requires students to use multiple disciplines to solve problems in the real world. Each STREAMS project or activity that teachers can engage their students with has the potential to expose them to more STEM and STEM-related careers. It also has the added benefit of helping students cultivate an understanding of the wide variety of knowledge needed to be successful in 21st-century jobs.