By now, we’ve all heard about STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) — and its importance to the U.S. economy. According to the U.S. Department of Education, all STEM jobs in the U.S. will increase 14 percent from 2010-2020, accounting for millions of positions. Yet, data shows that 3 million of those jobs will go unfilled by 2018. One reason for that is not enough students seriously consider a career in STEM. In fact, only 16 percent of American high school seniors are proficient in mathematics and interested in a STEM career.
The good news is that President Obama has made STEM education one of his presidential initiatives:
“One of the things that I’ve been focused on as President is how we create an all-hands-on-deck approach to science, technology, engineering, and math… We need to make this a priority to train an army of new teachers in these subject areas, and to make sure that all of us as a country are lifting up these subjects for the respect that they deserve.” (President Barack Obama – Third Annual White House Science Fair, April 2013)
Elementary school educators need to be generalists, being instructors of all content area topics. But when it comes to STEM, problems arise in that (1) they often don’t feel comfortable teaching STEM related lessons and (2) national tests ask them to focus more on language arts and math (only the “M” of STEM). This article describes why and how STEM should be integrated into the elementary level classrooms.
So exactly what is STEM education and why is it important?
STEM education is active and focuses on a student-centered learning environment. Students engage in questioning, problem solving, collaboration, and hands-on activities while they address real life issues. In STEM education, teachers function as classroom facilitators. They guide students through the problem-solving process and plan projects that lead to mastery of content and STEM proficiency. STEM proficient students are able to answer complex questions, investigate global issues, and develop solutions for challenges and real world problems while applying the rigor of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics content in a seamless fashion. STEM proficient students are logical thinkers, effective communicators and are technologically, scientifically, and mathematically literate (Maryland State STEM Standards of Practice Framework).
Visiting classrooms through the country would indicate a spattering of STEM activities but more specialized science, technology, engineering and math courses are typically not offered until high school. These offerings can be selected or not selected by high school students, but by that time, it may be too late.
STEM education needs to be a priority long before a child reaches high school. Although some students who are introduced to STEM in high school stick with it in college and beyond, for many others high school is simply too late to develop long-term interest in STEM subjects. We have to start even earlier and make sure that the science curriculum in our schools foster interest in STEM. (Fixing the US STEM problem, Bill Nye)
Research documents that by the time students reach fourth grade, a third of boys and girls have lost an interest in science. By eighth grade, almost 50 percent have lost interest or deemed it irrelevant to their education or future plans. At this point in the K–12 system, the STEM pipeline has narrowed to half. That means millions of students have tuned out or lack the confidence to believe they can do science. (STEM Education–It’s Elementary, US News)
As a teacher educator who also teaches gifted education with a STEM focus and maker education during summer camps, I find this research to be both confusing and disappointing.. STEM is naturally engaging and exciting especially for elementary-age learners. In my Kindergarten through 5th grade teaching experience with STEM, I discovered from my observations that elementary students:
- Elementary-age students love hands-on and interactive STEM activities. Kids have a natural interest and curiosity in exploring how things work.
- Given a student-centric instructional setting where students are presented with open-ended STEM problems, the kids easily jump into the activities, work together, and share ideas with one another.
- Elementary-age students express joy in doing the activities. They find them fun!
So both the issues and the solution revolve around getting elementary age learners engaged and interested in STEM early and often:
Starting STEM development in early years at primary school would help to challenge the current belief among schoolchildren that these subjects were difficult and only led down a specific career path such as “being a scientist”, when actually STEM subjects “open up a variety of career options.” (STEM skills should be ‘integrated across the curriculum, Telegraph UK)
Recent research has recommended that every effort should be made to start as soon as children enter elementary school. Studies have identified the elementary years as the period when students form their interests in STEM identities and careers—much earlier than many people probably believe to be the case. This is particularly important for science, which gets short shrift in many elementary schools. (Improving STEM Curriculum and Instruction: Engaging Students and Raising Standards, successfulSTEMeducation.org)
When considering incorporating STEM education into the elementary classroom, best practices should be examined and utilized:
Research in STEM learning over the past two decades has a lot to say about what makes for effective, engaging STEM education. Among the key factors: it capitalizes on students’ early interests and experiences, identifies and builds on what they know, and provides opportunities to engage in the practices of science and mathematics to sustain their interest. In other words, throughout their schooling, students should learn to investigate questions about the world that they come across in daily life, in much the same way that scientists and mathematicians do. (Improving STEM Curriculum and Instruction: Engaging Students and Raising Standards, successfulSTEMeducatgion.org)
Simple, easily doable actions can be taken to integrate STEM activities into the elementary education classroom.
Make STEM experiential, fun, and engaging.
Too many teachers have been taught, both as students and in their teaching training, that science and math should be taught out of a book. Explode some Mentos, make some elephant toothpastes, make and test cardboard roller coasters; and the result is kids and young people (and their teachers) who are excited about STEM.
Improvement in STEM education will require educators and students to think more critically and analytically while truly engaged in experiential learning activities. Teachers must let go of the conventional style of teaching. Students can’t afford to sit and do worksheets all day. Students in STEM disciplines need to be able to approach problems hands-on with finding solutions in mind. (Improvement of STEM Education: Experiential Learning is the Key, E-Science Central)
To help make STEM more hands-on, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), developed by the National Research Council (NRC) and the National Science Teachers Association (NTSA), recommend making exploration and experimentation an integral part of science education, not just learning about it from a textbook or a lecture. (Fixing the US STEM problem, Bill Nye)
Focus STEM activities on real-life issues and problems.
STEM, in the real world as practiced by professionals, is about examining, exploring, and solving real life problems. As such, it should follow that this should be the focus when teaching STEM.
In America, we must make core subjects like math and science relevant for students, and at the same time, foster creativity, curiosity and a passion for problem solving. That’s what STEM education does. STEM is about using math and science to solve real-world challenges and problems. This applied, project-based way of teaching and learning allows students to understand and appreciate the relevancy of their work to their own lives and the world around them. Once they grasp core concepts, students are able to choose a problem and use their own creativity and curiosity to research, design, test and improve a viable solution. (We Have to Get Serious About Creativity and Problem Solving, Huffington Post)
Scientists and engineers get to do some pretty cool things. They challenge their brains to solve problems. They develop hands-on projects to make new discoveries. They can change the world within the four walls of their labs. So why not give students the chance to do so too? (Students Solve Real-World Problems Using STEM Skills)
Approach STEM through multiple paths of engagement.
STEM isn’t only about doing science experiments or solving mathematical problems. It is also about constructing a roller coaster, marble run, or Rube Goldberg machine. It is also figuring out new cooking recipes, designing furniture or clothing. Interest and engagement in STEM can be increased if educators offer STEM activities based on students interests.
The National Research Council’s Framework for K–12 Science Education makes student engagement the top priority. Educators increasingly recognize the challenge of ensuring that instruction not only covers the most important math and science content, but does so in a way that can entice even bored or distracted students. Research in STEM learning over the past two decades has a lot to say about what makes for effective, engaging STEM education. Among the key factors: it capitalizes on students’ early interests and experiences, identifies and builds on what they know, and provides opportunities to engage in the practices of science and mathematics to sustain their interest. (Improving STEM Curriculum and Instruction: Engaging Students and Raising Standards, successfulSTEMeducation.org)
Include STEM activities across the curriculum.
Elementary teachers are in the unique position of being with their learners most of the day. This enables them to integrate cross-curricular learning activities. This also supports the Next Generation Science Standards and the Common Core State Standards, which emphasize science and engineering practices as well as reading and writing comprehension and skills through engagement with content.
So much would be gained if all teachers—art, music, reading, social studies, math and science—were able to spend some of their precious professional development time on STEM. The principles of STEM—critical thinking, asking good questions, observation and exploration—are truly at the heart of every discipline. . School-wide STEM learning would enable teachers to work together to create unified curricular units that weave STEM concepts into every subject in a meaningful way. (STEM: It’s Elementary!, We are Teachers)
Jump Into the Maker Movement
The Do-It-Yourself Movement, 3D Printing initiatives, Maker Faires, and cardboard challenges are becoming more and more commonplace in communities across the United States. These initiatives are making it more popular and cool to do STEM. Educators can leverage the resources, ideas, and motivation surrounding the maker movement to get learners excited about STEM.
So, what’s The Maker Movement all about? Put simply, it’s a global technological and creative revolution that emphasizes active learning. It involves people of all ages and backgrounds making customized creations sans manufacturers, often using modern technology and collaboration. For students, it’s using their heads and hands to find and build solutions, collaborate, have fun and stay interested in STEM. (Maker’s Mark – How “Making” Is Influencing STEM Education, Smith System)
At a time when many people are asking how we can get more students interested in STEM fields, we are hearing from teachers who have found making to be a great way to get students excited and engaged in their classrooms. Students working on designing and building furniture for their classroom use algebra and geometry to figure out the dimensions. E-textiles and soft circuitry, in which circuits are sewn using conductive thread or fabric, have shown to be an engaging way to teach electronics and programming, especially for young women. The possibilities for ways to incorporate making into the school day are endless, and it is exciting to see what teachers have been developing and sharing. (Engaging Students in the STEM Classroom Through “Making, Edutopia)
Consider gender differences.
Connecting STEM and girls presents a unique challenge because even at a young age, girls are socialized on what it means to be a girl. Being a scientist, getting dirty, working with technology, and taking things apart are too often associated with boys. As such, STEM education needs to address the special needs of girls and show them they can enjoy STEM activities; that they is a place for unique for them in the world of STEM.
Women remain underrepresented in the science and engineering workforce, although to a lesser degree than in the past, with the greatest disparities occurring in engineering, computer science, and the physical sciences (NSF, Science & Engineering Indicators, 2014).
Girls want to make a difference, so give them hands-on, real-world problem-solving activities to show STEM is relevant and fun. Expose girls to the different areas of STEM and provide women mentors for girls and young women, so they, in turn, will mentor other girls. “It’s not just about developing “nerdy” stuff it’s about turning technology into fashionable and user-friendly smart solutions.
Role models are incredibly important, both to girls and to women, and we need to show girls just how exciting, fulfilling and enjoyable a career in STEM can be. We must prove that there is a path for them to tread by telling the stories, past and present, of the women who’ve built, invented, discovered and explained the world around us, but who so often go unmentioned. (Ask the experts: How do we get girls into STEM?, CNN)
Offer extracurricular activities such as competitions, science fairs, hackathons.
One way to motivate students and cultivate student interest in STEM subjects, particularly among underrepresented groups, is to offer various extracurricular activities to students. Such activities may include summer programs, after school enrichment activities, robotics competitions, science fairs or Olympiads, and other competitions. (Student Attitudes toward STEM: The Development of Upper Elementary. School and Middle/High School Student Surveys.)
Bring real world STEM professionals into the classroom.
Young learners can benefit from hearing and seeing what professionals in STEM actually do in the real world. This also will show them that the stereotypes of the scientist, engineer or mathematician being a white male nerd is not true.
New science teaching standards, such as the Next Generation Science Standards, value understanding the practice of science over rote memorization of facts and figures. However, most science teachers have never worked as scientists, and collaborating science professionals can share insights into the science practices that are a major component of the new standards. [These partnerships] can bring STEM subjects to life for students and help teachers and students learn about STEM in the workplace. (AAAS National STEM Volunteer Program Puts Scientists in K-12 Classrooms)
This can occur through contacting local business and universities as well as connecting with STEM professionals through social media such a Twitter and Skype.
Encourage parents to engage in making and STEM activities with their sons and daughters.
Parents can be invited in as volunteers to help with STEM activities. Not only will the teachers get some extra help with the hands on STEM activities, the parents will become engaged in the activities themselves as well as see the benefits of STEM in action.
If parents can’t participate directly with the learning activities in the classroom, technology can be used to help them share STEM connections with their children. A website could be set up where pictures, videos, and resources could be used. Emails or a school-based messaging systems such as Remind or Celly could be used to send photos and resources directly to students’ parents.
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Latest posts by Dr. Jackie Gerstein (see all)
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