You too can create a STEM classroom where students are actively engaged in collaborating to solve problems using creativity and critical thinking.
The STEM Subjects
As many readers already know, STEM is an acronym for the four subject areas Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Most of us are familiar with science and math since these have been part of school forever. Engineering was once a highly specialized field studied only by a handful of the most dedicated and gifted students. In recent years, this subject has become an increasingly popular topic taught to a broader and more diverse group of students, including very young children. Most classrooms nowadays incorporate technology as part of the learning process. However, technology as a separate subject is becoming increasingly widespread. Students are learning not only how to use technology effectively, but also to design and build devices and how to write computer code.
Breaking Down the Walls: How to Integrate STEM
STEM education is more than just a collection of four separate disciplines. One of the most critical features of the STEM education revolution is the notion that all four of these subjects should be seamlessly integrated. Students in an authentic STEM classroom should be like professionals working in STEM fields, using appropriate skills to solve problems by applying scientific concepts, mathematical thinking, engineering design processes, and technology as the situation requires.
This breaking down of walls can, of course, apply not just to STEM but to all subjects. Skilled and creative teachers have always found ways to integrate math into language arts or social studies, or to find science content in language arts and history. And of course, students have to use language arts (reading and writing) in all the other subject areas. With that in mind, it is easy to begin to see how the next step is to find ways to integrate STEM in every classroom.
STEM as a State of Mind
Many benefits of STEM education don’t come from a mastery of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, but from the habits of mind that students gain; universally applicable “soft skills” such as creativity, problem-solving, communication, collaboration, grit, and a growth mindset. Because these same habits of mind can be fostered in any classroom, any teacher can help students prepare for and succeed in STEM, even if you never actually teach the STEM subjects.
4 Tips to Create a STEM Learning Environment
Maybe you’re a teacher newly assigned to a STEM classroom. Perhaps you teach a non-STEM subject in a school with a STEM focus and want to support the cause. Maybe you aren’t “officially” part of a STEM team, but you want to give your students the benefits that you know come with STEM integration. No matter your situation, there are some ways you can create a STEM learning environment in your classroom.
- Acknowledge Your Successes: One of the best ways to start is to take stock of your classroom to see what you already do to create a STEM environment. Review the list below. How many of these are part of your classroom already? Starting something new can seem daunting, but realizing you’re partway there can make it easier to do even more.
- Any Integration is Good Integration: Getting students to recognize that there are no rigid boundaries between subject areas is a big deal. Seamless integration of STEM starts with kids getting used to using whatever skills and knowledge they need to solve problems, no matter which class the schedule says they’re in. Finding ways to integrate the subjects is an excellent first step.
- From Practice to Projects: There has been a lot of buzz over the past few years around PBL. This can either refer to Project-Based Learning or Problem-Based Learning, with some insisting that the distinction between the two is vitally important. In any case, few teachers are ready to go full PBL. (If you are, check out the Buck Institute.) An easy first step, though, is shifting the focus of a lesson from practicing a skill to applying that skill to solve a problem. When you and your students are more comfortable, you can start to design more extensive projects that allow students to apply multiple skills to find solutions.
- Foster STEM Habits of Mind: As discussed above, STEM is more than subjects; it’s also an approach to teaching and learning. The habits of mind that are a product of STEM education are helpful in all subject areas and in the real world. The natural corollary is that those habits of mind can be developed in any setting. What follows is a list of tips for fostering the STEM mindset.
- Independence: The skilled STEM learner can make informed choices. This requires student autonomy. This can include giving students options for what resources and tools to use, the sequence in which they complete tasks, or how to present their learning. Making choices is a skill that must be practiced.
- Creative Problem Solving: If we want students to be able to solve problems, we have to give them meaningful problems to solve. The best problems are those that provide a meaningful real-world context for applying the target knowledge or skill. Bonus points for coming up with problems that have multiple solutions.
- Collaboration: The ability to work with others is not just a critical STEM skill; it’s an important life skill. Despite the fact that humans are social creatures, collaboration does not come naturally to all students. That’s why group work is an integral part of a STEM classroom. This means more than just having students sit at the same table. It means thoughtful preparation of lessons that require students to share responsibility. Often it takes explicit instruction on how to work in groups.
- Self Evaluation & Reflection: The ability to reflect on one’s thinking, understanding, and work is another essential life skill that is also an important part of STEM education. Reflection appears as part of the Engineering Design Process (EDP) when you test what you’ve built to evaluate how well it provides the solution you were looking for. Reflection can be part of any classroom when students are encouraged to think about what they have learned and to share their thinking. This might be in a student journal, a class discussion, or a think-pair-share.
- Communication: One of the most important skills for those working in STEM, and for students in a STEM learning environment, is communicating effectively. This skill is essential to working on a team as well as sharing the ideas and products of STEM with the broader community. A classroom fosters this skill when students have opportunities to communicate with peers, with the teacher, and with others in both spoken and written formats. Appropriate activities include classroom presentations as well as essays and lab reports. Don’t forget to include non-verbal communication as well. Students should also have the chance to learn to communicate through drawings, diagrams, charts, etc.
- Grit: As teachers, we often despair that students are too quick to give up when they can’t easily find a solution to a difficult problem. At the same time, we are in the habit of providing the answer when we see students struggling. We naturally want to “help”, and often feel, because of time constraints, we need to move things along. However, if we want students to be persistent in working to find solutions, to show grit, we have to allow for productive struggle. This can be as simple as redirecting a student who asks for help. Rather than providing the answer, try asking guiding questions such as, “What have you tried so far?”, “What else could you try?”, or “How does this problem look like other problems you can solve?”
Join the Community of STEM Learners
The tips provided above are a good start, but there’s plenty more you can do. If you’ve decided to become a STEM teacher, the good news is that there is a well-established STEM education community in place and several ways to connect with them and learn from them.
You can find plenty of STEM education experts and enthusiasts on social media. A few of my Twitter favorites are Chris Woods of Daily Stem, a STEM teacher and podcast host (@dailystem), STEM Education, a general source for science, technology, engineering, and math education (@STEMeduc), The Bug Chicks, entomologists who use arthropods to inspire students (@TheBugChicks #BUGDORK), and, of course, STEMscopes (@STEMscopes). YouTube has many channels to choose from if you’re looking for STEM education content. There are also podcasts, websites, and news feeds, as well as old-school resources such as books and journals. You can find something that suits your interests and level of expertise. Just remember, anyone can be a STEM teacher.