STEM education benefits students of all ages. Students as young as kindergarten can begin reaping the positives just as easily as those in high school. This is because STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math — education does more than teach specific school subjects.
STEM encourages students to solve problems. It hones critical thinking skills and helps students learn to navigate the complexities of group work.
All of these skills come together and, over the course of their early academic career, give students a foundation in the tools they’ll need to succeed as professionals. This is true for those that go on to work in scientific and technological fields as well as those that end up in marketing or operations management.
With the universal importance of STEM education, it’s necessary to note that how it is approached in the classroom should vary by grade. Different strategies for STEM integration at the right time will ensure that students get the most out of STEM programs and that teachers are adequately equipped to manage the curriculum.
The six tenets of STEM education
Before drilling down to grade-level STEM programs, it's important to review the six key tenets of STEM education. These are the same no matter the age of students or their grade.
- Inclusion of math and science
- Student-centered pedagogy
- Engaging and motivating lessons
- Inclusion of engineering design or a redesign challenge
- Emphasis on teamwork
- Emphasis on the importance for students to learn from their mistakes
Elementary-level Stem: grades K-5
STEM is perfect at this level of education because it allows students to tap into their natural curiosity. Paired with an inquiry-based approach, students can learn and explore simultaneously and conduct real, hands-on investigations.
Specific topic coverage at this level isn’t as important as engaging students in activities that build foundational knowledge and help them learn how to effectively problem solve.
In the later part of elementary school, tying STEM into more complex activities like structure building or technology development can work, but early on, offering projects that use basic math and reading skills will work just fine.
A great way to engage young students with STEM is to connect it to real life. Students can look at the information they’re able to see every day and solve a problem or learn how to use data to make a prediction.
Skills like these are applicable in activities that deal with the weather, government, and even space exploration.
Projects like designing a self-heating oven that can melt a popsicle or creating an environment that minimizes erosion when hit by a “wave” of water can both spark creativity while requiring critical thinking and problem-solving.
AN ELEMENTARY EDUCATOR'S ROLE IN STEM
When it comes to STEM integration at the elementary school level, there are two primary options for teachers.
One is for the school to create a specialist position focusing on STEM education.
This could be someone who works with the classroom teachers to create activities in conjunction with the regular curriculum. They could also work with other specialists, like a science lab teacher or technology lab teacher, to ensure the STEM tenets are being implemented there as well.
Another option is for the teachers themselves to come together and update the curriculum to include STEM.
An ideal way to do this is to have all teachers within each grade collaborate and make universal changes to the curriculum. Online research for project ideas can help support this process, and then the teachers can work with parents and school volunteer organizations to collect supplies.
Some schools even maintain a STEM supply room with everything from Legos to empty paper towel cardboard tubes. This enables teachers to have whatever they need on hand for STEM programs.
MIDDLE SCHOOL-level stem: grades 6-8
As students transition to middle school, STEM education gets more specialized.
Having separate teachers for each subject can make it more challenging to integrate STEM across all classes. However, focused learning time in each subject happens every day, so ultimately, students may get more science, math, and technology exposure than they did in elementary school.
For educators, STEM programs allow them to provide opportunities and support for students to reach their potential academically and develop long-term skills that will continue to serve them in their professional lives.
It’s also an opportunity to nurture a student-led problem-solving process. Taking an instructional step back, your role here is about guidance.
Again, real-world scenarios and problem-solving are two major components of middle school STEM education. Giving students real-world challenges to solve in the STEM disciplines helps connect them to those subjects.
Creating experiences where students can pause, evaluate, and course correct as they problem-solve takes their discipline-specific learning to another level.
High School-Level STEM: Grades 9-12
Reaching high school, where students have received a lot of subject-based knowledge already, it’s a perfect time to focus on the connections between the STEM disciplines.
Allowing students to understand how engineering and math can work together to solve real-world issues or how technology and formulaic thinking can help solve problems outside of STEM altogether.
Bringing these disciplines to life in a cohesive way, now that students have that foundational knowledge, will yield even more robust results.
STEM projects at this level should focus on the revision process. Through this process, students will develop perseverance– a critical skill required as they move on to higher learning.
Less teacher input may be necessary, but it’s still essential that you provide guidance. Challenge students to look at problems from every angle and to go back and see what they’ve missed.
This is the time to learn how to go back and put in more work when you don’t get the correct answer at first.
The continuity of STEM programs
Even as they happen at different schools, the basic tenets of STEM education provide a level of continuity for students.
This allows for a proper build-up of skills that will take them through their entire educational career, paving the way for professional success. It’s a way to provide students with soft and hard skills that will truly give them a superior education.