STEM/STEAM: Not Just for High School

These critical subjects need to start much sooner

by Barbara R. Blackburn

Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM)

Recently, there has been a push in education to integrate science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Many high schools even have STEM academies. But it’s important to remember that incorporating these areas can happen at all grade levels, not just high school.  

For example, in preschool and kindergarten, teachers combine snack time with a lesson on simple machines. Using an apple corer, the teacher cuts the apple. First, teachers can discuss the properties of the apple including the color inside and outside. Students can count the seeds, notice the stem, and then the teacher can share a book about how apples grow.

Next, the teacher can lead a discussion as to how the apple corer works, including the amount of pressure they must exert to cut through the apple. The teacher can ask what other tools are used to cut apples and can then explain that corers and knives are examples of wedges, one of the six simple machines.

Then, you can integrate math by asking, “How many pieces of apple are there? Is that enough for everyone at the table to have one piece? How many apples would we need to cut to allow everyone to have two pieces? You can also discuss the shapes of the pieces and introduce the idea of fractional parts of the whole apple.

Anne Jolley, in her blog on Middleweb, shares topics for middle school that can easily teach all areas of STEM. They are particularly motivating to students, because of their real-life connections.

Possible STEM Problems

  •  Oil spills
  •  Water pollution
  • Endangered species
  • Invention of a Band Instrument
  • Invention of an Electric Gamebox
  • Invention of a Confetti Launcher

Finally, a great idea for secondary classrooms is for students to create paper rockets. As NASA explains, “Few classroom topics generate as much excitement as rockets. The scientific, technological, engineering and mathematical foundations of rocketry provide exciting classroom opportunities for authentic hands-on, minds-on experimentation.”  On their website, NASA provides a full lesson plan, including information on the history of rockets, how rockets work, and how to create a rocket race.  

Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (STEAM)

A popular adaption of STEM is STEAM, which incorporates arts into the science, technology, engineering, and math curriculum.  Proponents remind us that the arts can improve learning by enhancing the growth of cognitive, emotional, and psychomotor pathways in the brain. Inez Liftig believes combining science and the arts “also lets students see how both of these have been and still are quests to examine and explain the world around us… Students see that curiosity, creativity, imagination, and attention to detail are traits common to artists/writers and scientists.”

Let’s go back to the concept of the apple corer and simple machines we explored in the STEM section, and look at how the arts can be integrated. In kindergarten through fourth grade, students can look at pictures of simple machines and draw them, explaining what they think each part does. In grades five-eight, students can look at, analyze and discuss Leonardo da Vinci's inventions, asking if they work, how they work, and why. They may choose one of his machines and copy it. Using their skills of observation, students can identify the parts that make the machine work and apply the appropriate scientific principles to explain how.

In high school, after viewing images of Rube Goldberg machines, students can design and build their own simplified machines. Then, they create an accompanying display, report, or presentation explaining the scientific applications of how the machine works.

Another way to incorporate the arts into any STEM lesson is through the use of a tableau, which is the creation of a living depiction of a topic. In small groups, students work together to decide how to best represent the concept as a tableau. They must focus not just on representing the concept but also pay attention to their poses, facial expressions, and gestures. Movement, dialogue, sound effects, and music are also allowed. As an added feature, one student can assume the role of reporter and interview members of the scene.  

Soap Box Derby as a Project Example

A great STEM/STEAM example that is particularly engaging to students is a Soap Box Derby. You may remember these from your childhood or your own children may have participated in one, but today’s activities can be directed toward STEM and STEAM. For example, students are able to learn about friction and force of motion for science, they can use technology for design and simulations, engineering incorporates design, building, and testing the stock car, the design elements are enhanced through art skills, and math concepts such as measurement and speed are valuable.  

One interesting concept is the idea that students who “think” in 3D perform better in math and science in later years.  For primary and elementary teachers, giving students the opportunity to use basic engineering skills to build simple cars out of existing materials will prepare them for later, more complex work.

What I particularly like is that activities for a soap box derby also incorporate social-emotional learning skills such as responsible decision-making, self-management and relationship skills, which are also necessary career skills.  

(Resource Tip)

Soap Box Derby has created curriculum materials (for a fee) that incorporate activities for STEM and STEAM. They also provide free videos and plans for building stock cars.

Conclusion

In order to truly prepare students for life after high school, we must teach connections among science, technology, engineering, math, and if possible, art.  However, it is too late if we wait until high school to focus on these areas.  Using practical strategies and hands-on learning will excite students of all ages, and increase their interest in STEM and STEAM.

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