STEM in the Elementary Classroom

Category: Ideas

Get lesson ideas and strategies for successful STEM project implementation with elementary school students.

Important challenges face us as educators. How can we meet the exponentially growing needs of a global society? What can you do as a teacher to inspire your young students to seek innovative solutions to complex problems? How can you blend the innate curiosity and creativity of elementary students with math and science curriculum? The exciting possibilities lie with STEM, a synergistic combination of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Why STEM?

In the United States, a growing concern about the loss of economic prowess and competitive innovation is sounding alarm bells throughout education. The need to develop stimulating programs that integrate real-world problem solving and 21st century skills is vital to the country's prosperity.

To answer this unease, a national call to action has been sounded to improve student performance in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. President Obama launched "Educate to Innovate" in 2009; a campaign designed to increase student performance in STEM-related curriculum. Companies, universities and professional societies are all working together to help educators develop and implement STEM curricula. In addition, the Engineering Education for Innovation Economy Act was introduced into the Senate in 2010 to advance instruction in science and technology.

Why STEM in elementary grades?

Elementary education is uniquely positioned for successful STEM integration. Many times, curriculum exists in isolation, often referred to as "silos," with no cross-pollination of lessons. STEM breaks down these barriers; however, complex class schedules in middle and high school pose an ongoing challenge. In elementary school, classes can be self-contained or partially departmentalized, making STEM integration much easier to schedule. Even fully departmentalized elementary teams work very closely together and can alter their timetable to meet the needs of STEM integration.

In addition to managing scheduling concerns, elementary school is the perfect time to capitalize on young students' sense of wonder, willingness to explore and enthusiasm to create. STEM education, which fosters a rich, project-based learning environment, is right at home in the multi-sensory learning atmosphere of elementary school.

Where do you start?

One of the best ways to start implementing STEM is to examine and tweak your existing lessons. Let's take a look at a few examples.

Growing seeds

In elementary classrooms all across the world, students plant seeds in cups and place them by the classroom window. With a few minor modifications, you can modify this delightful lesson into a STEM curriculum.

Start with numerous planting supplies placed in a "planting center" (covered classroom table)—some with obvious uses, others without. Throw in some supplies that make no sense at all. For example, have separate containers with potting soil, sand, rocks and marbles. Include different types of cups: plastic, Styrofoam and even an egg carton. To water the seeds, have water, sports drink or any other odd liquids. Now throw in anything else you can scrounge up such as mulch, dry leaves, chocolate candy, coffee, popcorn and even fish-shaped crackers. Of course, don't forget the seeds!

Now pose a problem to the students. "Our town is in need of food. We need you and some friends to grow beans as fast as possible. On the table are all the supplies we have. Work with your group to design the best way to plant, fertilize and water your seed so the town can eat soon!"

You can start to see the difference in a STEM-infused lesson. Instead of, "Put soil in cup, poke a seed in and water it," you are posing a problem and letting your students come up with a solution. In this example, have the students draw a diagram of their perfect growing solution and explain why they think it will work. Use technology to explore how seeds grow. Watch videos and explore horticultural websites. Use engineering language such as, "What will happen when I do this or change that?"

Now for the fun (and messy) part. Let students design and implement their own solutions. If a team plants their seeds in jelly beans and waters them with a soft drink, so be it. Integrate math by measuring volume of ingredients. Students should take additional measurements, such as temperature and light (cloudy day or sunny day), daily. Make sure you document seed growth with a digital camera and post pictures for all to enjoy. At the end of the project, have each group explain why they achieved their results. Ask them what planting methods they think would have worked better.

Give this a try this year and make sure you include some memorable, odd-ball ingredients!

Angry Birds

Tap into the Angry Birds craze and integrate STEM at the same time. This will be a fun opportunity to explore machines as well as angles and mass. In this project, task your students to move objects (i.e., marshmallows, popcorn, etc.) over a fence of given height and into a container (any sort of bowl). You can modify this project to actually knock down structures, such as a house of dominos.

Remember when you're flinging objects through the air with enough mass to knock down a structure, you need to create a carefully controlled environment!

Of course, you need to start by playing Angry Birds, and preferably, on a classroom projector. If you have the Chrome browser, you can play at http://chrome.angrybirds.com/. Besides the fun, ask your students to make observations such as trajectory, size of the projectile and how far back you pull the sling shot.

Now pose a problem. For example, "Someone has built a wall around our city and we can't get supplies. Design anything to get supplies over the fence and into the supply bucket." Offer the students a table full of supplies such as Popsicle sticks, rubber bands, straws, paper, cloth, tape, foil and anything else you can find. Use popcorn and marshmallows for "supplies."

The interesting thing is most groups will try to make some sort of slingshot contraption because that's what they know from the game. This is a great engineering moment to discuss other options such as a long arm that simply deposits the supplies in the bowl.

Make sure students also take measurements along the way and make predictions. For example, "The popcorn is lighter than the marshmallow. What do you think will happen?"

You will definitely have marshmallows and popcorn flying all over your room but this project will be memorable for your students.

More lesson ideas

Take a few minutes to brainstorm projects for your students. Will you create musical instruments, bake cookies or construct a volcano? Will you explore how seeds travel on the wind? Is a unit on properties of light in your curriculum? To move these and other topics towards STEM education, pose open-ended questions, give the students plenty of options and let them struggle with a solution.

STEM resources

Where can you learn more? Check out these additional resources.

  • eGFI: This is an excellent resource for engineering lessons and ideas. The website has a beautiful design that lets students explore engineering-related occupations. Teachers can find engaging lessons grouped by grade level.
  • PhET: Incredible, free, interactive simulations from the University of Colorado. This is a great way for students to explore, "What happens when I change this?" Teacher-created resources are also available.
  • Catch the Science Bug: This site is loaded with fun STEM projects. Go to the Science Files area and explore!
  • Nasa Talk: All about STEM and features lots of great content. Articles, images and cool videos are all included.
  • HP Catalyst Initiative: HP's network of leading educators, education institutions, and key stakeholders in selected countries to explore innovative approaches to STEM education.
  • Project Lead the Way: Provides comprehensive curriculum around STEM.

Conclusion

If you are new to STEM, remember that you don't have to totally change your curriculum. Start by transforming one of your existing projects into a project-based, STEM-infused learning environment and let your students' creativity soar!

For more classroom resources and content, please explore this site further.




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