How to Teach STEM Activities in Elementary Classrooms

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If you haven’t incorporated STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curriculum into your teaching yet, now’s the time to learn how it can have a place in your classroom. Resources abound for you as an educator, and when students learn about STEM topics early in their educational journey, they’re better prepared to explore the careers of their dreams. Astronaut, zoologist, inventor, and many other childhood dream jobs all fall under the STEM label.

You’re not alone if you’re unsure how to best teach your students STEM skills. Elementary teachers in particular are less likely to feel knowledgeable about how to promote STEM in class.[2] But once you have a few ideas on how to add it to your classroom, you can help your students not only understand STEM subjects but develop a love for them, too.

Ready to learn all about STEM and how it can strengthen your school curriculum? Read on to discover the benefits of STEM curriculum, then find five fun activities you can use to teach STEM skills.

What Is a STEM Education and Why Is It Important?

STEM is a major buzzword in educational fields, and especially among elementary and high school educators. If you’ve heard the term before but don’t know what exactly a STEM education is, here’s a refresher.

Generally, a STEM education is defined as curriculum that helps students learn skills in the following fields:

  • Science
  • Technology
  • Engineering
  • Mathematics

Most—if not all—schools already include science and math as part of their curriculum. So why should teachers consider a specific STEM curriculum at all? The key is career preparation. Connecting aspects of science, tech, engineering, and math together helps contextualize information and make it relevant for students.[8]

Not only can this help students develop skills that will make them successful at their future jobs, but it can also help them engage in and develop a love for STEM-related careers. Because science and technology careers are some of the fastest-growing sectors of the workforce, it’s essential for all students to have at least basic STEM skills.[7]

Even if a student doesn’t end up pursuing a job in science or technology, the benefits of STEM curriculum can be long lasting. When students engage in STEM lessons, they often achieve higher cognitive and behavioral gains than their non-STEM peers.[5] Plus, STEM activities can encourage active learning and participation, which can help them become better learners in all academic fields.[7]

The best time to start teaching students about STEM is in elementary school. Since a student’s foundational knowledge of science and math begins forming during their early years, even kindergarteners can benefit from STEM lessons.[4] If you’re just beginning to explore what STEM can offer your students, it’s worth researching further. The more elementary teachers feel prepared to teach STEM, the higher their students’ academic achievements.[4]

How to Promote STEM Education for Girls

For the past two decades, educators have prioritized promoting diversity in the STEM field, with gender equality as a specific focus.[12] Statistics show that women in STEM fields face issues that their male peers don’t, even as soon as early childhood. Gender stereotyping, a lack of role models, and less career flexibility are all obstacles that can prevent women from feeling like STEM careers are an option for them.

But without women in STEM, the field as a whole loses a critical perspective. A few famous women in STEM careers who revolutionized the field through their achievements include:

  • Marie Curie (Chemist)
  • Dorothy Vaughan (Mathematician)
  • Rosalind Franklin (Geneticist)
  • Chien-Shiung Wu (Physicist)
  • Sally Ride (Astronaut)

When it comes to encouraging girls to pursue STEM education, positive role models are critical. Women who had a female teacher or role model in their math classes, for example, scored higher than peers who only had male teachers.[12] If you’re a male teacher, help your students find a positive female role model either in school or through studying famous women in STEM.

Improving diversity in STEM doesn’t only mean basic gender equality. It’s also essential to acknowledge racial and ethnic differences among girls in STEM.[13] Although STEM programs can help close the racial achievement gap in schools, women of color need to feel welcome and represented in their courses or careers.[6] Addressing the intersecting identities that these women hold and providing resources that help them feel seen can help them view a STEM career as a viable option.

Transitioning from STEM to STEAM Education

When schools adopt a STEM curriculum, it sometimes polarizes faculty into two camps: pro-STEM and pro-liberal arts. Critics of STEM worry that other subjects will be shorted on funding if they aren’t seen as important as science or math classes. Proponents argue that since STEM is the fastest growing career field, STEM projects for elementary students should absolutely be given priority.

But what if the liberal arts vs. STEM debate didn’t have to be a debate at all? What if both sides could find a middle ground? They can, and absolutely should—by turning STEM curriculum into STEAM: science, technology, engineering, arts, and math.[1]

Because of the educational and career benefits, nobody can argue that STEM doesn’t have an important place in the classroom. But without the arts, STEM curriculum represents an incomplete education.[15] Curriculum that includes the arts can teach students creativity, critical thinking, and other skills that can enrich their experiences regardless of the career they pursue later on.[15]

Plus, success in a STEM career doesn’t just depend on understanding academic concepts. Students should also learn artistic and social-emotional skills that can be taught through a variety of disciplines. These skills include:[16]

  • Communication
  • Adaptability
  • Problem-solving
  • Time management
  • Social skills

When you’re putting together a curriculum plan for your class, don’t skimp on arts lessons to add extra STEM activities. To ensure that you’re providing students with a balanced education, include lessons in reading, music, and other artistic disciplines, as well.

5 Easy STEM Activities for Elementary Students

It’s never too early to start teaching students STEM skills. By adding STEM math and science activities to your curriculum, your students can learn concepts that will help them for the rest of their lives.

Use these five suggestions for STEM activities for kindergarten and elementary students to prepare your students for lifelong success in school and their future careers:

  • Technology and engineering lessons are often overlooked in elementary education. Try starting a robotics club in your school! Not only will this fill a gap in STEM curriculum, but robotics clubs are linked to higher student engagement in class.[5]
  • Digital literacy is one of the most important skills a student can have for their future careers. Computer games that teach keyboarding or even early coding skills can give older elementary students a leg up when preparing for middle school.
  • Why wait until the school science fair? Plan a classroom science fair as a class so students can showcase their own experiments and scientific insights.
  • Kids love to make slime, but did you know that it can be a STEM activity? Make a slime recipe as a class to teach students a basic lesson about chemistry.[10]
  • Want to teach your students a fascinating STEM lesson without leaving the classroom? Pair a virtual field trip with what your students are currently studying in science.

Sources:

English, L.D. Advancing Elementary and Middle School STEM Education. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, May 2017, 15(1), pp. 5-24.[1]

Adams, A.E., Miller, B.G., Saul, M., and Pegg, J. Supporting Elementary Pre-Service Teachers to Teach STEM through Place-Based Teaching and Learning Experiences. Electronic Journal of Science Education, 2014, 18(5), pp. 1-22.[2]

Daugherty, M.K., Carter, V., and Swagerty, L. Elementary STEM Education: The Future for Technology and Engineering Education? Journal of STEM Teacher Education, March 2014, 49(1), pp. 45-55.[3]

Nodelson, L.S., Callahan, J., Pyke, P., Hay, A., Dance, M., and Pfiester, J. Teacher STEM Perception and Preparation: Inquiry-Based STEM Professional Development for Elementary Teachers. The Journal of Educational Research, 2013, 106(2), pp. 157-168.[4]

Kim, C., Kim, D., Yuan, J., Hill, R.B., Doshi, P., and Thai, C.N. Robotics to promote elementary education pre-service teachers’ STEM engagement, learning, and teaching. Computers & Education, December 2015, 91, pp. 14-31.[5]

Dickerson. D.L., Eckhoff, A., Stewart, C.O., Chappell, S., and Hathcock, S.J. The Examination of a Pullout STEM Program for Urban Upper Elementary Students. Research in Science Education, June 2014, 44(3), pp. 483-506.[6]

Zollman, A. Learning for STEM Literacy: STEM Literacy for Learning. School Science and Mathematics, January 2012, 112(1), pp. 12-19.[7]

Stohlmann, M., Moore, T.J., and Roehrig, G.H. Considerations for Teaching Integrated STEM Education. Journal of Pre-College Engineering Education Research, 2012, 2(1), pp. 28-32.[8]

Parker, C., Abel, Y., and Denisova, E. Urban Elementary STEM Initiative. School Science and Mathematics, October 2015, 115(6), pp. 292-301.[9]

Skluzacek, J.M. STEM Education on the Go! Quick and Simple STEM Activities for 4-H Clubs and Afterschool Groups. Retrieved from iastate.edu: https://www.extension.iastate.edu/clayton/sites/www.extension.iastate.edu/files/clayton/QuickandcheapSTEMactivities.pdf [10]

Beede, D.N., Julian, T.A., Langdon, D., McKittrick, G., Khan, B., and Doms, M.E. Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation. Economics and Statistics Administration Issue Brief, November 2011, pp. 4-11.[11]

Milgram, D. How to Recruit Women and Girls to the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Classroom. Technology and Engineering Teacher, November 2011, 71(3), pp. 4-11.[12]

Johnson, D.R. Women of color in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). New Directions for Institutional Research, 2011, 152, pp. 75-85.[13]

Dasgupta, N., and Stout, J.G. Girls and Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics: STEMing the Tide and Broadening Participation in STEM Careers. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, October 2014, 1(1), pp. 22-29.[14]

Tarnoff, J. STEM to STEAM – Recognizing the Value of Creative Skills in the Competitiveness Debate. Retrieved from pbworks.com: http://stematehs.pbworks.com/w/file/fetch/46306554/STEM2STEAM_Creativity.pdf.[15]

Bybee, R.W. What is STEM Education? Science Magazine, August 2010, 329 (5995), pp.996.[16]

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