Why STEM? Why Now? And How?

Find out how you can emphasize science, technology, engineering, and math concepts in all areas of school life.

by Patty Born-Selly

The United States has become a global leader in large part through the genius and hard work of its scientists, engineers, and innovators. Yet today that position is threatened as comparatively few American students pursue expertise in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)—and by an in-adequate pipeline of teachers skilled in those subjects.

President Obama, along with countless educators working with children in grades K-12, has set a priority of increasing the number of students and teachers who are proficient in these vital fields. Why are these four disciplines linked together so often? There are many reasons for this, but a primary reason is that fluency in all of these disciplines results from proficiency in certain practices or “habits of mind.” At their most basic level, some of these include:
• asking productive questions;
• making careful observations;
• developing and articulating predictions and explanations; and
• testing ideas through action.
There are many more STEM-related practices identified throughout a variety of standards used by public and independent schools. These four approaches to thinking, however, can be fostered in the elementary school classroom.


The Need for STEM

Only 16 percent of American high-school seniors are proficient in mathematics and interested in STEM careers. The way for students to become—and remain—engaged and interested in STEM fields is to have meaningful, rich, hands-on experiences throughout their elementary school years, even as early as preschool. The engagement and self-efficacy that develop through these hands-on experiences lead to deeper learning and prolonged interest in STEM throughout elementary, middle, and high school. In many states across the nation, fewer than half of fourth-grade students reported having “some” to “much” interest in STEM. This statistic is important because it underscores the need for concerted efforts among educators to inspire and nurture a curiosity about STEM in the elementary years.

A report from the National Research Council, “Successful K-12 STEM Education: Identifying Effective Approaches in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics,” identifies elements which characterize successful K-12 STEM teaching. According to the report, effective STEM instruction capitalizes on students’ early interest and experiences, identifies and builds on what they know, engages them in STEM practices, and provides them with experiences to sustain their interest.

Of course, it’s important for teachers to have a deep understanding of the STEM concepts being taught or explored in the classroom. There are a number of exceptional resources available for teachers who wish to get additional training in STEM content knowledge for use in the K-12 classroom. And, as all teachers know, exciting, hands-on activities that engage children in action will be captivating and make for meaningful learning.

With so many schools these days claiming to embrace STEM, it’s important to understand why and how that can be done. There is no process of certification or accreditation that a school can undergo in order to claim the title of “STEM School,” but it’s safe to assume that any school that self-applies that title has a vested interest in helping students develop the skills, habits of mind, and content knowledge that are critical and core to the STEM disciplines. While some schools aim to integrate STEM throughout the school day, others will set aside blocks of time dedicated to STEM activities and projects.

Powerful STEM environments usually include:
• Opportunities for students to engage in STEM practices and use STEM content knowledge to address problems or projects that connect to the real world and that require content knowledge from more than one of the STEM disciplines (for example, using math, science, and engineering skills to design a bird feeding station that students can observe to study birds).
• Opportunities for students to articulate, demonstrate, or otherwise share their work through projects, demonstrations, and presentations. These are ways that professionals in the STEM fields articulate their work, and these opportunities help strengthen students’ abilities to communicate in the ways that “real” scientists do.
• Opportunities for students to work collaboratively and creatively with their peers. This would include working together to develop questions, talk through and test out ideas, and develop possible solutions or tests for those ideas and questions. Again, this is the way work is done in the STEM fields, and students need opportunities to practice working in this way. (Bonus: Group work is good for peer relationships and problem-solving skills!)

While additional training in both STEM content and pedagogy will help teachers better understand how to integrate STEM in the elementary school classroom, there are a number of strategies teachers can employ to help children begin engaging in the practices of STEM thinking.


How Questions Can Support STEM Thinking

As teachers, most of us know that it’s always better to ask “what” “or “how” questions rather than questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no. “What” or “how” questions will lead to conversation and explanation, and the other kind leads to a one-word response (a.k.a.
a dead end!). It’s a simple illustration of an important skill in scientific thinking: asking productive questions.

Children form ideas and theories about how the world works beginning at a very young age. These ideas inform the way that they approach new learning.

In school, children are asked questions that often require them to recall memorized facts or content. These kinds of questions help build retention and comprehension of content and vocabulary. While content knowledge is certainly important, there are other ways that children learn and build information. They do this through first-hand experience. When children are asked productive questions, they are required to think more deeply about something to find answers. Productive questions suggest that there is more than one answer.

Asking productive questions leads to investigation and knowledge. But it’s a skill that takes practice and repetition. Here’s an example. Suppose your students are making a sand castle on the playground at recess. One student is particularly frustrated; she tries and tries to create a moat around the castle and fill it with water, but the water keeps soaking in to the sand. Rather than “helping” by telling her what to do differently to have success, try asking her some questions about her process. In doing so, you’ll be supporting her STEM learning. She’ll need to engage in a number of important thinking practices in order to respond to your questions. She’ll have to reflect on her observations of the process of building; she will have to articulate explanations about what happened and why she believes it happened; and she’ll reflect on what could be done differently next time. These are all fundamental skills of scientific and engineering thinking.

What makes something a “productive question”? It must be investigable—a question that can be explored and investigated. For young children, a productive question is one that helps children narrow down their focus enough to identify the important pieces of information. From there, they can investigate and use tools and resources to help them find answers. Some productive questions ask children to find more than one way to do something or to consider new ways of looking at things. Other questions help to focus attention on one area of investigation (in this example, “What do you notice about the sand where your water is soaking in?”). Still other productive questions inspire action: “What would happen if…? or “How can you…?”

By asking your students productive questions, you’ll help them reflect on their actions and observations as well as think about things in new ways and consider how their own actions can affect change. These are important ways to practice creativity and innovative thinking, as well as to engage in STEM thinking.


Create a STEM-rich Environment

From the time children are infants, parents are encouraged to read to them every evening to help them build their literacy and language arts skills. When their children reach elementary school, parents walk into classrooms expecting to see books and words and labels and other evidence of children’s developing literacy and language skills. Parents and teachers support literacy and language arts development throughout their school years with frequent visits to the library, lots of reading of many different kinds of books, and frequent opportunities to write in many genres and for many different reasons.

What if we supported their learning STEM in the same way? What if we encouraged our children to practice math by using the language of math as often as possible, deliberately choosing words like “numeral” and “quantity” in our everyday conversations, or intentionally encouraging their spatial reasoning with words like “under,” “over,” “higher,” and “lower”? What if we asked them to count, add, and subtract as often as we ask them to read to us? What if we pointed out all the ways that we use math every day, from getting cash at the bank to dicing up enough apples to make a pie?

What if we helped children recognize the many forms that engineering takes, from the myriad structures we see outside (the buildings, bridges, houses, and parking garages), to the complex engineered system of pipes in your home or school, to the everyday objects that are designed and engineered to make our lives easier?

Bringing STEM to light requires nothing more than awareness of how ubiquitous these disciplines really are. Simply by starting a conversation about the shape of a bridge you see or talking about how something was designed to be strong and serve a purpose, you’re making real some of the many applications of STEM in your students’ world. You bring these things to their attention and thereby support their development and understanding of those disciplines.

Along with professional development involving learning STEM content and concepts as well as pedagogical approaches for integration of STEM into the elementary classroom, the suggestions provided in this article will be invaluable for helping teachers and students alike to “think STEM” and develop the habits of mind so important for deep engagement and interest in STEM disciplines.

Source: Today’s Catholic Teacher, April/May 2016