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April 1, 2024
Vol. 81
No. 7

How to Start with STEM

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An elementary school STEM program owes its success to four key factors.

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Instructional StrategiesCurriculum
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Credit: Photo courtesy of Jennifer Hoffman
The first time I looked for a place to live, I was overwhelmed. I had to imagine the space I’d like to live in, its proximity to my job, and whether it afforded access to the resources I needed to survive. I had to consider safety, location, and neighborhood. The process was both exciting and frightening, leaving me to wonder if I would make the right decision. Given what I could afford, I eventually settled on a small apartment in an urban community across from a large hospital. Despite parking difficulties, sirens sounding at night, and lack of space, I made it work and learned how to thrive. 
Creating and sustaining a STEM program has much in common with my apartment search. You have to envision what you need, consider available resources, find a place to house the program, and then make it work. As an elementary school STEM teacher—my students range from preK to 5th grade—I look at how my space ­functions and appears; it’s housed within a newly renovated building, half of which is designed for STEM instruction. I continually consider how to deliver high-quality instruction, honor the various cultures of my students, and best develop a shared and inclusive vision for this programming. And I continually need to refine STEM planning to ensure that resources and materials enhance student learning. 
Let’s look at some key factors for school leaders and teacher leaders to consider when getting STEM programming off the ground. These fall in the areas of vision, culture, student engagement, and resources.

Key Factor 1. Vision 

Consider the following ­questions as you and school community members collaboratively develop a shared vision for STEM:
  • What are your school’s values and goals regarding STEM instruction? For example, a school that values courage may nurture academic risk-taking and consequently shape a STEM program that offers students opportunities to engineer, program, or participate in ­competitions with the freedom to fail, try again, and persevere.
  • What are best practices in STEM education today? These might include nurturing student questioning, data analysis, mathematical thinking, and evidence-based reasoning (NGSS Lead States, 2013).
  • How can you align the Next Generation Science Standards and best practices to deliver quality STEM instruction?
  • What resources do you need to deliver quality STEM instruction to all learners at your school? This might involve providing access to websites like Code.org and Scratch, which help students learn how to code. Schools with larger budgets may purchase supplies, such as Snap ­Circuits or littleBits, that offer students the opportunity to practice engineering with electronics and circuitry.
  • What is your budget? Can you extend it through grants or other sources? 
  • Where will you deliver the programming in your school?
  • How will you make STEM programming ­relevant to students of all grade and performance levels?
  • What kind of professional development do you need to fulfill your vision?  

You don’t need the most expensive tools, machines, or software to deliver quality STEM instruction.

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You don’t need the most expensive tools, machines, or software to deliver quality STEM instruction. Whatever your vision and constraints, dream big, do your research regarding quality resources that are either free or for purchase, and then make your vision achievable. For example, my school values kindness, cooperation, courage, growth, high expectations, and perseverance. We see these in action in computer science, where students use the free courses from Common Sense and Code.org to develop constructive and safe digital citizenship behaviors. We see them in coding and robotics activities, where students collaborate with a partner on projects. And we see them at our annual STEM exhibit, where students and their families work together to program robots to navigate obstacle courses.

Key Factor 2. Culture 

Throughout my K–12 education and early years at university, I often felt out of place in science and math classes because of my gender, a lack of encouragement from others, and a waning interest in a field that didn’t feel relevant to me. Even after I began my career in education and was teaching science, I attributed my ­professional success to hard work, timing, and luck. It wasn’t until much later—after earning a doctoral degree in literacy, working as a STEM teacher in an elementary school, and teaching statistics to doctoral students at St. John’s ­University in New York—that I felt like I had a place in this field. 
As educators, we need to make all students feel that they’re welcome, that they can learn, and that they can contribute in a STEM classroom. Yet some students, particularly those who are underrepresented in STEM, feel that they don’t belong, which may prevent them from taking coursework or pursuing a career in this field. Researchers (Kricorian et al., 2020; Watson, 2023) have found that matching underrepresented students pursuing STEM with a mentor of their gender or from their ethnic background can provide needed support and encouragement.  
How to Start with STEM Image 2Credit: Photos courtesy of Jennifer Hoffman

Photo 1 (left): Students develop their creativity and innovation skills by designing and constructing structures with Keva Planks. Photo 2 (right): A classroom book display features STEM texts with diverse characters.

Here are some ways to ensure that all preK–12 students feel valued, comfortable, and capable of learning STEM content:
  • Hang posters and display texts or videos that feature diverse STEM professionals, especially those who reflect students’ genders and backgrounds. For instance, I create an “Innovator of the Month” bulletin board that features STEM experts from underrepresented backgrounds, and I show videos of underrepresented STEM professionals doing or teaching science, ­computer science, or engineering.
  • Provide varied opportunities for students to share aspects of their own cultures and ­backgrounds during class.
  • Curate diverse texts for read-alouds that describe individuals from different cultures inventing, innovating, and making discoveries in STEM.
  • Forge school-university partnerships in which mentors who hold positions in STEM careers work with the teachers and students in your school.
  • Organize assemblies and field trips showcasing scientists from diverse backgrounds. 
The point is to convey the message to students early on that we all belong in STEM. By doing so, we can help students participate in these learning experiences, pursue careers in STEM, or apply these skills to other fields. For example, to begin our water investigations with 2nd graders and communicate the idea that we all belong in STEM, I read to students Carole Lindstrom’s (Roaring Book Press, 2020) Indigenous-inspired book, We Are Water Protectors, a story about a young Ojibwe girl’s effort to protect the water supply of her people. As a culminating activity to the investigation, a civil engineer shared his work with water so students could see how people protect and manage this vital resource.

Key Factor 3. Student Engagement 

Maintaining students’ interest and active participation in STEM instruction is key to a quality STEM program. Recent research (Watson, 2023) looking at high school students participating in the W.E.B. Du Bois Scholars Institute’s Accelerated Learning Academy found that a variety of instructional approaches, including group discussions and hands-on activities, offer real-world application of content and skills. Hands-on activities may begin as discovery-oriented explorations for younger students and progress to tackling real-world problems for ­students in the upper grades.  
Authentic, empathy-driven lessons that help students grasp the feelings of others, as well as project-based learning activities, can engage students in STEM learning, too. So do discussions that relate to students’ lives. For example, before a bridge-building unit, we discuss how bridges help us get to the places where we play, live, work, and visit.  
Here are some strategies I have used to provide in-depth and exciting units of study:
  • Present a compelling scenario designed to hook students’ interest and evoke empathy about a topic. For example, students might design, construct, and test a model of a waterproof home for an animal family that has been displaced due to ­deforestation.
  • Conduct interactive read-alouds that encourage students to respond to the text and illustrations through discussion, artwork, music, or movement.
  • Provide opportunities for ­student-driven research.
  • Plan simulations of a real-world process. For example, to simulate how oceanographers map the ocean floor, students can place wooden dowels marked with centimeters through holes in boxes that are filled with hidden objects that replicate a highly uneven ocean bottom floor (Hoffman, 2003).
  • Arrange for students to share original projects with peers and with a larger audience and receive feedback about their work.
  • Pose questions to help students reflect on a topic from a local, national, and global perspective.  
My students have innovated functional models of cantilevers, bridges, and recycling bins. Colleagues at my school and I have hosted countywide Makerspace Days, where 3rd and 4th graders repurposed used plastic and paper products into new and helpful prototypes, such as a stain-preventing marker drawing tablet and a recyclable vase. In computer science, students in grades 2–5 have learned how to code increasingly complex algorithms to create digital games, art, and apps on the website Code.org. Younger students have coded on keys on a beginner robot’s back, and older students have programmed more advanced robots remotely. Students showcased their learning at our circuitry and robotics exhibit and learned about the kinds of robots that other students were designing.  

Having a teacher working alongside them doing STEM with passion, purpose, and resilience keeps my students engaged.

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To be sure, teachers don’t have to be experts in every STEM field; we can share with our students that we’re also learners. We can encourage students’ questions and post responses that we have researched on virtual-classroom or in-person bulletin boards. When my students begin to feel the rigor of more challenging content and complex STEM activities, I describe some of the projects that I encountered in my coursework in the Graduate Certificate in Maker Education program at Rutgers University. One of my prototypes was an innovative stand to hold my mother’s cell phone, with movable pieces to store her hearing aids, keys, and medical alert necklace when not in use. Students often ask to see my latest prototypes and listen attentively as I describe my struggles and successes. Having a teacher working alongside them doing STEM with passion, purpose, and resilience keeps my students engaged and inspires them to persevere when the various debugging and engineering challenges throw up unexpected roadblocks.

Key Factor 4. Resources 

As noted earlier, several free websites teach younger students computer science, such as Code.org and Scratch. Students can learn about digital citizenship from Common Sense and about 3-D digital drawing from Tinkercad. For older students, edx.org features online courses through their free audit track. It’s also helpful to reach out to other schools to see what kinds of tools and machines they’re using and how they’ve fared over time with them.  
People are another vital resource. Hosting school and countywide STEM programming has helped me exchange ideas with teachers outside my district and refine my thinking about resources. Enrolling in the Graduate Certificate in Maker Education program at Rutgers University has granted me access to professors and graduate school classmates who are an incredible source of knowledge and support as I strive to refine STEM programming at my school. IgniteSTEM, a Princeton University student-led organization, hosts conferences in which technology leaders and innovators from around the world teach educators about design thinking, project-based learning, and computer science. And by joining educational organizations such as the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA), ASCD, the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), and the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), I’ve learned a lot about quality resources.  
I’ve also enhanced my STEM instruction by reading articles and writing for journals. Writing has helped me refine my thinking as I explain how I apply the engineering design process, differentiate in the classroom, group students, use resources, and administer assessments. Writing for a broad audience has taught me to think beyond the confines of my classroom and students and adopt a more global perspective about STEM education. Likewise, I often ask my students to think beyond their own lives and consider how what we’re learning affects life and resources on Earth. Formative assessments, brief entrance and exit cards, performance-based assessments, and post-assessments have shown me that these hands-on, inquiry-driven lessons have helped students better recall information and apply content-related skills.

Putting It All Together 

Establishing a shared vision, promoting a sense that everyone belongs in STEM, fostering student engagement, and accessing appropriate resources can provide a solid foundation on which to build and enhance STEM programming. Such a foundation can prepare students for future coursework and careers in STEM and help them learn how to think critically, solve problems, and persevere through the various STEM challenges they will meet along the way. If you are interested in putting a STEM program in place in your school, this is a great way to start.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ How do you make all students feel welcome in your STEM program?

➛ What might the physical spaces in your school convey to a visitor about your STEM program?

➛ What hands-on learning experiences in STEM have proven most engaging for students?

References

Hoffman, J. (2003). Out of sight: Investigating unseen objects. In C. Reinburg, J. A. Cocke, J. Cusick, & B. Smith (Eds.), Mixing it up: Integrated, interdisciplinary, intriguing science in the elementary classroom (pp. 74–80). NSTA Press. 

Kricorian, K., Seu, M., Lopez, D., Ureta, E., & Equils, O. (2020). Factors influencing participation of underrepresented students in STEM fields: Matched mentors and mindsets. International Journal of STEM Education, 7(16), 1–9. 

NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. National Academies Press. 

Watson, C. (2023). An online STEM program for gifted students of color amidst COVID-19. Journal of STEM ­Outreach, 6(2), 1–12. 

Jennifer Hoffman is a STEM and gifted and talented teacher at Traphagen Elementary School in Waldwick, New Jersey, and a former adjunct professor at St. John’s University, Queens, New York. Her writing has been published in Science & Children, Teaching for High Potential, and NSTA Press. 

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