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STEM It Up!

by Sarah Diaz Colegio Internacional Puerto la Cruz

By now, most educators have heard the acronym STEM, standing for science, technology, engineering, and math. As more variations are being added (such as STEAM), teaching communities are often left wondering why this has become a big trend in education. What is the rationale for such a movement? Essentially, incorporating project-based learning through STEM develops creative thinkers who can problem-solve in challenges and utilize similar tactics in the world beyond that of the classroom. STEM education makes content accessible because students are defining their learning process. It makes thinking visible through student documentation and final products. It allows students to learn from each other, thus promoting autonomy and lifelong learning. It also promotes cross-curricular integration with the arts and humanities. These benefits are found in students regardless of age when they participating in a STEM class. Even my kindergarten students are internalizing the creation and revision processes and applying them to everyday activities outside of my classroom. The first – third graders in my after school STEM club were also just as excited about it, and would continue researching and making new projects after the club was over.

Sounds fantastic, right? As a STEM educator, I must admit that it is; however, developing these types of challenge-ready minds is not without challenges of its own. The first challenge was myself. I have been in the classroom for ten years and was concerned that this old dog would not be able to learn new tricks. I was afraid that the process would require that I completely change everything I do and it all felt too overwhelming. I got educated, did some of my own research, and discovered that organizing a STEM project is actually not so complicated.

There are several different ways to incorporate STEM into the classroom. I tried experimenting first with small group STEM activities that were meant to last for 10 minutes a session. The benefit of these is that you can have students work on a specific concept or skill without having to change everything about how you are teaching a unit. It serves as a good add-on that begins to allow your students to think of the content in a new way. My students succeeded in mastering skills and making connections among different content areas.


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Once I felt organized and ready, I moved from individual activities into project-based learning. In order to do this, I had to remember that the projects needed well-defined outcomes with clear expectations and guidelines and an ill-defined task in which the students define the process with appropriate teacher scaffolding. I reviewed my units of instruction for connective threads and similar vocabulary and then I created problems for my students to solve with specific perimeters and lists of materials.

In one project, called “The Ice House”, my class examined the necessity of refrigeration, different methods of keeping objects cool throughout different ages, exploring with five senses, and measuring temperature and time. Students kept journals of their observations and drew models of proposed ways to keep ice cooler longer.

As I was taking my own class in the STEM world, I found a new perceived challenge- that I would be a lone teacher interested in STEM at my institution and that I would have to do a fair amount of convincing to get others to join my STEM bandwagon. This was happily not the case. I was not alone in my curiosity or desire to bring STEM in to my school and, due to the highly active and tech-loving population at CIPLC, I found several other advocates for the movement. I taught the after school STEM club and had another teacher volunteer to lead it with me. Once students began sharing their projects with their teachers, more and more teachers were asking questions about how to introduce STEM into their classrooms, how to integrate curricula, and what types of challenges to expect in the process.


One such STEM club project was based around the idea of invention. Students researched different inventors and thought about inventions that made their lives better. They had to make an invention using only three shapes (chosen at random among 15 possible shapes) and all materials had to be either recycled goods or something they already possessed at their home. In the end, they had to present their invention to the class, describe how it works, and convince others to buy it.


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The STEM curiosity has run through the entire school year at CIPLC and it continues to develop. This year for our elementary summer journals, the teachers decided to make them STEM themed. Our students will complete a project in which they examine their favorite mode of transportation or transportation system and create something to make it function better. We plan on having a school celebration for students who complete the project and showcase their final products around campus.

Even though it is intimidating to begin implementing STEM into a classroom, it can lead to so many fantastic things. Throughout my process in becoming a STEM educator, I have discovered that I can still learn new methods of instruction and ease these methods into my teaching practices, that other teachers are just as curious about new strategies as I am, and that one change can affect an entire school. I look forward to seeing where this process takes us in the future!

References

Caprao, R., & Slough, S. (2009). Project-based learning: An Integrated science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (stem) approach.

Moomaw, S. (2013). Teaching stem in the early years: Activities for integrating science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

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