What is STEM? (and what it is not)
STEM is an acronym that seems is constantly thrown around in staff meetings and books as what is necessary to make a great school, but it is often attributed with activities that are not STEM. STEM has been used to define learning opportunities such as building bridges, coding robots, and hands-on labs. I firmly believe that STEM is integral to engaging students in their learning as it encompasses so many careers that are (or will) define the 21st Century. Because of the stakes, it is important that we accurately and authentically integrate STEM in to the curriculum of all classes.
Its best to begin at what STEM is not. STEM is not simply arts and crafts building opportunities. Too often gluing spaghetti together and calling it a bridge is labeled as STEM without any actual learning on STEM concepts such as forces, trusses, and efficiency. There is a time and place for spaghetti bridges (in fact, I do a similar project with popsicle sticks), but it must be accompanied with actual learning on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. I was recently in another middle school classroom at another school and saw a teacher roaming the room where kids were quietly completing the coloring of a robot with colored pencils. Yes. You read that right. Middle School students were coloring in a pre-printed coloring page of a robot. The teacher was in the midst of a week-long unit of hour of code and decided that this coloring activity was the perfect engaging activity for students to learn during the week. On the surface I remained calm, but in my head I was going crazy. What possible learning outcome can be expected from middle school students by simply coloring in a pre-printed robot? I love the fact that students were doing hour of code, but I quickly realized that fidelity was not a priority when it came to teaching STEM.
As I said, I have done a bridge-building project, but I make sure to incorporate STEM concepts and not just watch as students hopelessly glue things together. Now this does not mean I bore the students with a 60-minute PowerPoint on bridges that harbors transitions as its lonely form of engagement. Instead, I will tier my activities. To do this, my students will look up bridges that already exist. We will then have a discussion on the various designs and what they have in common (hint: triangles!). I then will have a discussion on trusses and the students will create manipulative models of trusses and squares so the students can see the effects of forces on each shape, thus making triangular trusses the most efficient. These discussions are vital and, in my opinion, much more effective than sit-and-get notes. I have seen so many “ah-ha” moments with these discussions, as it is a great opportunity to really dive deep in to concepts and it often triggers so many inquiry questions in the minds of the students. After all of this, which runs about a week of hands-on activities, students then collaborate together and each pair designs their bridge that aligns to certain criteria. They are applying the STEM skills they have acquired in the past week and go through multiple revisions and models (paper and CAD). After all of this, they then build their bridges using glue, popsicle sticks, and fasteners (nuts and bolts). This project has a set timeline with benchmark objectives that must be accomplished. When the bridges are tested, the students complete a data table that includes grade level math to help calculate the efficiency and success of each bridge.
As you can see, this STEM project, and others require careful backwards planning and integral time built in to have thoughtful discussions on the STEM concepts necessary to complete the task and the STEM learning goals from the project. There is a great blog post from Vivify STEM that does an excellent job of breaking down three different tiers of STEM and it can be found at https://www.vivifystem.com/blog/2017/2/20/not-all-stem-is-equal-3-stages-of-stem-education