STEM is an interdisciplinary curriculum based on the idea of educating students in four specific subjects: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. STEM with art added in — because there’s a lot of overlap between making art and creating new inventions — is called STEAM. Rather than teaching the subjects as separate and distinct disciplines, STEM (or STEAM) integrates them into a cohesive unit of study based on real-world applications. Even though STEM studies focus on science, technology, and math, not all science, technology, or math lessons are STEM studies. So how do you know if it’s a STEM lesson?
STEM is a type of project-based learning that focuses on solving real problems.
In STEM, students use what they’ve already learned in math and science to engineer or design a technology or a solution for a problem. This problem-solving focus is what constitutes the difference between the pure sciences (biology, chemistry, geology) and applied sciences (engineering, technology, robotics).
Project-based lessons are the best way to study the sciences, and integrated learning is the best way to study concepts overall because it engages the whole mind, helping students make connections. (Keep in mind, this is not a linear process – engineers frequently jump back and forth between steps.)
A savvy teacher, looking to help kids make connections across the curricula, could build a STEM activity around a science topic that students are studying, while incorporating social studies and language arts as well.
The description of the process varies, but the basic elements of a STEM lesson are generally as follows:
- Identify the problem or need (social studies, science, environment)
- Do background research (reading, writing, literacy and critical inquiry)
- Generate alternative solutions (science, engineering, art)
- Choose the best, most cost-effective solution (engineering, economics)
- Create a model or prototype (art, engineering, design)
- Test and evaluate (math, science, engineering)
- Redesign (art, engineering, design)
Example of a STEM Lesson
Let’s say for a STEM study of water and the environment, you want to tackle the problem of a leaky faucet. A good science/math experiment would be to measure the flow rate and amount of water accumulated over a period of time. But ideally, it would go further, to involve more integration of subjects and get more “real.” Perhaps there are some graphs the students could look at that show the relationship between these variables over time. The students could explore the slope of the trend line and determine the average rate of change, then project the problem’s impact in the future.
You could ask the students to do some research to determine how much of a problem the leaky faucet poses. See if they can gather data to see how many families in your neighborhood actually have leaky faucets. A related science or language arts research investigation could look into answering the following questions:
- What exactly happens to the wasted water?
- Is it recycled back into the local water works system?
- Is there a substantial additional cost involved to the community?
- What is the cost to the owner of the leaky faucet?
A creative art challenge would be to come up with a a community awareness campaign, and an engineering challenge could be to try and design for a faucet that won’t leak. You might also connect a STEM lesson to the real issue of an insufficient supply of clean drinking water in many places around the world.
Sounds like a lot of work to prepare a lesson plan, doesn’t it? Well, you can always search out STEM curriculum that has already been developed. Click here for a leaky faucet lesson plan. Just remember, not everything that is called a STEM lesson actually involves applied sciences like technology and engineering. It may simply be a fun science experiment. But a lot of good STEM lessons appear online at sites such as eGFI, Try Engineering, and Teach Engineering.
Homeschooling and STEM
Homeschooling provides the perfect scenario for STEM learning, because:
- Homeschooled students are free to study STEM concepts that most interest them.
- They are better able to do real-world activities that are often limited within schools.
- They have more time to spend on long-term STEM projects.
According to the Brookings Institution, there are 26 million STEM jobs in the US, comprising 20% of all US jobs. These jobs are in computer science, health professions, engineering, architecture, and manufacturing. A STEM course of study will prepare students to be competent citizens, capable of applying their critical thinking skills to solve problems in our technology-dependent society.