A student building something in a classroom

Capitalizing on Curiosity: How to Incorporate STEM into Your Classroom

23 Dec 2014 by Samantha Cleaver

When Jina Bradford learned that engineering was in the curriculum for her kindergarteners at STEM Magnet Lab School in Northglenn, Colo., she was terrified. Now, after support from her collaborating teachers, Bradford’s students complete an engineering challenge after every science unit. Recently, after learning about push and pull forces, students were challenged to make Rube Goldberg machines using straws, duct tape, cardboard and other materials. The engineering component allows students to use their imagination and do their own thinking, said Bradford. “As they’re creating, they turn into problem solvers,” she said.

STEM, or applying the science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines to solve real-world problems, has expanded from a new concept to the foundation of schools across the country. Through projects and explorations, students learn content as well as problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration and communication skills.

Students are ready to do the work of scientists and mathematicians from their first day at school. Children, said Karen Worth, chair of the Elementary Education Department at Wheelock College, “have a natural need to order the world, and that’s what science is all about.”

It’s clear that STEM should be an integral part of K-2, but integrating it into instruction can seem daunting. These 10 practices will build STEM seamlessly into your day.

  1. Teach students to question

Questions are at the heart of STEM, from preschoolers asking why leaves fall from trees, to scientists wondering where a virus originated. In particular, encourage students to ask How and Why questions that get them to big ideas: “Why is that log floating?” “How do rainbows form?”

  1. Start students on research

Once students are asking questions, encourage them to find answers. Students in Bradford’s class researched extreme weather using a combination of kinder-friendly Internet search engines (PebbleGo or a custom Google search) and books. Make sure you provide students with a structure, such as a graphic organizer or flipbook, to record their findings

  1. Work on the scientific process

Teach students the steps of the scientific method — ask a question, create a hypothesis, test the hypothesis, analyze data and draw conclusions, and communicate your results — from the first day of school. The more they go through the process, the easier it will be for them to approach all kinds of problems.

  1. Make predictions

Rather than providing all the explanations, help students see patterns and make predictions. For example, if they’re studying states of matter, have students observe and make notes about the characteristics of solids, liquids and gases. Then, they can use those notes to classify new substances.

  1. Flip your time

Need time in the school day for hands-on work? Consider flipping your science block. Jenny Tennant, second-grade teacher at STEM Magnet Lab School, assigns videos that teach content for homework and reserves class time for application. Students access their homework through Google Calendar, where they watch videos from Khan Academy, IXL or Vimeo. In class, they talk about what they’ve learned and conduct demonstrations. This structure minimizes the time spent explaining content, while maximizing collaboration.

  1. Weave technology into the day

Merge technology into what students are already doing. Bradford incorporates her classroom iPads, iPods and computers into group work and centers throughout the day. The technology is a tool students have to access information, rather than a reward.

  1. Get outside

An easy way to incorporate a few minutes of STEM each day is right outside your window. “Outdoor learning environments are often more varied than indoor classrooms,” said Christy Merrick, director of the Natural Start Alliance. They’re always changing depending on the weather and season. The next time it rains, have students make predictions about how the ground has changed. Then, take clipboards and pencils outside to record their observations.

  1. Engage in long-term studies

Worth suggests building in longer, more in-depth studies, rather than short concept-based lessons. Investigating a topic for weeks, or even a month, develops skills that students can apply to other investigations in the future.

  1. Teach presentation skills

After Bradford’s students researched extreme weather, they had to create an emergency kit and present it to a panel of teachers, parents and a meteorologist. Presenting to experts adds real-world application while sharpening students’ communication skills.

  1. Guide students’ natural curiosity

Questions are your most powerful tool. When students are in the block center, rather than asking them about what they’re pretending, ask them about gravity and design. “How are you building the bridge so that it stays up?” Or, “what happens if you put the larger blocks on top, and why?” Using questions, “we can guide students’ natural curiosity to some pretty challenging thinking,” Worth said.

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