12 STEM Tips for Elementary School Teachers

05/30/2018
STEM
By Judy Zimny
 

Familiarity with STEM continues to increase as we progress further into the 21st century and transformational learning and teaching. 

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With only a few intentional adjustments to what most elementary teachers already do, they can foster and strengthen students’ ability to think like scientists and engineers.

Common depictions of scientists in lab coats or engineers in hard hats, though, do little to address a critical and sometimes overlooked area of STEM education: the starting point. Research shows the likelihood of students successfully pursuing STEM in college or as a career is significantly impacted by what they experience in elementary school.

With only a few intentional adjustments to what most elementary teachers already do, they can foster and strengthen students’ ability to think like scientists and engineers.

So, how can teachers introduce STEM / STEAM into their elementary classrooms with more intention and confidence?

1.  Reframe The Meaning Of STEM. 

STEM is more than its acronym implies.  STEM is an intentional, instructional approach that builds students’ critical thinking and depth of understanding across content areas. This better prepares them for the rigors of post-secondary science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in college and careers.

In addition to academic skills, STEM instruction purposefully addresses 21st century skills, such as critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication, and workforce requirements as a natural part of ongoing instruction across content areas.

2.  Connect To The Students’ World. 

Learning needs to be meaningful.  It needs to “make sense.”  One way to do this is to bring the child’s world into the classroom.  Help children connect their learning to what they are experiencing today.  For example, daylight savings time is a perfect time to help students understand the rotation of the earth.  Children will wonder, “Why is it dark in the morning now?”

3.  Make Learning Active. 

We all learn more by “doing.”  Unfortunately, traditional classroom practices such as lecturing and reading from textbooks -can be boring for both the learners and teacher and typically ineffective.  The more actively involved students are with what they are learning, the more they learn and the longer they retain the information.   Think “hands-on” and more “student talk.”   Ask, “What can I put in my students’ hands besides a sheet of paper to help them experience this concept?”

I have seen teachers implement, at no cost, activities like Take Apart Fridays where students dismantle and rebuild small appliances and other items from their home that are no longer needed (or perhaps no longer work!). 

Is all of this “stuff” a little chaotic?  Sometimes!  But then, learning can be messy.

4.  Require More Than “Parroting.” 

Students need to talk about their learning and learning needs to move beyond rote. Instilling this expectation empowers students to gain more from all their learning experiences. Have students explain their thinking to better gauge their understanding, and then guide them through potential areas of confusion.  Help them explain concepts in their own words to ensure they “get it” and are not just parroting back words they have read or heard others say.

5.  Make Learning Social. 

This goes back to learning can be messy!  But, again, neuroscience and our own experiences have repeatedly shown that as social beings, humans learn more and better retain what they have learned when they interact with others.  Furthermore, this learning surpasses academic skills and encompasses the collaboration and communication skills critical to today’s workforce.

6.  Build Your Comfort and Skills With Stem.

As generalists who teach all content areas, many elementary teachers feel a sense of apprehension in regard to their own STEM skills. This unease is compounded with the introduction of new standards such as the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Fortunately, there are many content options available today that take the guesswork out of teaching the NGSS and other state standards, making it far easier for teachers to understand what they are teaching and why. One such program is STEMscopes, which was incubated at Rice University and developed by Accelerate Learning. The online, inquiry-based curriculum provides digital teacher and student materials, assessments, supplemental print materials, and ready-made exploration kits for each grade level. Whether you use this program or others, the more you utilize a hands-on, inquiry- and project-based approach with your students, the more you will learn as well!

There are also some excellent professional development programs designed specifically to help strengthen STEM instruction and outcomes for teachers who want to boost their knowledge and expertise in those areas. You can view some options at the National Institute for STEM Education at http://www.nise.institute.

Building your own expertise in STEM will increase your confidence, your enthusiasm will be contagious, and your instruction will become more fun! You can do this!

7.  Intentionally Use The Language Of Science And Mathematics. 

Create opportunities to naturally use science and mathematics vocabulary throughout every school day.  We may have a natural inclination to teach as we were taught – and many of us were taught in classrooms where we experienced mathematics and science concepts only at special times in the schedule.   Strive to weave science and mathematics concepts into the fabric of the overall learning and classroom experience; in other words, make them a part of “real life” where they inherently exist every day.

8.  Strengthen Students’ Academic Skills. 

Being ready for post-secondary STEM requires that students take certain mathematics and science classes in middle and high school.  Their ability to be successful in these secondary mathematics and science classes is built in elementary school and requires strong skills across the content areas.  Make every school day one that matters.

9.  “Stemify” Your Current Lessons. 

Integrate STEM strategies into current lesson plans and schedules.  There’s no need to set aside a separate time or place for STEM.  Begin by asking, “How can I make this lesson more meaningful and hands-on to my students?” 

For example, if students are to learn about collecting and recording data, have them engage in an authentic activity that is meaningful to them versus completing worksheets.  Instead of having students label a diagram to learn the parts of a leaf, have them bring leaves from their neighborhoods to observe and compare.  An ongoing goal is to proactively teach students to look for crosscutting concepts such as cause and effect, patterns, and systems across science and other content areas.

10.  Start With The Standards.

Teachers often ask, “Where do I start?”  Start with the standards.  The most effective educators have internalized the standards their students are responsible for mastering.   Even in the process of learning the standards yourself, you can begin teaching them using some of the strategies described here.

There can be a natural tension between standards and a project or activities.  While standards can be better understood within the context of a meaningful whole, exciting activities that fail to adequately address required standards have very little value.  Remember, early STEM initiatives aim to support learners’ long-term success.

Some teachers may need to become proficient in directly teaching standards prior to expanding their kills to effectively include differentiation, integration with other content areas, and embedding standards within project-based learning.

11.  Guard Against Unintentional Bias.

Note to editor - First letter of blink purposefully left lower case to mirror title

In blink, Malcolm Gladwell (2005) describes our attitudes toward race and gender as existing on two levels.  We have a conscious attitude which represents those things we want to believe about race and gender.  We also have an unconscious attitude that consists of those immediate, automatic, subconscious beliefs and feelings that may unknowingly impact our behavior.

All educators strive to be fair and support students across all socioeconomic levels, races, and gender groups.  However, evidence of bias – even if unintentional – still exists and calls for all of us to be especially mindful of what and how we communicate to all our students.

12.  Keep Growing.

How many of these strategies are you already implementing?  Have you discovered your teaching is a lot more “STEM” than you even knew?  Keep growing – and your students will grow right along with you.

Judy Zimny, Ed.D., is the vice president of the National Institute for STEM Education http://nise.institute). NISE offers certification programs in STEM best practices and pedagogy for both teachers and campuses.
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Issue 20.2 | Fall 2018

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