After I had been implementing STEM challenges into my classroom instruction for some time, I wanted to understand how to know if my STEM instruction was actually effective. What did STEM instruction that really work actually look like? After really spending some time thinking about this, reflecting on my classroom, and watching some fantastic teacher friends, I settled on five things that I feel are important marks of effectively using STEM challenges in your classroom.
- Kids Work Collaboratively – For STEM lessons to truly be effective in an elementary classroom, you will not see kids sitting in straight rows while the teacher teaches the lesson. Kids working on STEM challenges will work together in small groups to tackle the task or project at hand. This is one reason that the building of social skills and teamwork are great secondary benefits to using STEM lessons in your elementary classroom.
2. Kids Drive the Learning – After being presented with a STEM challenge or task, kids should be given the freedom and responsibility to direct their own learning. Groups of kids working on STEM challenges are responsible for talking to one another, brainstorming, questioning, designing, creating, and coming up with their own solutions to the challenge. In the event that student’s efforts are not successful, they persist in discussing, rethinking, and learning from their attempt. In classrooms where STEM challenges are being used effectively, students know that challenges have more than one possible solution. Because of this, students exhibit curiosity, creativity and a spirit of innovation.
3. Technology is Encouraged – Kids being encouraged to use the technological resources available to them to help solve their problem is a mark of successful STEM instruction. When kids are working through STEM challenges, it is common to see them using technology to learn background information, research, record data, or create a presentation. Although most STEM engineering challenges ask kids to create a physical project or model, students are aware of the available technology and encouraged to use it when appropriate.
4. Noise is Normal – As mentioned above, kids should work in groups when attempting a STEM challenge. Kids will be busy sharing their thoughts and discussing different ideas and approaches for taking on the challenge at hand. Kids may be moving around the classroom as they collect supplies, build models, and communicate with other group members. All of this leads to a normal and healthy amount of noise in the classroom as learning is taking place.
5. The Teacher Functions as a Coach – During an effective STEM challenge in an elementary classroom the teacher will not be giving students answers or telling them how to approach the project. Instead, the teacher will move about the classroom from group to group. They act as a resource for the students. The teacher may choose to ask questions about how the students are approaching a problem. The role of the teacher is simply to observe, encourage, and provide guidance.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the marks of implementing successful STEM challenges into the elementary classroom. I also want to be clear that not all of these must be present for STEM instruction to be effective. However, these five things seem to be common threads in successful STEM instruction as I have observed it in my classroom and the classrooms of other amazing teachers.