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STEM Education in the Elementary Classroom

Janelle Cox

In order to meet the increasingly rigorous and technically focused demands of 21st century living, we have seen quite a push in American society to engage our youth in STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).

This comes on the heels of the alarmingly overall low performance of American high school students’ test scores in math and science compared to other industrialized countries. President Obama has stated many times that we as a nation must remain leaders in science and technology, as our national economic prosperity depends on it.

When we think of STEM education, we think high school students taking chemistry and algebra courses, not third graders and multiplication. But with a little forethought and a bit of tweaking to your lessons, a STEM-based curriculum can be suitable for elementary students.

Why Start STEM Education so Young?

Study after study has shown that children who experience STEM education early on will be best equipped in understanding STEM concepts later in their academic career. Simply put, the earlier educators integrate STEM lessons into their daily curriculum, the better chance children will develop a stronger understanding of these skills, as well as cultivate a future interest.

You may be thinking, “I already have so much on my plate, now I have to implement STEM education into the mix?” Well, before you stress out, you must know that you already have access to solid research-based guidelines, right there in the Common Core State Standards. What may seem as a daunting task at the elementary level can easily be integrated into your subject material.

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Policymakers and administrators have learned that by giving our youth the tools to succeed in STEM, we are giving them a huge advantage in their future and the future of this country. Research has shown that individuals who work in a STEM-related field earn as much as 26 percent more than their counterparts.

In addition, the job growth rate for STEM-related jobs is about 38 percent, not to mention that STEM jobs are among the highest paid. With statistics like these, it’s easy to see why STEM education is so important for our students’ success.

How to Integrate STEM into Your Curriculum

STEM-proficient students are logical thinkers and are able to answer complex questions and develop solutions for problems.

So where do you begin? You don’t have to change the way you teach in order to be strong in STEM education. You can start by simply tweaking the way you ask students questions. You can add words such as experiment and model to create an environment where students will be used to hearing these important STEM vocabulary words. Expose students to educational technology like iPads, computers and even cell phones. Technology is a huge component in STEM education, and giving students more access to technology will only better prepare them for the future.

An easy way to integrate STEM into any subject matter is to have students read a storybook and design a solution to a problem one of the characters in the story has faced. Students can read books that utilize the engineering component in STEM. A fictional storyline about airplanes or robots can intrigue young learners while they learn how engineers work. Students can take what they read and create models to help solve problems.

Legos are likewise fun and an age-appropriate way to introduce STEM education because they allow students to build and explore while learning important concepts.

How to Begin a STEM Lesson

One way to provide students with the opportunity to explore a real-world scientific problem is to give them a hands-on experience. First you must:

  • Identify a real-world problem.
  • Ask questions to explore the problem (and potentially solve the problem).
  • Develop solutions.
  • Explore a hands-on activity.

An appropriate elementary education example would be pollution (science). Ask students what they think they can do as an elementary student to reduce the amount of pollution in their environment. Have them use technology as part of their research or for a resource. Ask complex questions and have students engage in logical reasoning to develop solutions for the real-world problem.

Next, for engineering, have students design or construct a solution to the problem.

Finally, for mathematics, have students interpret their data. Make sure you connect a STEM career to whatever real-world problem you ask students to solve. When discussing pollution be sure to add that individuals who try and solve this issue are environmental impact specialists, civil engineers, chemical engineers, chemists, environmental scientists, and so on.

Effective STEM instruction starts with you, the teacher. The way you plan your activities and the questions you ask students can turn an ordinary classroom into a productive STEM learning environment. In order for our youth to have the skills that are necessary for living in the 21st century, it is essential that we as teachers plant the seeds today that will make them successful for tomorrow.

How do you implement STEM education into your classroom? Do you have any strategies that you use? Please share with us in the comment section below, we would love to hear your thoughts.

Janelle Cox is an education writer who uses her experience and knowledge to provide creative and original writing in the field of education. Janelle holds a Master's of Science in Education from the State University of New York College at Buffalo. She is also the Elementary Education Expert for About.com, as well as a contributing writer to TeachHUB.com and TeachHUB Magazine. You can follow her at Twitter @Empoweringk6ed, or on Facebook at Empowering K6 Educators