It is no question that in recent years the acronym of STEM has become an area of excitement and concentration for many schools and educational programs. "The jobs of the future are STEM jobs", shares the Committee on STEM Education, and educators and policy developers alike are emphasizing more than ever the need to improve STEM skills in order to meet the changing economic, technological, and social climate (English, 2016). In fourth and fifth grade STEM, we are constantly referring to these changes in our world and how students need to be prepared with skills for a future much different than now. How, then, do we accomplish this in our class and ensure this type of readiness in our students?
In the International Journal of STEM Education, researcher Lyn D. English emphasizes the "need...to span disciplinary boundaries" when referring to STEM education (English, 2016). When considering how we interact with our jobs in adulthood, we consistently utilize skills from a multitude of areas. Teaching our students how to work in this integrative way in contrast to teaching STEM subjects individually only continues to prepare our students for the future that awaits. "STEM education is more than a 'convenient integration' of its four disciplines," explains English, "[but] rather it encompasses 'real world, problem-based learning' that links its disciplines" (English, 2016).
Within fourth and fifth grade STEM, integration of these multiple disciplines has been a key component of our lessons. "One expectation of effective STEM education programs is that students are encouraged to make new and productive connections across two or more disciplines," shares English, and our classes have aimed to do as such (English, 2016). In having this standard in place, students have been giving rich learning opportunities that have challenged them to think dynamically about the curriculum they are taught rather than learning the topic as a stand-alone subject. In our most recent unit of earth systems, for instance, fourth and fifth-grade students learned the defining characteristics of different earth spheres (such as the hydrosphere and biosphere) through playful technology application and computer programming integration. After learning difficult science curriculum, students were challenged to redesign an existing computer program (Earth Systems Remix) on the Scratch program and remix it to create a new one with two different spheres interacting. You can watch this example here and here (press the space bar for his project to run) to see what changes some students made to their programs. As a way to learn about how much fresh and saltwater we have in our world, students examined gridded world maps and created large-scale graphs to display their knowledge. In exploring how we can best make use of the freshwater that is available on earth, students creatively engineered water filters by testing out different materials and their properties, exploring their efficiency and effectiveness, and calculating the costs of their materials throughout their designs.
By providing lessons that implement these various disciplines, our students are challenged to think in a more complex way and to utilize skills from a variety of STEM contexts and beyond. This way of teaching not only confronts students with real-world challenges and skills for the future, but it also encourages students to be creative and open-ended in their thinking and makes the learning more fun for young learners. Whether we work in engineering, nursing, or construction, we as adults are constantly making use of our skills from various subjects; why, then, would we teach our students in any other way?
If you are interested in learning more about the Lower School STEM program, please feel free to reach out to me at email@example.com.
LS STEM Specialist
English, Lyn D. "STEM Education K-12: Perspectives on Integration." International Journal of STEM Education, vol. 3, no. 1, 2016, doi:10.1186/s40594-016-0036-1.