East Coast: Design elements of STEM

By: Hannah Thein

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In our inquiry-based expedition to the EAST COAST schools, some questions we had were: Exactly what is STEM and what goes on inside STEM classrooms?  What elements can be applied to all subjects, not just science and math?   


The following are some STEM design elements we observed in the schools we visited:

Most schools we visited emphasized the importance of using guided inquiry instead of open inquiry.  We saw so many displays of students’ explorations and how they began by posing good questions.

Students are guided in the development of critical thinking. There is an expectation that students approach problems from many angles, and they must also be able to articulate their thought processes as they move through their projects.

Students develop their multiple intelligences (ala Howard Gardner). Students are given many opportunities to express their creativity (sometimes through STEAM). The integrated art often illustrates concepts in an entirely different way.

Students work in teams with the option to go to breakout rooms when they need to work alone. This teamwork helps the team to develop diverse ideas and grapple with opposing viewpoints. This teamwork is scaffolded and team members evaluate themselves and others. (Intervention is sometimes required!) One teacher joked that things would go much better if the adults in the school followed the same practices.  

Students are encouraged to use metacognition and reflection to discover what kind of learners they are. This also helps students build emotional intelligence.

Teachers do not behave as “sages on the stage” but work BESIDE students to support, coach, encourage students as they make progress on their goals.  

Students are part of assessment: they help design and build their portfolios and projects. Formative assessments are frequent and rubrics help guide student work so that they  know what they must do to demonstrate new knowledge and skills. Many times the final assessment is a real world project.

Students are encouraged to develop their curiosity and passions ALL THE WAY THROUGH their education (not just in primary school).

Students use technology to achieve their goals, and do not just use technology as an end in itself. Innovations in technology are growing exponentially and open up new possibilities for enriching student learning every year.

Students  produce pieces of writing and products for REAL audiences, not just for the teacher. When they discover that others are interested in viewing/ listening, they develop poise and self confidence.

Inquiry/problem solving cycles are VISIBLE and practiced. This helps students with challenges.

Learning is active and hands on, and again connected to the real world. Students partner with others outside the school.

Students have choice and autonomy. They are engaged and energized  because they are given time, space, materials  and tools to best learn what they are most interested in.

Some of these elements are further explored in the article  “Considerations for Teaching Integrated STEM Education”.