A recent Edutopia article considers how we might teach higher-level engineering skills to elementary students. The first step is for us to actually believe that our students are capable of complex thought! The teacher in this account used Backwards Design Thinking to construct projects that engaged the students from 2nd through 4th grade. The article provides a clear outline along with rubrics and evaluation instruments. In visiting schools and seeing their STEM programs, classes, units, lessons, it is intriguing how narrow a vision of STEM can be. It might be helpful to have a list of words that represent the richness of a possible STEM curriculum in order to inspire thinking amongst colleagues. Here is one list: aerospace engineering, astrophysics, astronomy, biochemistry, biomechanics, chemical engineering, chemistry, civil engineering, computer science, mathematical biology, nanotechnology, neurobiology, nuclear physics, physics, and robotics.  It seems that STEM, from a student’s point of view, can easily become just another way of creating obstacles to education. Courses are often seen as difficult, with academic barriers to entry, aimed only at high performers, and not any more interesting than more conventionally titled courses in traditional subjects. It may be helpful to identify the characteristics of great STEM initiatives rather than attempting to define the subject itself. So here is one attempt to do just that from a paper produced in 2011 for European countries:

  • Problem-solving – able to define questions and problems, design investigations to gather data, collect and organize data, draw conclusions, and then apply understandings to new and novel situations.
  • Innovation – creatively use science, mathematics, and technology concepts and principles by applying them to the engineering design process.
  • Invention – recognize the needs of the world and creatively design, test, redesign, and then implement solutions (engineering process).
  • Self-reliance – able to use initiative and self-motivation to set agendas, develop and gain self-confidence, and work within time specified time frames.
  • Logical thinking – able to apply rational and logical thought processes of science, mathematics, and engineering design to innovation and invention.
  • Technological literacy – understand and explain the nature of technology, develop the skills needed, and apply technology appropriately.

Of course, you might apply this list or an edit of it to virtually any area of learning. That would not be a bad outcome!