My quest to create an integrated primary STEM program

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(Last updated 20 January 2017) This page documents my quest to develop an integrated STEM program for a primary school setting. I assumed there would be plenty of programs in existence already that facilitate the development of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Science) skills in an integrated manner through the primary school years. It turns out that this isn’t the case. As identified in the Australian Council for Educational Research (June 2016) ‘From concept to classroom Translating STEM education research into practice‘ paper, there are none.

In fact the deeper you look into the research, the more problematic an integrated STEM education program is for a primary school setting. This is particularly in the area of students being able to transfer knowledge between the STEM subjects. It turns out that it takes a lot of knowledge and experience with just one subject before this knowledge can be applied in another subject area.

Planning an integrated STEM program?

A further issue surrounding planning an integrated STEM in a primary setting is that there is no agreement on what STEM education is. For instance, is STEM education just programming a robot, coding using Scratch (my giggle over that name is never going away) or is it learning how plants grow and plotting the results using Google Sheets?

For the sake of my sanity, I am going with STEM being basically all about problem solving. As a teacher, that is not much help when it comes to planning as somehow a STEM master plan must somehow link in with the Australian Curriculum documents. Given there is not ‘Engineering’ document for a primary setting, that isn’t much help.

So for my first year (2017), I will be using the two Australian Curriculum – Technology documents as the basis of my initial planning. It is a great decision from a reporting viewpoint – as it gives me something to report against (likely only a teacher will appreciate this!). Essentially, I am guaranteeing that for half the year students will be making things and the other half of the year it will be all about them learning about computing.

However, this still doesn’t give me an integrated primary STEM program!

Components of a integrated primary STEM program

I have undertaken lots of reading to try and work out what underlying guidelines need to be in place to create an integrated primary STEM program. So far my list is as follows.

  • Use an explicit learning model (this could be the 5 E’s model as used by Primary Connections and EngQuest resources or the ‘Experience, Share, Process, Generalise, Apply’ model developed by Barker and Ansorge (2007));
  • Students should have plenty of opportunity to fail – to facilitate opportunities to develop a growth mindset;
  • Encourage curiosity;
  • Always include a literacy aspect (include activities such as argumentation and analysis of scientific texts);
  • Incorporate external partnerships – it provides real world contexts for activities and increases student engagement;
  • Use open ended challenges (it results in more student ownership and therefore engagement in learning);
  • Target under represented students (i.e. inspire more girls to be engineers); and
  • Focus on a small number of skills – to maximise the likelihood of students transferring them between subject areas.

The cover of ‘Hello Ruby Adventures in Coding’. Purchased from Book Depository for $14.95 postage free. The book is a combination of a story with activities focusing on computer programming without the need for a computer. Also has a female main character as a real bonus. The story is very clever with the ability to link it naturally to develop computational thinking in your students. I will trial using it as an introductory activity (read over a number of weeks) at the start of programming lessons with middle and upper primary students in 2017.

Note that this list does not specify activities (i.e. programming robots, sewing or 3D printing). They can be slotted in – depending on the interests of the teacher running a STEM program, the students interests, the priorities of the school principal and board and the resources you have access to.

STEM resources that I will be using

To avoid this list needing its own website (!), I am going to attempt to restrict it to resources I have used or referenced in the development of my integrated Primary STEM program.

  • Australian Council for Educational Research (June 2016) ‘From concept to classroom Translating STEM education research into practice‘ paper
  • (Australian) Computer Science Education Research Group (CSER) – CSER is home to the CSER Digital Technologies MOOC program, through which we provide open, free online professional learning in Digital Technologies for Australian teachers.
  • (N.Z.) Computer Science Unplugged website – (Text from website) ‘CS Unplugged is a collection of free learning activities that teach Computer Science through engaging games and puzzles that use cards, string, crayons and lots of running around. The activities introduce students to Computational Thinking through concepts such as binary numbers, algorithms and data compression, separated from the distractions and technical details of having to use computers. Importantly, no programming is required to engage with these ideas!
  • (U.S.A.) STEM Integration in K-12 Education: Status, Prospects, and an Agenda for Research report. This report ‘…reviews the evidence for the impact of integrated approaches on various student outcomes, and it proposes a set of priority research questions to advance the understanding of integrated STEM education. Integration in K-12 STEM Education proposes a framework to provide a common perspective and vocabulary for researchers, practitioners, and others to identify, discuss, and investigate specific integrated STEM initiatives within the K-12 education system of the United States.‘ ‘This is a joint report from the National Academy of Engineering and the Board on Science Education.
  • (United Kingdom) STEM LearningThe National STEM Learning Network is the largest provider of STEM education and careers support to schools, colleges and other groups working with young people across the UK.‘ As well of lots of interesting resources, they also publish a three once per (U.K.) school term STEM Learning Magazines targeting primary, secondary and post 16 students.

Other STEM resources

There are an amazing range of resources out there for primary school teachers. I will list ones here that look promising or I have used in the past for other reasons.

  • Primary Connections (Australian Academy of Science). This is a highly recommended resource which combines science and literacy. I liked the resources so much I paid to become a trained ‘Faciliator’ a number of years ago. I am not using them as the basis of a STEM program because I strongly believe that the class teachers should be using them because of the meaningful literacy linkages. It would be very easy to extend each of the books (one for each content strand of the Australian Curriculum (Science) for each primary year level) into a full blown STEM program. If I was to do that, I would be asking students to construct things like the actual measuring instruements.
  • reSolve: Mathematics by Inquiry (Australian Academy of Science). This is a brand new and still under development resource which is worth keeping an eye on. (Text from website) ‘‘reSolve: Mathematics by Inquiry’ is a national program that provides Australian schools in Foundation to Year 10 with resources to help students learn mathematics in an innovative and engaging way. Resources are available free to all Australian students and teachers. reSolve is managed by the Australian Academy of Science in collaboration with the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers, and is funded by the Australian Government Department of Education and Training.‘ ‘The reSolve: Mathematics by Inquiry Protocol‘ is worth reading.

Helpful / Inspirational videos

I will add videos here that I find useful in developing an integrated primary STEM program. TED.com is a fantastic first port of call for them.

What next?

That is all I am publishing for now. This is partly because I am going on a cruise (read that as a relaxing holiday where someone else does the cooking and cleaning while I watch the scenery go by), and partly because I need a break from thinking!

More to come in February 2017.