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Integrating STEM Across the Curriculum

May 29, 2020 2020-05-29

By Wendy Harrop

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and maker education are viewed and defined differently no matter where you go. To me, the focus of any work in my STEM classes or in my makerspace is on the process and not the product. But STEM shouldn’t be viewed as a “special class” or a separate subject. There are ways to integrate STEM education and making throughout the school year and in every subject.

First, let me give you some background about myself and my program. I’m a STEM Integration Specialist in a K–4 public school in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin (outside of Milwaukee). Six years ago, we tore out our computer lab and built a gorgeous makerspace. We merged our library and technology programs, allowing kids to be in the library and makerspace with me for 60 minutes once a week.

My district added an additional 30 minutes of class every other week called library/STEM class. We are in a fortunate situation, given that we have a beautiful library with our adjoining makerspace and that we have a lot of technology available. However, we still view STEM as a “class” rather than STEM being integrated throughout the curriculum, so we still have work to do. When I refer to STEM as a subject, or STEM activities, I’m mostly referring to design challenges, coding and computer science activities, or student-directed makerspace projects.

Math and STEM go hand in hand—after all, the M in STEM does stand for math. The main focus of math in the youngest grades is number sense. I love using our Dash robots to develop number sense and practice estimation and measurement in younger kids. There are so many ways to use robots to teach and reinforce those ideas. Dash is programmed to move forward or backward in centimeters, turns are measured in degrees, and speed is measured in centimeters per second.

In addition to coding programs on devices, we also do a lot of unplugged coding activities in my program. Most of these involve a grid, which provides a perfect opportunity to teach coordinate grids. We play our own versions of Battleship using big grids drawn on sheets and we practice coding our “robot classmates” by writing step-by-step directions to move them to a specific square on the grid, helping reinforce counting with the youngest students and naming coordinates with the older ones. If you’ve ever had the chance to work with kids using robotics challenge cards or building challenges, you hear them discussing and rationalizing the numbers they’re using, the shapes they’re making, and explaining to each other why they need to make a number higher or lower or why the angle is too wide or too narrow. They are applying these math concepts to what they see as games.

Science, being the S of STEM, is another subject where STEM activities can be integrated. Science concepts can be taught, tested, or applied to building challenges, design projects, or student choice projects. In general, programming robots is great for teaching the idea of variables and testing a hypothesis. You can have the kids predict what code is needed to move the robot to a specific spot or perform an action, allowing them to change one variable at a time to change the results.

Any building or design challenges benefit from an understanding of simple machines, forces, energy, and properties of matter. As a culminating project for the matter unit I teach in my class (Carolina Science), students have to design an object to solve a hypothetical problem by choosing the materials and design to best suit the task. This is a wonderful integration of the science concepts and the engineering design process in one project.

Now that we’ve tackled the obvious subjects, we’ll get to my real passion—integrating STEM and literacy. For so long we’ve thought of these two as separate silos—right brain and left brain, creative and literal, math/science and reading/writing. There are so many ways to blend these all into integrated activities. One of my first experiences with students programming robots (Dash and Sphero, specifically) was the first year we had them. I had a group of kids who came up with the idea to “act out” the three little pigs using their robots. They designed and created costumes and scenery, with Dash being the wolf and three Spheros being the pigs. They wrote programs using Blockly and Sphero Edu to make their characters move from one place to the next, and they “performed” their rendition of the three little pigs for their classmates. The coding was not the focus. The focus was on the storytelling and the ability to understand and represent the characters. Since then, I have been looking for ways to integrate what I do in the makerspace with literacy instruction.

I have become a huge fan of STEM and stories—using a picture book as a springboard for a STEM design challenge. For example, I will read If I Built A Car by Christopher Van Dusen as a read aloud, and then have a minilesson on wheels and axles. Then the kids do a Design Thinking Planning Sheet, going through the process of brainstorming, planning, building, testing, and improving. They absolutely love this activity, and without them knowing it they’ve learned about a simple machine and practiced the design process. There are lists and lists of books that have great STEM tie-ins. I’ve listed a few of my favorites below. Sometimes the task is a building challenge based on solving the character’s problem in the story, but sometimes the task is using something like coding to retell the story. I love having my older students code a fairy tale in Scratch. I can immediately assess their comprehension and their awareness of story elements, as well as their understanding of coding.

Favorite Books:

  • Andrea Beatty
    • Rosie Revere, Engineer
    • Ada Twist, Scientist
    • Iggy Peck, Architect
  • Chris Van Dusen
    • If I Built a Car
    • If I Built a House
  • Kobi Yamada
    • What Do You Do with a Problem?
    • What Do You Do with a Idea?
  • Jane Yolen
    • What to Do with a Box
  • April Prince
    • 21 Elephants and Still Standing
  • Ashley Spires
    • The Most Magnificent Thing
  • Shanda McCloskey
    • Doll-E 1.0

Some of my favorite projects have integrated STEM and music—using the Makey Makeys to create pianos (from bananas to Play-Doh and cups of water) and using the Dash robot with the Xylo attachment to code songs. My older, more confident students use Sonic Pi to code music with text-based coding. We also use our makerspace to make our own instruments quite often. The kids love exploring the sounds and pitches and trying to recreate melodies. We’ve also had fun creating Doodle Bots with markers and off-balance DC motors or doing Sphero paintings where the Sphero drives through paint and onto a blank paper to create abstract art. Students can create digital art in Scratch by using a repeat block and a drawing pattern that creates an open shape to draw a mandala (like the spirographs we used as kids). Students can then manipulate the angles used to see how it changes the shape. For many ideas of how to integrate technology and art in amazingly creative ways, I recommend that you get to know the work of Tricia Fuglestad. She does this brilliantly!

Social-Emotional Development
Some of my favorite benefits of all the work we do in the makerspace and with STEM are the social benefits. For students working in groups, they are learning so much about cooperative work skills—negotiation, listening, clear communication, taking turns, compromising, and being supportive. They are also learning how to work by themselves—they’re learning how to plan, how to use mistakes as learning opportunities, how to be ok facing a challenge, and how to troubleshoot or debug. They also develop and use two important skills—patience and perseverance. These skills all transfer outside the makerspace into all their work.

A few years after we began our makerspace, one of the classroom teachers called me into her room to check out an activity she was doing with her students—it was a holiday themed STEM building challenge. She had done this activity a couple years in a row and had remarked how each year their level of creativity and attention to detail improved, how their attitude about facing challenges had changed, and how noticeably they worked well in groups to approach the challenge. She attributed this to activities like group coding challenges that focus on process not product. This is why I’m such a strong believer in what we’re doing in STEM education and by creating rich and engaging exploration opportunities.

Bringing It All Together
STEM doesn’t need to be taught in isolation. STEM activities can be integrated across all subjects. As a teacher living in the real world, I know the first questions are “How am I going to develop these activities” and “When will I ever have time to do these with my students?” The goal is to integrate these activities into your existing curriculum and there are so many places online to find activities to help you. I’ve listed some of my go-to resources below.

Favorite Sources:

Wendy Harrop has been a teacher for 24 years, teaching in Illinois, California, and now Wisconsin. She spent 11 years in the classroom and the past 13 years teaching elementary technology/STEM in Oconomowoc, near Milwaukee. Away from school she is a wife, mother, runner, reader, author, and traveler. You can find Wendy on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or email.

STEM • STEAM • STREAM Arts Reading/English/Language Arts Social-Emotional Learning

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