Engaging Students in the Early Grades: Why STEM Learning Works

I visited an early elementary classroom the other day where students were working on a design challenge. They were spread out across the classroom clustered in small groups. Some on the floor and others perched on stools, these students were focused on the problem at hand. Tasked with the challenge to build a vehicle that can move across the floor using only wind power, the teams are working collaboratively with the materials they were provided.

Armed with straws, circular candies, twist ties, index cards, and paper clips, the young designers are moving through the Engineering Design Cycle (Figure 1). They spend time chatting and imagining what this vehicle could look like. They draft individual plans, sketching ideas on sheets of paper or on a class whiteboard. Then they share their ideas with the group, taking parts of one design and adding it to components from another. As the excitement builds, they begin to create their models, fitting pieces together with the hopes that it will turn out how they had planned.

As the designs come together, many groups start testing out their vehicles. Will the wheels stay on? Can we actually get it to move across the floor? Quickly, students fail and readjust their designs. They know this is part of what designers and engineers do. They make changes to their models and try again. May are successful while others head back to the drawing board. Towards the end of class time, the students gather together to share their ideas with others and get feedback. The entire process is so interesting to me as an observer that I almost forget that these kids are 6 and 7 years old!

Figure 1: Engineering Design Process

Early STEM Learning Makes Sense

Engaging students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) learning doesn’t just happen in middle and high schools. In fact, some of the most creative and empowering lessons in science, technology, engineering, and math that I’ve seen have been in the elementary grades. When you think about it, students in the early grades are at the perfect stage to embrace the integrated, hands-on learning that STEM provides. They have that sparkle in their eye and the creative spirit that makes STEM learning an approach that should be a part of all classrooms in the primary grades.

STEM learning is effective in the early grade for a number of reasons. It might be, in part, due to the hands-on, tactile nature of learning in the primary grades or the activity level that occurs in those classrooms. STEM makes sense for students because of the interconnected way that science overlaps math and art and design blends into technology. For our youngest learners, new discoveries and learning through exploration fuel new curiosities both in and out of the classroom. Small-group STEM learning gives students the opportunities to work with others and engage in cooperative learning tasks that build critical soft skills like communication, flexibility, and problem-solving .

An Integrated Approach

Although education tends to put things into silos, young learners don’t think that way. They don’t see a separation between math and art and science and reading—not until we teach them that there’s a separation. When we take a more integrated approach, we can provide a well-rounded educational experience for our youngest learners. Our little explorers use their imaginations at play, often blurring the lines between subject areas. Skilled elementary teachers do that, too. They carefully craft connections between subject areas that result in meaningful learning for students.

Build on Curiosities                                                                                               

When students are young, they have an undeniable spark of curiosity in the things around them. The way a spider builds its web. The way colors shimmer when you’re blowing bubbles. Students in the early grades are fascinated by these and other STEM related topics, which is why we need to capitalize on this interest. When we introduce STEM learning to our students, they often find their passions in coding, circuitry, or architecture. When we build on curiosities learning is unlimited.

Develop Collaboration Skills

STEM learning provides ongoing opportunities for early elementary students to develop collaboration skills. When faced with experiments or design challenges, students begin to figure out their role within a group. Are they the designer, the organizer, or the recorder? Does their role change depending on the task? Sharing responsibilities, voicing opinions, and working towards a collective goal are all positive outcomes of collaborative STEM learning experiences. They also build teamwork skills that will not only benefit them in the school setting, but also in college, career, and beyond.

Step Into STEM

All students can benefit from STEM learning from preschool through high school. It provides particular advantages for our youngest learners as they chase their curiosities and build important skills. Students like those who participated in the vehicle challenge, engage in understanding complex problems and finding innovative solutions. They tap into creative thinking and pursue things that they are passionate about. STEM learning isn’t just for students with years of content knowledge in science, technology, engineering, and math, it is for every curious learner who is ready to engage in fun, connected learning.

About the Author: 
Dr. Jacie Maslyk is an Assistant Superintendent focusing on curriculum, instruction, and professional learning. She has served in public school as a classroom teacher, reading specialist, elementary principal, and Director of Elementary Education over the last 22 years. She is passionate about STEM education and is the author of STEAM Makers: Fostering Creativity and Innovation in the Elementary Classroom. You can contact Jacie through her website at steam-makers.com.


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