A class of fourth grade students are hunched over their desks writing feverishly about their recent experiment in the STEM lab. Within their science notebooks, you can see evidence of their learning; drawings of their catapult designs, labeling all the parts, and personal reflection about their design experience. Writing is a consistent part of their STEM learning.
Some second graders are reviewing their notes from a recent nature walk around the school. A class of first graders are drafting a question detailing they’re “wonderings” about an upcoming science experiment. A group of kindergarteners are sitting on the floor drawing pictures in their science journals. Just as scientists do, all of these students are learning to document their discoveries and record their findings in a variety of ways. STEM does not just tap into science, technology, engineering, and math, but also pulls in literacy skills like reading and writing.
How do we begin?
Incorporating writing experiences into the STEM classroom should start in the early grades. Kindergarten and first grade students can begin sketching, labeling, and listing, their writing can expand into sentences and more detailed observations as their literacy skills begin to develop. In second and third grade, when literacy skills are a bit more proficient, students can begin to write summaries of their experiments, procedures for their hands-on explorations, and design plans for their engineering projects. This work continues in the upper elementary grades, as students include descriptive essays about their work and STEM, research reports, and the drafting of their own student created design challenges.
What can writing in STEM look like?
Writing in STEM can be as simple as a label or a few words on a sticky note. It can expand to research papers, lab reports, blogs, or personal reflections. Writing can help to confirm student thinking, document their understanding, and allow them to explore new ideas. Let’s think about a few simple strategies to incorporate writing into the STEM classroom.
Science notebooks can be used as an ongoing collection of learning in the STEM classroom. It can be a place where students document their work through the scientific method, writing down their hypothesis, possible steps of an experiment, and their conclusions upon completion of the experiment. Science notebooks are often a method for assessing students in science or STEM classes. Some science notebooks used a specific template, while others are more open-ended. Science notebooks can also be a part of a formal science curriculum.
Journal writing isn’t just for the ELA classroom. Scientists, engineers, and designers all brainstorm ideas, draw sketches, and take notes about the things they are working on. Journals are a great way for students to compile their ideas over time. Journals can be a simple paper notebook or they can be a digital collection of student work using a tech tool like Google Slides or Canva. Creating a digital portfolio of student writing can be a great way to show student understanding of STEM content.
The simple writing strategy can be used for any series of ideas that you want students to write that can be quantified. For example, if students are observing a class pet or watching a science video, use this strategy to encourage students to write:
3 things you notice
2 questions that you have
1 thing you want to learn more about
This strategy can also be used for engineering. When we present design challenges to students, we encourage them to come up with lots of ideas. We also ask them to select materials to construct their solutions. It is also important for students to consider any obstacles to their design solution. Here’s another way to incorporate 3-2-1 writing:
3 possible design solutions to the problem
2 different materials that you might use
1 problem that you might foresee
At any grade level exit tickets can be used as a way to document student understanding at the end of a lesson. It can be as simple as a half sheet of paper handed to students to share something that they’ve learned. Encourage students to write one take away from the lesson or have them write one misconception that they are still having even after instruction. Lastly, the exit ticket can also be a the form of a question. Students can write something that they are wondering about or something that they are hoping that they will learn incoming lessons.
Writing doesn’t always have to be lengthy. Multi-paragraph essays are daunting for some learners. Offer students opportunities for quick ways to engage in writing. Sticky notes are student-friendly. (It’s not terribly overwhelming to have to write your ideas on a 2x2 piece of paper.) In the younger grades, sticky notes can be used as a quick documentation of STEM learning.
Write one word that describes the results of the science experiment
List the materials that you would like to use in your next project
Write three things that you can transform a paper clip into.
List 5 different things that can grow.
In the upper grades, students might use a sticky note to provide feedback to their peers on a project or a challenge that they’ve completed. Here are some other ways that older elementary students can respond using sticky notes:
Write two topics that you’d like to study next
Share 3 words that describe how your group worked together on this project
List some recyclable materials that can be used as wheels
Write a critique to a peer about their design challenge
Connecting all the pieces
Writing is a great connector. It creates a bridge between literacy and the STEM subjects. It is also a connector in the way that writers connect with one another to share their ideas. Writing across all subject areas amplifies the importance for students to build both written and verbal communication skills, which is a primary goal of the STEM classroom, as well. Writing activities can be focused or open-ended. It can be a “quick write” or several paragraphs long. Infuse any type of writing into your STEM lessons to further engage students in building their understanding and connect with others through the written word.
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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