Before going into any detail on elementary STEM activities, I feel like I need to add a disclaimer. I like crafts. I have nothing against crafts. I’m only trying to clarify the difference between elementary STEM activities or STEAM activities and craft projects, as well as share ways to implement STEM lessons effectively in the upper elementary classroom.
To be quite honest, my personality is better suited to craft projects rather than elementary STEM activities. Crafts have step-by-step directions. I know what the finished product should look like. I can keep everything clean and in control. STEM activities on the other hand are….well…..messy. There aren’t step-by-step directions for students. There is no predetermined finished product. I have to give up control in the design process and entrust my students with that control.
I actually resisted STEM when I first heard of it several years ago, because in my eyes it was just another education buzz word. However, I began to slowly research, participate in professional develop opportunities, and create and implement elementary STEM activities and lessons in my own classroom, and my thinking changed. I began to see the value in STEM, and I especially love how it compliments the growth mindset attitude I work all year to foster in my students. As I teach science, I don’t only utilize STEM activities. Instead, I use these lessons in conjunction with a large variety of other resources and techniques.
Characteristics of a STEM Lesson
Let’s stop for a moment and reflect on the characteristics of a STEM activity (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) or lesson.
- An engineering design process is what guides STEM lessons. Students define problems, research, brainstorm, create a prototype, and then test, and redesign.
- STEM lessons involve students in cooperative teamwork.
- STEM lessons apply math and science content students are learning.
- STEM lessons allow for multiple right answers and see failure as a necessary part of learning.
There are also a few things that STEM is NOT.
STEM is not a cookie cutter project. STEM projects might use the same materials, but the final products are very different. For example, when I was teaching ecosystems, I had my students create a food chain. I gave explicit direction, so when everything was finished all of the food chains were complete, correct, and looked nice hanging from the ceiling. However, they all looked exactly alike. If students’ finished products are all exactly the same, then it’s a cookie cutter project.
Elementary STEM Activities
STEM creations are all different. Even when the groups have the exact same materials, the groups will design and build something different. Many times students take their creations to an entirely different place than I expected, and that’s okay. For example, in STEM activity where students designed a cannonball launcher, students had the same materials, but their designs were completely different. No two looked alike.
As I was developing these elementary STEM activities, I had my daughter try them out at home, before I implemented them in my classroom. She is the quintessential gifted student who has perfectionist tendencies and is used to getting things right. These lessons frustrated her SO MUCH. She initially thought it was all fun and games, but then she failed, and failed again as she tried to solve the challenges. STEM lessons are fun for students, but they’re not easy, require significant problem solving, and collaboration. I love that it requires students to step outside of their comfort zone.
Elementary STEM activities force students to develop a growth mindset, because failure is a natural part of the design process. Building a sailboat seemed like such an easy task for students, but when we placed them in water and turned on the fan, the boats started tipping. Students had to redesign their boats to create more study and balanced sailboats. This shift in thinking is not quick or easy, but it’s so worth it for students.
The two biggest problems that I’ve run into are materials and time. Getting materials isn’t hard at all. I rarely ever spend money on our STEM resources, because 90% of the things we use are household items that would normally be thrown away. My problem is what to do with projects as students are working on them. Occasionally, we complete multi-day projects that have to be stored somewhere, and I don’t have any storage space. I teach two groups of students, so I have a lot of projects to store. I don’t have a great solution for this, so I do try to implement mostly one-day projects.
It feels like no matter what I’m trying to do time is always my biggest problem. There simply isn’t enough hours in the day for me to do everything I want/need to accomplish. I’m always looking for ways to integrate multi subjects, so I thought why not combine social studies and science. I’ve created a resource that provides elementary STEM activities and lessons that correlate with major events in United States history. It begins with European Exploration where students develop a navigational tool that sailors would have used in those days. I provide websites that students can access to research how sailors navigated during that time period, as well as information on compasses.
The stem activities move through early Native Americans, early colonies, French and Indian War, Boston Tea Party, American Revolution, and western expansion. Students even create their own version of the cotton gin. This was one of the few projects where I showed students an example of a finished product BEFORE beginning the activity. My instinct said that my students would need the extra support in this, and I was right. It was a bit challenging, but it was a great way to teach the concept.
The STEM activities continue through the gold rush, underground railroad, Civil War, transcontinental railroad, Chicago fire, telephone, immigration, and Wright Brothers. As I taught the industrial revolution, students attempted to find a faster way to produce Hershey Kisses. Groups designed their plan, and I timed them for five minutes. They counted how many they were able to make during that time frame. Then students revised and improved their plans and tried again.
There are more lessons for the San Francisco Earthquake, automobile, and World War One. When I taught the Great Depression, I taught about the Hoover Dam, so to integrate science I had students design their own working dam.
As the events move into more modern history, the STEM activities center around World War Two, Vietnam, space exploration, and the civil rights movement. Many of these activities can also be combined with language arts, which creates the ultimate integration of subjects.
You can find these resources on my TpT shop here! I’ve included a fun STEM freebie (Google Drive link) that you may enjoy. It’s definitely a multi-day project, but my students really enjoyed it. We created bird feeders that we hung outside my classroom window. This is a great end of the year STEM activity-I don’t believe I would have attempted it before testing. The freebie is written in the same format as my other elementary STEM activities, so you can get an idea of what is included.
To get more information on incorporating elementary STEM activities into your science instruction be sure to check out this mega blog post!