STEM for Elementary School: The Complete Introduction


An anxiety-provoking aspect of parenting regards choices to prepare children for a future world that we can only vaguely imagine through a curriculum that parents sometimes do not understand. How and when (and in some cases – if) to start STEM education can be a challenge for parents and educators.

STEM for elementary school involves teaching Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics in the three phases before high school. It equips young children with a numerate sense of scientific inquiry and design orientation. The emphasis is on interaction rather than rote study.

To see how and why this is done, we need to explore the scope of STEM, the constraints of elementary school education, and the social demand for technicians. Let’s explore:

STEM in Elementary School

What Is STEM In The Elementary School?

STEM takes the form of integrated, stand-alone programs offered at all educational levels. In elementary school, it involves preparatory programs either integrated into the core curriculum or as extracurricular offerings.

There is no single STEM curriculum, and both content and approach vary between schools, based on interpretations and implementations of the core principles and outcomes sought.  

Defining STEM

STEM is not a subject itself, rather it’s method of teaching that blends the four categories together (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.)

Elementary school STEM is an immersive education in science and design. Learners are encouraged to practically engage as they develop the behaviors that go with being numerate, critical collaborative problem solvers.

At the elementary school level, the scope of STEM typically includes an introduction to coding, counting, mathematical operations, rudimentary physics, and topics in natural science.

Practical problem-solving orientation is followed, whereby learners create artifacts and solve puzzles. This activity contrasts with the traditional approach of learning and recalling facts and solving theoretical exercises. Rote learning is precluded.

Two variations on the core STEM offering are STEAM and the introduction of social science.

STEAM

STEAM is short for STEM + Arts. It is an approach that uses creative processes from the art world to understand STEM concepts. Its motivation includes the following:

  • Polymaths such as Da Vinci have established the applicability of artistic methods to technical invention.
  • STEM explicitly recognizes the link between engineering and design. Design traditionally draws from artistic methods.
  • Creativity is a core philosophical aim of STEM.
  • Content creation is a skill required by the industrial demand that motivates STEM.

The arts-integrated with STEAM include visual and performance arts, language, the Humanities, and New Media.

Related Post: What is the difference between STEM and STEAM

Social Science

Some educators have argued for broadening the S in STEM to include social science. They hold that:

  • Natural science is but one of the sciences, and the rationale for teaching science is not limited to the natural and physical world.
  • The questioning and creative orientation that science fosters are also available in the practice of social science.
  • Some STEM topics – like “The Climate Crisis,” “Responsible Internet Use,” and “Cyber Safety” enter the social territory.

Disciplines included under the expanded understanding include history, anthropology, philosophy, social studies, and geography.

Related Post: In our post Do STEM Schools Teach History, we talk about STEM and the social sciences.

Philosophy Of STEM

STEM takes a holistic and interdisciplinary approach to knowledge. This accords with the traditional approach to elementary school teaching, where subject silos are not (yet) clearly delineated, especially in the primary elementary years.

STEM is goal-directed at various levels. To begin, the motivation is largely based on preparing children for eventual jobs twenty years into their future. At the subject level, the emphasis is not on learning facts for their own sake but on developing practical problem-solving skills.

STEM inculcates operant behavior. Students do not read about their subjects passively and from a distance. They engage directly through experimentation. Starting this at foundational age instills confidence.

Related Post: Learn more about the hands on Experiential Learning approach used in STEM in our post about STEM in Early Education. 

Habits of mind, rather than mere skills and knowledge sets, are favored and actively developed in STEM education. Learners are brought to question, analyze, represent and solve in ways that become second nature, rather than having a formal student persona that they shed outside of the classroom.

The Elementary School System

With some minor variance in some regions, an elementary school in the United States covers kindergarten up to and including grade 5. This is subcategorized further:

  • Primary Elementary: Grades K (kindergarten) – 2; Ages 4-7
  • Intermediate Elementary: Grade Levels 3 – 5; Ages 8-11

For STEM education, the critical features of this distinction are:

  • The primary group is generally incapable of reading. This constrains the materials and modes of learning.
  • In using technical equipment, the primary group is more exposed to safety concerns.
  • Only minimal assumptions may be entertained about the habits of mind of entering primary learners.
  • The intermediate group has been prepared for STEM orientation in their primary stage.

Why Teach STEM In Elementary School?

Elementary school STEM programs are regarded as foundational for middle and high school, and ultimately universities and industry. Because technological competence requires a range of aptitudes, not merely a limited set of knowledge, this technical orientation is taught during children’s formative years.

The early inculcation of STEM reduces the perception of technology as difficult and optional. It is this perception that has contributed to a high opt-out rate in science and technology learning. Introducing STEM only in middle school would concentrate the intensity of the pre-high-school STEM foundational course.

Criticism Of Elementary School STEM

With all of its benefits and advantages, STEM is not universally praised. Criticisms include:

  • Aptitude: On this view, children are variably scientifically inclined. It is inappropriate to give very young children a technical education to which some of them are not suited when they should be receiving more general preparation.
  • Cost: The laboratory style of STEM education makes it impractical in poorer communities. This exacerbates inequality (to the extent that STEM is beneficial).
  • Redundancy: There is concern that technology, and design, per se, are contentless. They can only be taught in domains of application, and if possible, the educational focus should then be on those domains.
  • Cost: The laboratory style of STEM education makes it impractical in poorer communities. This exacerbates inequality (to the extent that STEM is beneficial).
  • Diversity: Outcomes in STEM education reflect race and class skews, with Blacker, poorer students faring poorer on test metrics. A reason cited is that STEM is resource-intensive and so inadvertently designed to disadvantage learners from marginalized communities.

The Elementary School STEM Curriculum

At the tertiary level, the demands of employment lead to increasing standardization of curricula and teaching standards. This standardization is to create recognizable qualifications coveted by employers, which ease entry into the job market.

In contrast, there is no standard curriculum at the elementary end of the STEM spectrum, and different institutions apply latitude depending on their educational philosophy and the availability of resources – including teaching staff.

Elementary STEM development is an eclectic process under constant development under a range of influences. Below is an indicative offering, drawn from actual objectives and activities of STEM programs currently on offer. Throughout the primary phase provides a foundation for the intermediate.

Elementary School Science

Natural science is a longstanding core ingredient of the school syllabus. In elementary STEM, the introduction to these disciplines occurs earlier. Both biological and life sciences are involved.

Primary Elementary Science

Primary elementary students learn the mechanical nature of the natural world by looking at physical and biological systems. Outcomes in this phase include:

  • Basic Science: Understanding cause and effect.
  • Kinetics: Understanding concepts related to motion and energy through play.
  • Weather and Climate: Through observation, assess the impact on the Earth’s surface of sunlight.
  • Environmental Planning: Probe weather forecasts to respond to and prepare for extreme local weather conditions.
  • Systems Awareness: Understand the relationships of dependency and effect between apparently independent entities.

Sample activities:

  • Conduct observations to confirm that plants and animals have similar but not identical characteristics with their offspring.
  • Design and execute an investigation to determine whether sunshine and water are necessary for the growth of plants.

Intermediate Elementary Science

In intermediate elementary, more advanced inquiry. Outcomes in this phase include:

  • Pattern Analysis: User pattern recognition to sort and categorize natural phenomena.
  • Scientific Literacy: Learn to read and understand non-technical scientific descriptions. Write informative, explanatory examinations of a topic that convey salient details.
  • Scientific Reasoning: Construct arguments from evidence in support or rejection of a hypothesis.
  • Modeling: Create abstract representations of real-world systems.
  • Reporting: Include multimedia components in reports.

Sample activities:

  • Gather and present evidence to show the relationship between physical traits and environmental factors.
  • Create models to show that the energy in animal fuel is derived from the sun.
  • Develop an argument that the air and water are primary sources of plant energy. (Check out our STEM activities on Photosynthesis.)

Elementary School Technology

The first steps in technology learning require an explicit orientation of children to discerning users of complex instruments. In the transition to the intermediate phase, they assume control of the instruments.

Primary Elementary Technology

Here learners are introduced to mechanical instruments. Outcomes in this phase include:

  • Teleology: Being able to identify the functions of instruments.
  • Technology Consumption: Confident use of computer equipment.
  • Rules and Outcomes: Understanding the concepts of algorithms and rule-based behavior.
  • Task Orientation: Linking outcomes to programmable behavior.
  • Personal safety: The consequences of unsafe technology use.

Sample activities:

  • Designing a game.
  • Instructing a robot.
  • Navigating the Internet.

Intermediate Elementary Technology

In this phase, the focus moves to technological control.  Outcomes are:

  • Functional Design: The ability to articulate functional requirements as a rudimentary specification.
  • Design Implementation: Moving from design specification to a working instance or prototype.
  • Programming Language: Understanding the concepts of algorithms and rule-based behavior.
  • Technical Self Study: Independent discovery of technical information.

Sample activities:

  • Learning programming language structures with Scala.
  • Programming and assembling a robot.

Elementary School Engineering

In STEM engineering, children learn about the built environment, develop an appreciation for its design as being complementary to the natural environment, and shift into the role of builders.

Primary Elementary Engineering

The focus is on beginning to actively question the environment. Children’s natural curiosity is nurtured as they are developed from passive acceptors to critics of their given environment.

  • Observation: Explicitly noticing and naming details in the environment.
  • Questioning: Looking for reasons that explain environmental features.
  • Data Gathering: Desiring and seeking missing information.
  • Posing Problems: Not simply accepting given arrangements.

Sample Activities:

  • Design and construction: Lighting Systems
  • Design and construction: Hand Pollinators.

Intermediate Elementary Engineering

The focus is on beginning to actively question the environment. Children’s natural curiosity is nurtured as they are developed from passive acceptors to critics of their given environment.

  • Literacy: The ability to read and express design and engineering ideas and problems.
  • Reformulation: Looking for multiple solutions to single problems.
  • Real-World Engagement: An appreciation of practical applications of engineering and design.
  • Persistence: The habit of continuing to work through early failure.

Sample Activities:

  • Design and construction: Maglev Systems
  • Design and construction: Solar Ovens.

Elementary School Mathematics

Like science, math is a core component of the traditional elementary school curriculum. Because of STEM’s interdisciplinary nature, the mathematical presentation includes references to cross-cutting concepts.

Primary Elementary Mathematics

In primary elementary, a basis is a set of quantitative thinking. No assumption can be made about the numeracy of learners entering the system.

  • Numbers: Understand numbers, ways of representing them, and the relationships between them.
  • Operations: Understand the meanings of operations and how they relate to each other.
  • Mathematical Modelling: Use physical models to connect numbers, number words, and quantities.
  • Fractions: Understand and model common fractions.

Intermediate Elementary Mathematics

At the intermediate level, there could be a close overlap with the regular math curriculum. The course developer will have an eye on the other three STEM components to ensure that the mathematics curriculum serves the cross-cutting concepts.

  • Analysis: Understand real numbers beyond positive integers. Explore uncommon fractions and negative numbers.
  • Algebra: Describe classes of numbers by characteristics such as factors and common denominators.
  • Problem Solving: Relate abstract concepts and quantitative techniques to practical problems.
  • Modeling: Continue with more advanced mathematical modeling.

STEM For Elementary School Teachers

Elementary school STEM teachers are required to have a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, engineering, or natural or life science. In addition, they are required to have an early-learning teaching qualification.

Because STEM is interdisciplinary, teachers are encouraged to take courses in curriculum construction and material presentation. The teacher will be required to teach in domains outside of her primary domain of expertise.

Various training providers have packed STEM courses aimed at school teachers. These are particularly helpful with the technology component of STEM, as it remains in the greatest state of flux.

Related Post: What makes a great STEM teacher?

Elementary School Stem In Practice

The ideology is that STEM is a blended approach to learning the related subjects, where projects and solutions require applied knowledge from multiple domains.  This approach enhances problem solving and critical thinking skills and prepares students for higher education and careers.  Some implementations of STEM programs hit the mark, while others focus on individual subjects.

The United States Federal government sponsors several agencies and legislative programs. Most of these are general educational programs. The STEM-specific ones are tilted towards tertiary education and research, with elementary school absorbed under grades K-12; meaning elementary school gets lumped into the school system as a whole.

Consequently, the development and offering of elementary-specific programs are not guided by a single coherent policy. This has the advantage of fostering a diverse approach. Programs are offered by four sources.

  • Public Schools: The approach in the public school sector is to offer STEM by combining traditional math and science with technological supplements.
  • Private Schools: With more latitude in curriculum structuring, some private schools are offering STEM as a single “subject,” where teachers have the assistance of a technology fellow.
  • Home Schools: Some home schools offer STEM. This has been made easier with the COVID-proliferation of online teaching and resources. Virtual lessons allow specialists to reach households, easing the technical burden on parents.
  • Extracurricular Programs: Commercial institutions offer STEM programs as a supplement to the school curriculum. Parents can choose to enroll their children in these.

Following the funding pattern, research into STEM ranges too broadly over the school system to offer insights into the success of elementary-level programs specifically.

Various online resources are available to offer guidance concerning the structuring of curricula. These include some attempts to introduce standards and standards-compliant materials.

Wrap Up – STEM in Elementary School

STEM instruction at elementary school levels has evolved to be increasingly successful over time.  The importance of STEM education at the elementary level is widely recognized, though implementation and learning experiences may differ from school to school.

By shopping broadly, the parent or educator can find institutions that offer the best programs and resources. Or even the tools to create their own.

You can read more in our articles about STEM in Education and the impact of STEM in Early Childhood Education.

hevanmiller

H. Evan Miller is as dedicated to fatherhood as he is to life long learning. Musician, Photographer, Educator, Consultant, Entrepreneur, Blogger, and founder of STEMtropolis, where you can share his adventures in STEM and STEAM with his family.

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