Meaningful careers. Financial stability. Happiness. That's what we all want for the future of our students, right? This might feel like an abstract, far-off concept when working with elementary school students. However, the foundation built during these formative years is exactly what supports achieving those goals. How do we cultivate the curiosity, tenacity, and student empowerment to help our students realize that future?
Think: Science… Technology… Engineering… Math.
While the STEM acronym stands for science, technology, engineering, and math, the real excitement comes from more than just teaching and learning academic content in those four areas, it comes from vitalizing the connections between these fields. In the best STEM programs, students are engaging in real-world problems—and solutions—creating a context for developing a deeper set of skills and new ways of thinking. STEM learning shows kids how they can make a difference, and also empowers them to make that difference.
Engage students in math and science early on—and never quit
Incorporating science inquiry, technology solutions, engineering design, and math applications into classroom instruction helps even young children make meaningful connections to the real world. The elementary classroom, bursting with kids' innate curiosity and energy, creates a natural environment for integrating key skills such as reading, writing, and math across all content areas. STEM can capitalize on elementary students' natural enthusiasm and curiosity—yet that window quickly closes on their interest in science if it's not fostered and encouraged.
Here's where a STEM paradigm excels. STEM learning urges students to personalize their learning: tackling a problem or pursuing a line of inquiry, organizing and articulating their ideas, and sharing discoveries. Children learn how to become comfortable with taking calculated risks, exploring real-world issues, and personally investing in the outcome of their explorations.
STEM learning is among the most powerful initiatives to invigorate schools in recent years. Businesses are increasingly eager to support STEM initiatives in schools at all levels, participating in events such as STEM fairs and presentations, and, for older students, offering career-path internships. When schools collaborate with businesses, students perceive previously unimagined or unexplored career paths as real possibilities. They begin to discover that their learning can make a difference in their larger community—how powerful is that?
Whitney Cobb provides professional development and K–12 curriculum design with special expertise in STEM and cross-curricular initiatives, and is the voice behind STEM@McREL Twitter and Facebook accounts. She is McREL's lead for NASA’s Dawn Mission education and communications team and a partner with NASA's Discovery and New Frontiers Programs. Whitney was an assistant principal, science specialist in 1st-8th grades, and high school science teacher prior to joining McREL.