Teaching STEM subjects in the most effective way can require non-traditional approaches to learning. Here we provide all the information and tips you need to inspire your students.
Whether you’re currently a STEM teacher wanting to learn more effective teaching methods or an aspiring STEM teacher, we’ve got some great tips for you to use in the classroom. In this post we’ll be discussing STEM teaching methods, how to plan STEM lessons, the best ways to assess students in STEM and how to engage your students.
STEM industries are continually growing and changing, and so teachers of STEM subjects need to take a creative and adaptable approach to their teaching styles to get the most out of their students. In STEM teaching, you don’t simply want to provide information and correct students when they make mistakes.
Instead, an ideal STEM learning environment is all about asking questions and encouraging independent thinking. In STEM, failure teaches students to problem-solve and is an essential part of growth.
What are STEM subjects?
If you haven’t heard of STEM before, it stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths, and refers to anything that exists within those realms. We’ve detailed what these subjects generally consist of below, though it’s worth mentioning that there are huge overlaps between them:
As these industries are continually evolving, there is always a high demand for qualified graduates, and often these demands are not met. Originally, STEM subjects were grouped together in the early 2000s because governments and universities around the world were creating STEM programs and initiatives to attract students to these subjects. However, STEM has begun to take a new direction in recent years and is not merely a way of grouping subjects like science and maths together.
New approaches to teaching and learning have emerged from STEM, and the subjects have become more integrated. Contrary to traditional science, maths and IT lessons, the focus has shifted away from learning and regurgitating content. A stronger emphasis has been placed on applying scientific skills, learning technology production skills and design thinking. Most importantly, STEM education is about bridging the gap between the classroom and real life.
STEM teaching methods
Here we discuss some of the main approaches that you can take when teaching your students STEM. All of these methods are useful, so it might be worth mixing up your lessons and using a variety of techniques to keep your students interested.
This method encourages students to learn skills and apply their knowledge by taking part in a project. They work for an extended period to research and create a solution to a problem or query. Your role as a teacher is to be a facilitator and encourage students to take full control of their projects from start to finish. Some examples of project-based learning in STEM could be designing an app or building a model of a bridge.
There are similarities between this method and project-based learning, but the key difference here is that the students must analyse and evaluate a problem that is posed to them. This requires a high level of thinking, as there is not usually one clear answer to the problem. This approach encourages creativity, teamwork and leadership. An example of PBL is getting your students to create their own business plans to solve a societal need.
The main purpose of inquiry-based learning is to emphasise the student’s role in the learning process, so they are encouraged to ask as many questions as they like surrounding the subject matter. Skills that are developed from this type of learning include critical thinking, questioning and problem-solving. As it is student-led, the students will need to decide what inquiries they want to make. The teacher’s role is to spark curiosity and prompt reflection.
Lesson planning for STEM subjects
At first, the prospect of planning a STEM lesson that incorporates so many fields might sound daunting, but it can actually be a really fun process to design a curriculum. This is because STEM teaching is not only a more engaging learning experience for students, it can be more interesting for you too. It’s less about learning content to teach, and more about creating an environment that encourages creativity.
There are a few things to keep in mind when planning your lessons, to ensure that your students will have the best learning experience. A good STEM lesson should:
Be hands-on. The best STEM lessons involve practical activities where students can use their hands, whether they’re designing a concept or creating and building something themselves. This way, students are far less likely to become bored or distracted, plus it is rewarding for them to have a final product to evaluate.
Mimic real-life scenarios. This is another reason why hands-on learning is so essential. One of the most important things about STEM is that it helps students learn skills that will be immediately useful in the outside world. So much of traditional schooling teaches impractical skills, and your goal is to prepare your students for real-life.
Integrate maths and science into projects seamlessly. The maths and science that your students complete should be relevant to their current project, relate to real-world scenarios and ultimately serve a purpose. For example, perhaps maths equations will ensure that their design works properly or knowledge of physics will help them understand how to create something.
Using the Engineering Design Process
One method for planning lessons is to use the Engineering Design Process (EDP). This is a series of steps students can take to design solutions to problems as part of a project. This project-based learning strategy should encourage open-ended designs, creativity and practical solutions. The steps are:
Begin by asking your students critical questions about their project or what they want to create. What is it for? How will they design it? Use the start of the lesson as an opportunity to get your students curious and their minds running.
This is a time for students to research around the topic, whether that involves talking to you, working with a STEM volunteer, using a laptop to do some research, or watching relevant videos. Research can help students find out what similar products or solutions already exist, and let them know how they can do better.
In teams, your students now have the opportunity to brainstorm as many ideas as possible. This should be a collaborative process where everyone’s voice is heard; your job as a teacher is to ensure this. You should create a no-judgement zone where students must show effective listening skills and stay focused. Brainstorming out loud is a great tactic, but mind maps can also be a good way to remember ideas.
It’s time for your student teams to pick a solution and plan how to bring it to life. To do this, they’ll have to consider their original questions, the research they carried out, and everyone’s different ideas from the brainstorming process. Planning can be the hardest part, so make sure to help out your students by making sure everyone’s thoughts are considered and they get their ideas down on, digitally or on paper.
In this part of the lesson, students have the opportunity to build a prototype using the plans they just created. This is a time for them to be creative, use their hands and be practical. Here, students will discover whether their solutions meet the original requirements and are functional. You don’t want to be an overwhelming presence here; merely keep an eye on things and encourage the students.
Students will then need to come up with a way to test how effective their creations are. Do they fit the brief or fix an issue? They should be able to test their creations and record the results. You can ask them what feedback they would give themselves and then offer them advice or ask questions that will get them thinking. Peer reviewing is also a great way to encourage deep thinking and collaboration.
This final part of the lesson consists of discussions about how students can improve their ideas. Then, students will have the opportunity to redesign their product, make amendments and create the next prototype. This cycle can continue for as long as you want, or until they are happy with the final result. It’s up to you whether each project spans one lesson or a few weeks.
Why are STEM activities important?
Some people may ask, why are STEM activities so important? Haven’t traditional lessons been a successful model of learning for hundreds of years? To tell you the truth, traditional lessons work for some people, but not others. A lot of children respond much better to practical activities than written exercises, which makes total sense when you consider the amount of energy kids exude! This can actually help to manage their behaviour in the classroom, though if you want more tips about that, check out our Behaviour Management course.
When STEM is effectively taught to students, here are some of the skills students are likely to develop:
- Critical thinking
- Independent learning
- Great communication and collaboration
- Digital literacy
STEM activities are great because you can adjust them to suit different age ranges, abilities, group sizes and interests. Their adaptability is part of what makes them so great to use in teaching and learning environments. There are also many possibilities with STEM activities, and their practical nature means that a lot of them can feel like games for children. This means students will be more engaged in their learning and won’t see it as boring or a chore.
If you want to learn how to plan and deliver engaging STEM activities and lessons, you can try our Volunteering in the Classroom: Bringing STEM Industry into Schools ExpertTrack. Whether you’re a teacher or a STEM volunteer at a club, you’ll learn how to plan lessons, communicate effectively with students and create an inclusive learning environment.
Formative assessment in STEM teaching and learning
You may be wondering how to assess students in STEM lessons, since traditional methods such as exams and short tests don’t generally mix well with such a practical approach to learning. Formative assessments are a much better way to check your students progress, as they provide ongoing feedback which is designed to improve your teaching and their learning throughout the year.
More specifically, formative assessments help students to identify their strengths and weaknesses, allowing them to easily pinpoint areas that need improvement. They also help school faculties recognise common areas where students are struggling so they can quickly address any issues.
This kind of assessment is ideal for STEM learning because it’s closer to how real-world scenarios play out, it encourages active engagement in lessons, and it doesn’t rely on memory power. Not all students are good at memorising large quantities of information, and this doesn’t mean that they’re not intelligent or capable.
Summative assessments, such as exams, can push some students away from learning if they know they’re not very good at them. This can be the case particularly in science and maths, where written tests can be very difficult. STEM shouldn’t be about whether you’re a strong writer or memoriser, it’s more about practical creativity and problem-solving.
Examples of formative assessments include asking students to:
- Create a research proposal
- Write or draw a quick summary of what they learnt in class
- Draw a concept map to show they understand a topic
- Build a prototype for a project
If you want to learn more about formative assessment for STEM subjects, you can enrol onto our Assessment for Learning: Formative Assessment in Science and Maths Teaching ExpertTrack, where you can develop your responsiveness as a teacher, learn to assess student understanding and provide pupil feedback that supports their learning.
How do you engage students in STEM?
We already know that there are shortages of qualified graduates in STEM subjects and a lack of diversity in the field. So how do we tackle these issues and get students interested in pursuing careers in STEM? It all begins in the classroom, and that’s where you come in.
Diversity in STEM subjects
STEM has always been a male-dominated field. In 2018, data from UCAS provided by HESA showed that 35% of STEM students in higher education in the UK were women, which demonstrates a significant gender imbalance. While science and maths degrees had slightly higher percentages of women (39% and 37%), the proportion of women studying computer science was extremely low at 19%. The percentage of women studying engineering and technology degrees was equally low at 19%, with a staggering 81% of students being male.
The number of women who actually go into the STEM workforce is even lower than the amount who study these subjects at university in the UK. WISE 2018 workforce statistics state that only 22% of the core STEM workforce in 2018 were women.
Not as much research has been done into racial diversity in STEM in the UK recently, but the 2014 CaSE Report about Improving Diversity in STEM suggested that Black and minority ethnic men are 28% less likely to work in STEM than white men. However, the opposite was true for women, with a higher percentage of BME women employed in STEM occupations compared to white women. Since these figures are from 2014 and don’t provide an in-depth look at the ethnic diversity in STEM, we cannot completely rely on them, but they do provide some interesting insights.
Creating an inclusive environment
Below we’ve created a list of suggestions for how to create an inclusive and diverse learning environment for your students in the classroom:
- Promote a range of STEM role models and heroes, including different genders and ethnicities. Organise talks from these people or show your students inspiring videos.
- Try to create educational programs or clubs for underrepresented groups in STEM, such as a girls STEM club or engineering club.
- Create an inclusive and welcoming environment for both genders. The University of Washington reported that girls were three times more likely to join a computer science class in a classroom that is decorated with nature posters, lamps and plants instead of science fiction posters and books.
- Connect students with STEM mentors. These could be older students who can encourage them or help them with projects, or STEM volunteers from outside of school who have careers within STEM fields.
Another way to engage students is simply by making the lessons fun! And remember, if you’re enjoying the lesson, they probably will too. Here are some things you can do to show that STEM can be just as fun as art subjects:
- Take a field trip
- Have a competition
- Get messy
- Play games
Hopefully, we’ve provided you with enough tips to get started with teaching STEM or inspired you to try a new teaching approach. There are countless opportunities within the field, so it’s definitely worth encouraging your students to get involved with everything STEM has to offer. They may even end up having a successful career within STEM, potentially in a job role that doesn’t even exist yet. Inspiring future generations is not the easiest task, but it’s extremely rewarding and an important part of shaping the world we live in.