Aug 09 2018

5 Steps to a Successful K–12 STEM Program Design

Focusing on the right details in the beginning stages can help ensure the best outcomes for school districts looking to introduce a new STEM curriculum.

From inside the K-12 education bubble, it’s easy to believe that STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and STEAM (adding art to the STEM mix) initiatives are a done deal — everyone’s doing them. 

There are whole conferences dedicated to STEM. But as recently as 2016, a Gallup research poll conducted by Google found that only 40 percent of U.S. schools offer programming or coding classes. 

With the Trump administration prioritizing $200 million a year toward STEM and computer science education and tech giants including Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Facebook ponying up another $300 million, there may be opportunities for schools new to the idea of STEM to get started. 

Knowing where to focus time and attention when getting started can mean all the difference between a solid program and one that fades after a couple of years.

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1. Understand the Origins of STEM and Its Importance

Where do STEM programs come from? The initial idea for a program may bubble up from any of the various stakeholders in the education community: administration, teachers, students, and even the business community.

“Oftentimes, it is a grassroots effort and comes from one teacher,” says Laura Fleming, veteran teacher, voice behind the Worlds of Learning blog and author of The Kickstart Guide to Making GREAT Makerspaces, “someone who is a STEM champion, who gets other colleagues to buy in, and in some cases, even gets administration on board and buying in as well. It all can happen very organically and isn't always a top-down initiative pushed down by administration.”

Some STEM programs even originate with a visit from an outside organization that exposes students and teachers to STEM concepts and programming.

SparkShop, whose mission is to educate students about STEM and raise their awareness of the diversity of engineering career opportunities, is one such nonprofit. 

“We come into a school with our maker lab and offer STEM classes that run as three-week intensives,” says Shonali Ditz, co-founder of SparkShop. “We provide teachers a STEM curriculum packet to engage kids within that three-week window and throughout the year. And at the end of three-week session, we’ve taken the designs that the kids created and built them out on our 3D printer, and we bring them back for the students to see the end results.”

“Our curriculum is focused on three topics: varieties of engineering, manufacturing, and invention and entrepreneurship,” adds Tiernan Murrell, SparkShop’s other co-founder. “Our makerspace helps bring these topics to life. We use it with every school we visit, but especially with needy schools who don’t have adequate funding.”

2. Identify Your School's Specific STEM Mission

Given the growing popularity of STEM, it’s understandable that districts and schools may want to jump on the bandwagon and quickly commit to an initiative.

Not surprisingly, these attempts often fail without the necessary research and planning. A thought-out mission and roadmap are key to growing a successful STEM program.

“Before any district gets started with any sort of STEM initiative, they need to ask themselves the question, ‘Why?’” says Fleming. “They need to identify what their needs are, what their interest in STEM is based on and what their goals are. It is very important to not embark on any sort of STEM initiative just because it is a trend. It needs to run deeper than that in order for there to be any sort of success and sustainability.” 

One of the best ways to plan the direction of your STEM program is by observing what other districts are doing. 

“One suggestion I always give is to build on what other schools are doing,” explains Todd Burleson, resource center director for District 36’s Hubbard Woods School in Winnetka, Ill., and author of The Green Screen Makerspace Project Book. "If you’re looking to build out a makerspace, I recommend going to visit other schools and see what they’re doing. And ask, ‘What do you use? What don’t you use? What can you do without?’ We did this in our district, traveling to Wisconsin and Colorado, and we learned a lot from these visits.”

Fleming agrees with this approach and says there’s great value in “visiting local districts who have successful programs that are in line with your identified goals, attending conferences that offer sessions that address your identified goals, seeking out thought leaders in the STEM space whose work is in line with your vision, leveraging social media platforms to learn more and getting some ideas related to the program you want to create for your school or district.”

3. Integrate STEM to Work with the Current Curriculum

While looking outside your district for inspiration, you also want to focus internally on the existing curricula in the classrooms to figure out how you can integrate STEM into what’s there. 

"Look first at what you’re doing in science and how STEAM can augment those projects and enrich them," suggests Burleson. "I suggest starting small: Choose a particular project and work outward from there.

“The most effective STEM programs, are those that are integrated directly into the curriculum in the classroom, rather than skills and concepts taught in isolation,” adds Fleming. “Integrating STEM in this way gives a context for learning, and will help to create learning that endures." 

Teachers should try to create authentic educational activities that are aligned with content-area standards, as well as STEM, Flemming says. "Doing so will maximize deeper learning."

4. Do Not Give STEM an Age Requirement

One question STEM neophytes often have is when to bring STEM into the classroom mix.

Experience has shown that STEM programs are applicable to students from all age groups, from kindergarten through high school. While these can be sophisticated topics, kids get them. 

“There definitely is not an age that is too young,” says Fleming. “Young learners are fearless, have a natural curiosity, and are more willing to take risks and chances, and those qualities serve them well when it comes to STEM-related concepts.”

Currently, SparkShop’s classroom visits are focused on fourth- and fifth-graders.

“There’s research that shows that kids are forming their self-concept with regard to academics between the ages of 8 and 10, so that’s why we’re focused on this age group,” explains Ditz. “We go in right at the age when kids are identifying themselves with their academics. We help them apply those strengths that they’re recognizing to STEM topics and engineering fields.”

5. Enhance STEM Programming with Proper Technology Budgeting

Since all the topics falling under the STEM acronym touch on technology in one way or another, it’s important to give thought to where and how technology will fit into your program and budget accordingly. 

Within District 36, Burleson explains, “We have buckets of technology: construction, robotics, circuitry and electronics, and coding. We try to spread our budget evenly across those buckets. Each bucket is important and in relationship to the others.” 

If you’re just getting started, Burleson suggests the following tools:

  • Construction: Legos, Rigamajigs
  • Robotics and coding: Robot Turtle board game, Sphero, NAO robot
  • Circuitry: Squishy Circuits, simple circuits

When bringing its makerspace into classrooms, SparkShop typically includes a Makerbot Replicator+ 3D printer, an Inventables Carvey 3D carving machine, a laser cutter, a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 to run CAD software and electronics kits for all the students. 

By supplying the technology themselves, schools that are unable to afford their own tools are still able to enjoy them. 

"SparkShop's approach is to keep all the kids engaged," explains Murrell. 

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