The “S” in STEAM Doesn’t Mean Super

30 Oct 2023

Jessica Bibbs-Fox, a DoD STEM Ambassador, Keeps Focus on Mastering Math and Science Concepts

Educators are aware of the movement toward incorporating STEAM and STEM concepts into most subject areas. With an influx of robotics, drones, coding, and hands-on engineering projects trending in classrooms that subscribe to STEAM, the question remains: does STEAM provide a context for meeting science and math standards in subject-specific classrooms? In order to have a balanced STEAM/STEM program in traditional classrooms, projects and tasks do not need to be super fantastic, but rather a vehicle that authentically drives science and mathematics content.

The “S” in STEAM Doesn’t Mean Super

The following was written by Jessica Bibbs-Fox, an elementary and middle school math and science teacher, and a DoD STEM Ambassador. DoD STEM Ambassadors work with the Defense STEM Education Consortium (DSEC) to advance STEM outreach for students who are underrepresented in STEM or military connected. Bibbs-Fox was selected by TGR Foundation, a DSEC partner, as its DoD STEM ambassador for the 2022-2023 school year.

“What science concepts did we learn from the rollercoaster project?” I asked my students recently. “We learned to build a rollercoaster!” they replied with enthusiasm. Though my lesson plan for the rollercoaster PBL (project-based learning) detailed objectives connected to energy, forces and motion, and solving equations, my 8th-grade students were unable to adequately report any of the stated objectives. How can a STEM-focused project so blatantly miss the science and math standards with all the science and math practices they had engaged in?

STEM and its counterpart STEAM have entered the educational space amid high expectations to engage learners with 21st-century skills. In our district, STEM was introduced to students through the science, computer science, or mathematics curriculum because administrators and developers saw the ease in connecting STEM with these curricula. Therefore, many educators were pushed into developing projects that incorporated coding, hands-on engineering, or robotics with loose connections to their state standards. Though the engagement and relevance were present in these “STEM”-based tasks and many showcased wonderful displays of “learning,” the fact remains that based on our state and district benchmarks, students were not meeting the content standards.

After reflecting on the data and engaging in short-action research in our professional learning networks it became clear that a shift in planning STEM projects needed to occur. At first, an attempt was made to teach content and STEM as two separate courses and subjects. However, this posed a scheduling and timing dilemma that ended up with STEM being treated as an easily disposable portion of the day, depending on student ability to grasp the content standards. Next, there was an attempt to use thematic teaching with a STEM-based problem or challenge that would drive the content. Though promising, this approach required significant vertical, cross-grade level and department collaboration—plus time to plan, which was not made available.

So, does this mean that STEM learning is unobtainable while attempting to attain mastery of content standards? Is it only for educators radical enough to try it and willing to lead the charge in replacing state and district testing in the name of STEM? There has to be a pathway to incorporating STEM while meeting content standards in way that allows students to show mastery of state and district assessments while also engaging in meaningful STEM tasks.

My conclusion is to focus on the standards and not the project. And also to focus on mastery of learning but not mastery of STEM, for it is not a content standard. Rather, it is the vehicle that makes focus standards relevant. Thinking back to my rollercoaster project, instead of having a goal to engineer a rollercoaster that met specific constraints and criteria, the focus needed to be on having students prove specific science and math concepts through their rollercoaster engineering plans. For next year, my goal for improving learning quality will be to focus on supporting students in applying science and mathematical concepts to their design vs. making the project about super fantastic rollercoasters. This means their final product can shift from traditional scaled rollercoaster models to products that incorporate artistic expression and use a variety of technologies.

STEAM/STEM learning doesn’t need to consist of fancy projects that are super challenging, but it does need to adequately provide access for all students to master the standards so that they are able to function in the global community. This will still require planning time and more creative means to implement these projects. Apple’s Numbers spreadsheet app is a wonderful tool to create plans and clear learning pathways for students. Numbers is similar to Microsoft Excel or Googles Sheets—but it has far more capabilities and offers a large canvas for drawings and photos, plus the user can add shapes, tables, and graphs to help with visualization. I am transitioning all of my plans to this format. I anticipate that with practice and an intentional shift toward meeting standards, planning STEM tasks will become easier.

About DoD STEM and Defense STEM Education Consortium

Defense STEM Education Consortium (DSEC) is a collaborative partnership of STEM-focused organizations dedicated to addressing and prioritizing our nation's STEM talent. DSEC aims to broaden STEM literacy and develop a diverse and agile workforce with the technical excellence to defend our nation. Through strategic investment in STEM education and outreach activities, the effort will provide students with more exposure to educational and career opportunities as well as DoD research. DSEC is led on behalf of DoD STEM by RTI International.

About TGR Foundation, A Tiger Woods Charity

TGR Foundation’s award-winning STEM curricula, college-access programs, digital platforms and educator professional development offer underrepresented students the resources and support needed to thrive in school and beyond. TGR Foundation’s role in DSEC is to provide STEM teacher professional development to aid in the implementation of high-quality, integrated STEM teaching and learning, particularly for underserved students.