Space for Our Future (and Present) Space Cadets
One of the challenging aspects of teaching Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) based lessons that integrate Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) at the elementary level is the need for an actual space complete with resources to do this. Creating a space dedicated to this type of exploration and learning is critical for any successful approach. A reserved space communicates the importance of the topic to students (especially since elementary students tend to be more concrete and associate physical space with real-life importance). Although, I can tell you that if you put the program in a closet, adults will have the same perception regarding importance… or lack there-of. Dedicating a space to science naturally ties into an increased focus on the NGSS, and would provide a central place for resources that support understanding and integration of the NGSS. However, given the multi-faceted needs and requirements of an elementary education, science alone may not be able to convince the “powers that be” of the need (even though many of us at the elementary educator level believe it warranted).
Give Me an “S”, S! Hey, Cheer Leaders Can Be Scientists Too!
This is where the complimentary nature of the NGSS and STEM come into play. While science is only the “S” in STEM, it is arguably the primary driving force–with technology, engineering, and math playing very important supporting roles. Ultimately, though, STEM is not a subject unto itself, but the integrated application of the aforementioned subjects. This combination of subjects lends credibility to the need for a space supporting all four of them. Are not four subjects four times as important as one subject? Regardless of how one argues pecking order or influence, the inclusion of all STEM subjects greatly strengthens the argument for a STEM Lab.
Show Me the Money! Err, I Mean, STEM!
However, logical need is not in the habit of translating into actual action in public education. Practicality and pragmatism usurp to some degree, but as with most things it comes down to resources: space, time, money, and people. This is where a confluence of changes in education make the logical need actually possible. Currently, many schools have a space dedicated just to technology referred to as the computer lab or something similar along those lines. Why not expand the purpose of this space to include other relevant aspects of science, technology, engineering, and math. Computer labs are often under-utilized spaces within a school, but that space itself is a valuable resource. Given that modern computers take up far less space than what many labs were designed for, careful rearrangement of a computer lab can create additional work space as well (a few lucky schools are developing 1-to-1 computing programs which opens up even more space as education evolves).
If You Build It, They Will Come
So one question racing through your mind might be: so what is the blueprint for a STEM lab? Well, there isn’t one. That’s why I’m not including any pictures of STEM labs in this article. The blank space above needs to be filled with your vision. There is no checklist of things to include. Ultimately, what I want to plant is the seed of an idea. Not an instructions manual. What there does need to be is a set of tools and space that allows students to better integrate and apply the subjects of science, technology, engineering, and math. Just remember that science can be as basic as asking a question, a pencil is still technically technology, engineering is simply problem solving for an ever better solution, and math is as simple as 1+1=2. A lot can be engineered with just cardboard, string, scissors, and tape. Think more Macgyver than Star Trek as you get started. As things grow then you can add more, but you’re not going to build the death star in a day. Think creatively and different too, like a dedicated MakerSpace for example. I know, I know, many libraries integrate these already which I think is awesome, but I say why not both? We’re calling ours a STEM&M lab because, hey, a few M&M’s never hurt anyone in the theme process. Sponsorship… anyone? Anyone? Oh, well, I tried :0).
Integration, as Opposed to Disintegration
Just because we can repurpose or create additional space does not address the original point: the need for a space dedicated to STEM subjects and their broader curriculum integration. As mentioned, space justifies importance, but space also empowers focus. With a room in the school dedicated to STEM, integration of those subject areas within the curriculum becomes much more likely. Science, technology, and engineering more than most subjects require hands-on tinkering, tools, and experiments in order to build a high level of subject area competency. Reading about a science experiment does increase understanding, but doing the science experiment increases student engagement which creates memories for longer retention of content that comes from personal experience. And experience is the best teacher. This means space to build a ramp, construct an electrical circuit, or (heaven forbid) mold the proverbial baking soda volcano. There are few parallels for necessity in reading, writing, and math by themselves (though I argue they would also benefit from a dedicated space). Perhaps, the strongest argument for a STEM lab space is the opportunity to apply math to these other hands-on concept areas with the possibility to further read up on the subjects and write about the experience for a well-rounded, modern education that spans across and integrates all subject areas.
Some Interesting and Related Links
Article I Wrote on STEM: http://corelaboratewa.org/what-is-this-stem-and-when-are-we-going-to-start-doing-it-1/
The Foundry MakerSpace in Bellingham: http://www.bellinghamfoundry.com/
Project Ignite K-8 3D Printing Curriculum: https://projectignite.autodesk.com/
Thingiverse MakerEd Challenges: https://www.thingiverse.com/challenges
Edutopia Articles on Libraries and MakerSpaces: http://www.edutopia.org/search-results?search=libraries+makerspaces
NSTA STEM Page: http://ngss.nsta.org/
NGSS Engineering Standards: http://www.nextgenscience.org/3-5ets1-engineering-design
NSTA K-5 Engineering Standards List: http://ngss.nsta.org/DisplayStandard.aspx?view=topic&id=23
NGSS Engineering Design Process (pictured at the top): http://www.nextgenscience.org/sites/ngss/files/Appendix%20I%20-%20Engineering%20Design%20in%20NGSS%20-%20FINAL_V2.pdf