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Friday Focus: 3 Creative Ways for Students to Engage in STEM

Jun 07, 2013

The launch of someone's career in a science, math, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) field can start as early as elementary school, though the right elements are necessary to engage students. Several unique initiatives across the country are helping cultivate interest in STEM and fostering learning outside of the classroom curriculum.

An early STEM education not only ensures better preparation for college and beyond, it can help create stronger competition in a competitive global marketplace. The challenge, though, is inspiring students through engaging learning. A 2010 strategic report released by the Wheelock College Aspire Institute underscores how there is a consensus among educators that STEM education should begin earlier in school, pre-K-6, to encourage long-term interest in the fields.

Some educators contend that STEM subjects should be more hands-on to ensure success. "Children at birth are natural scientists, engineers, and problem-solvers. They consider the world around them and try to make sense of it the best way they know how: touching, tasting, building, dismantling, creating, discovering, and exploring. For kids, this isn't education. It's fun!" wrote Anthony Murphy, a STEM educator and the executive director of the National Center for STEM Elementary Education at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn., in a recent article in U.S. News and World Report.

Here are several creative initiatives to promote STEM engagement.

Engaging Through the Arts

Art and design is an innovative way to engage and promote creativity in the STEM fields. One initiative called STEM to STEAM (STEM + Art = STEAM) blends art with the sciences, with three objectives: "transform research policy to place art and design at the center of STEM, encourage integration of art and design in K-20 education, and influence employers to hire artists and designers to drive innovation," according to the movement's website. The purpose of the initiative, led by Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and adopted by institutions nationwide, is to combine the methods of scientists and technologists with the strategies of artists and designers.

David A. Sousa and Tom Pilecki, the authors of From STEM to STEAM: Using Brain-Compatible Strategies to Integrate the Arts, argue that STEM curricula should emphasize artistic strategies to enhance learning effectiveness. "Artistic activities engage the young brain and improve cognitive, visual, and spatial processing. They help young minds perceive how systems interrelate, and that problems can have multiple solutions," they wrote. "Research findings show that artistic endeavors improve long-term memory, increase student motivation, promote creativity, advance social growth, introduce novelty into lessons, and reduce stress.

"Furthermore, STEM teachers who have developed STEAM lessons say it makes teaching more interesting and rewarding for them as well as for their students," the authors note on

One example of STEAM education is Reading Is Fundamental, the nation's largest children's literacy nonprofit, which is an effort to inspire young students and boost reading progression, with the use of books with STEAM themes, led by teachers with STEAM-based training. RIF is in operation thanks to a $4.18 million award by the Department of Education's Innovative Approaches to Literacy Program.

STEAM is also effective when it's focused on art observation. At Andover High School in Andover, Md., RISD alumni association president Meghan Reilly Michaud contributed to the curriculum by adding STEAM strategies. She has infused art with the school's geometry curriculum during a museum trip in which students were able better understand the ways that "artistic perspectives and geometric concepts are inherently related."

Inspiring with Interactive Curriculum

Instead of sticking with a formalized classroom setting, schools around the country are adding engaging, hands-on projects to curriculums. A 2012 research survey conducted by Raytheon Co. revealed that a good portion of students (48 percent) prefer to learn new subjects, namely math, with hands-on activities.

One example of this is FabLab, a low-cost digital workshop that features 3D scanners, milling machines, laser cutters, and more, where students can engage and engineer their own scientific experiments. FabLab, created by professor Neil Gershenfeld at MIT, has grown to 150 installations around the country, and although the concept was originally intended for adult entrepreneurs and geared toward product design, there is a newer initiative called FabLab@School.

Developed by professor Paulo Blikstein at Stanford University, it is specifically designed for students, and features software tools for scientific modeling, age-appropriate robotics and sensing equipment, and activities designed with teacher guides to better instruct students.

Active FabLab@School partnerships include a two-year agreement with the all-girls Castilleja School in Palo Alto, Calif. which opened their Bourn Idea Lab in March 2012. Projects include "da Vinci machine replicas" and students are able to participate in a "semi-structured activity" or work on a chosen project.

Below is an example of a FabLab teacher preparation program, conducted by Stanford.

Motivating with Competitions

Robotics competitions have grown in popularity as a successful medium to teach children about STEM. One well-known event series, FIRST Robotics competitions, referred to as a "varsity sport for the mind," is intended to stimulate students of all ages nationwide. During preparation for these events, the students can work with professional engineers and are able to qualify for over $16 million in scholarships.

Robotic competitions can also help underprivileged students. This spring, Delaware's second annual Robotics Day event, part of National Robotics Week, was sponsored by the Forum to Advance Minorities in Engineering (FAME), a nonprofit organization that promotes STEM.

"We're giving kids an opportunity to put their hands on robots and learn what applications are happening throughout their community with robots," Donald Baker, executive director of FAME, told the News Journal.

Here's more on the event and why it inspires students: