What is STEAM, and should I be using it in my teaching?

Here I am as a wildlife biologist banding a juvenile owl

During the Christmas of 2002, my sister opened a small gift from my father that perfectly exemplifies his attitude for life. It was a 3-inch cardboard guitar that he claimed was “dehydrated”. My sister looked at him with a quizzical glance, rolled her eyes, and set it down. He quickly got up and rushed out of the room and reentered with a large refrigerator box that had been made to look like a machine.

He explained that the box was a state-of-the-art rehydration machine. He took the cardboard guitar and carefully inserted it into a small slot on the side of the machine. He had my sister come over and turn a crank. After a few turns the machine opened up and a real guitar slid out into my sister’s arms!

This experience was by no means a solitary incident, but rather a pattern of creative awesomeness. As an electrical engineer he was always tinkering with something, and even coming up with inventions that were super innovative. He also fixed or repurposed EVERYTHING! He never paid anyone to do something he could figure out for himself.

I grew up in this type of atmosphere and gained these skills and mindset that I used in my career as a wildlife biologist and around my own home. After I quit the tough life of a wildlife biologist and joined the circus (substitute teaching), I learned that this do-it-yourself mentality is not very common anymore. Most kids these days throw away broken toys rather than fix them, and rely on Google, Siri, or Alexa to solve their problems. This results in a shortage of critical and creative thinking skills in our children!

So what do we do about it?

Fortunately for you, there is a method of teaching that PERFECTLY develops these types of skills. It is known as STEAM or STEM, and is a way of teaching that is becoming very popular in homes and schools as parents and teachers strive to provide the best education they can to their children.

Why use STEAM in your teaching?

The benefits are too numerous to list them all, but here are some of the commonly cited reasons for teaching with STEAM.

  • STEAM bridges what is being taught in the classroom with real-life so kids do not ask the question “why am I learning this?” or “when will I ever use this again?”
  • Kids learn techniques for how to solve problems
  • It helps kids think for themselves
  • Kids are more engaged in the activities and lessons
  • Kids learn how to think critically
  • STEAM focuses on processes rather than facts so kids gain skills in addition to knowledge
  • It helps prepare kids for future careers

What is STEAM? 

STEAM (also known as STEM) is an acronym that stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math.  It is a method of teaching that integrates the subjects into a project or challenge where students develop real-life skills in addition to the individual subjects associated with that particular activity.

In schools, subjects are traditionally taught by themselves as standalone subjects.  When you go to math class you only learn about math.  But in STEAM, the focus is on real-world application, and we all know that math doesn’t happen by itself in the real world.  We will never have to calculate a derivative just because.  But we might do it as part of an advanced engineering project.

It is basically a way to learn through doing hands-on projects. But unfortunately, this simple way of teaching has become polluted by crafts and activities that are not providing students with effective learning opportunities. I like to call this fake STEAM “Craftivities”. I have no problem with crafting, in fact, I love it. But don’t replace STEAM with crafting or your children will miss out on great learning opportunities.

So what makes a great STEAM project? Stay tuned folks and I will give you four essential things that make a STEAM lesson great!

What makes a great STEAM project? 

Great STEAM projects promote asking questions, problem-solving, and critical thinking.  Here are a few things that make a STEAM project effective:

It is open-ended 

Making slime by following a recipe is not good STEAM, it is simply a craft.  Instead, have the student learn about the physics behind slime and then create their own recipe! Anytime a student follows specific instructions on how to build or do something, they lose the opportunity to practice creativity and critical thinking.

If you are going to instruct them on how to build something, focus on one aspect of the build, and then have them finish it by using their own creative juices! Also, be careful about showing examples. Kids tend to see an example and try to recreate it rather than coming up with something completely original.

It involves students asking questions

boy with curious look on his face

Any good STEAM project includes students asking questions and then finding the answer through investigation.  A student asking a question that is answered by the teacher, parent, or Google, is not an effective teaching strategy. Many projects begin by a student asking a question. If a student asks “why do cars have four wheels instead of six?” You could just try to come up with an answer, or you could have the student do a project to answer that question. It should be obvious by now that having the student do a project would be a much more valuable use of time.

It contains more than one subject

The point of STEAM is to integrate subjects to mimic real-life situations.  Even if a project is open-ended and has students asking questions, it is not good STEAM if it is only one subject.  Real-life doesn’t happen as only one subject!

I generally try to work at least three subjects into a STEAM project. A good project might include engineering, science, and art. I would also mention that it is equally awesome to include other subjects such as history, language arts, or writing into a STEAM project!

It is hands-on

A good STEAM project has students working with their hands – building, coding, and designing, rather than reading textbooks and doing worksheets. The problem with worksheets and textbooks is that they are using only the brain and few if any of the 5 senses. The more senses you use in learning the more the student will be engaged and remember.

Common STEAM misconceptions

VR viewer kids

STEAM is all about technology, robotics, and coding!

This common misconception keeps many teachers and families from participating in STEAM. Sure, STEAM can involve robotics, but that is only a small part of STEAM. The goal of STEAM is not to teach coding and technology, but rather to teach kids how to think. This can be done just as well with craft sticks and toilet paper tubes as it can with computers and robots!

In fact, a STEAM class with nothing more than advanced robotics will never teach some of the valuable life skills that kids can learn through tinkering with rubber bands and straws. Personally I include all types of STEAM so my students are will rounded including robotics, technology, engineering with household items, and even conducting scientific experiments.

STEAM is expensive

DIY instruments

Related to the first misconception, STEAM does not have to be expensive. It can be done for super cheap withing nothing more than the things you find around your own home. I recently taught an online STEAM class using stuff kids had around their own homes. And it worked extremely well. As stated above, the goal of STEAM is to teach kids how to think. It is up to you how much you want to spend on it.

You have to be an expert to teach STEAM

Many think that a teacher must be an expert that can summon up answers at will to all their questions. The reality is that kids don’t usually care if you are an expert or not. I would even argue that being an expert could hamper your kids’ learning if you tend to answer their questions rather than encouraging them to find their own answers. If you are open with them and tell them that you don’t know the answer and then go through the project together they will love it.

Let’s do a project!

Now that you have a basic understanding of STEAM, let me walk you through a typical STEAM project so you can begin designing your own.  Don’t worry, STEAM activities are pretty simple and easy to design.  Each of my STEAM activities has 3 parts: the background lesson, the project, and the debrief.

The Lesson

I always start a STEAM activity with simple instruction on a background principle related to their project.  For example:  If the STEAM project was to build a bridge, I would teach the kids about the types of bridges and the physics of what makes a bridge strong.  This is an often-overlooked step in STEAM activities.  It helps the student better understand the project and helps them succeed.

I try to make my lesson portion of the activity short and sweet. I hate monologues and so do the kids, so I even try to make the lesson portion of the project hands-on where possible. For a monologue lesson where I talk to the kids teaching them something, I try to keep it under 10 minutes. Anything more and the kids lose interest and stop paying attention. For a hands-on lesson, you can go longer. I try to keep hands-on lessons to around 15 to 20 minutes. But all of this depends on if you are teaching your own children, or you are a classroom teacher with 30 kids.

A strategy I frequently use for STEAM projects is to make the lesson portion a partial build. For example, in one of my favorite STEAM projects, the kids design and build a mechanical hand. During the lesson portion of the project, I teach the kids how to make a mechanical finger that can flex when a string is pulled. They are so useful as you can see here.

I then give them the challenge to build a mechanical hand that can lift a water bottle that is at least half full of water. I then give the kids an hour to design and build a full hand. I don’t teach them about opposable thumbs or anything else. I let them figure that out for themselves.

The Challenge or Activity

The challenge is nothing more than a hands-on assignment.  It should be open-ended rather than a tutorial on how to build or make something.  Giving a student specific instructions takes away their thought processes as it is nothing more than an exercise in following directions.  It is much more effective to have them build something with limited instructions and an open-ended outcome

Another popular STEAM activity is the paper cup tower challenge. Basically kids place 10 or so paper cups upside down on the floor in a circle with their lips touching (the cups, not the kids). They then place a baking sheet on top of them and then another layer of cups and a baking dish. They repeat this until the tower is 4 to 6 layers tall. An adventurous student then stands on the very top and shouts hooray, I’m not fat!

It is supposed to be a lesson on tower strength. However, in reality, there is very little learning going on. The biggest problem with this activity is that it is not open-ended as the student is told exactly what to do, and doesn’t have the chance to use that brain of theirs!

The Debrief

The debrief or wrap-up is a chance to talk about the project, what they accomplished, and how they can improve it.  This will many times lead to more projects and learning. This is also a great place for students to ask questions. Here are a few things to accomplish during the debrief portion of the project.

  • What went right or worked with their project
  • What didn’t work or needs improvement
  • The student understands that even if their project didn’t work at all it was a success. I am not talking about participation trophies or anything like that. If the thing they designed and built didn’t work, they must understand that failure is only a step in the process rather than the end result. I would urge them to keep looking for solutions to make it work rather than raising the white flag and proclaiming that they failed.

You can do it!

I know what you are thinking: this was a lot. But it is really not that hard, as long as you are comfortable learning alongside your kids and students and you just take is a project at a time.

STEAM teaching is a great opportunity to spend time with your students or kids. If you let it run free, they have an endless supply of creativity and questions. We’re just here to direct it to real problem-solving!

Need Help with Teaching STEAM?

We’ve got a guide for that! Our Teaching STEAM Guide is a printable version of the STEAM information we’ve given here PLUS a STEAM Project Planning guide for you and Engineering Design worksheets for your kids. This will really rocket your STEAM teaching to the next level!

Or find it all in one place in our Free Membership ->

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