steam lessons stink and how to fix them

Your STEAM Lessons Stink – and How an El Camino Can Fix Them

Ok, let me see…. STEAM.

Silly Teachers Eat All Morning.  — Nope.

Some Teenagers Ears Are Moldy.  — Definitely not.

Should Toddlers Earn American Money.  — That’s debatable, but probably not what STEAM stands for.

STEAM means many things to many people.  To most of the world, STEAM is that thing fogging up the bathroom mirror obscuring the truth about ones dieting goals.  Yes, I know what you’re thinking.  The bathroom mirror and scale are conspiring against you….  But, that doesn’t mean your children have to go uneducated about the dangers of sub-par integrated education.  HUH?

What is STEAM?

Let’s back up.  STEAM is an integrated approach to teaching science, technology, engineering, art, and math.  Most people know what STEAM stands for (and that it is important) but have a weak grasp on exactly what it is and how to implement it into education.

If you ask Pinterest, you will get boatloads of glorified craft projects labeled as STEAM.  Many of the lessons give you a bag of supplies and a goal.  Few include the science or engineering explanations.  And worst of all, they are very poor at developing any real skills except puzzle-putting-togethering (that’s a great word)!

So rather than stumbling about like a giraffe on ice skates, let me help you understand what STEAM is really about and how to find or develop an effective STEAM lesson.



Traditional schools teach STEAM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math) as separate classes.  That is like teaching someone how to build an El Camino (a car/truck hybrid from the 70’s) with directions on how to make each part but not how to put it together and what it is supposed to look like.

STEAM is meant to teach these subjects so you can see the parts AND the big picture.  Knowing how to build parts of an El Camino doesn’t matter if we don’t know how to put them together into something useful (usefulness of the El Camino is up for debate).

Few people know exactly how the STEAM subjects fit together.  So here are the individual STEAM subjects and how they fit together to make an organized problem-solving process.

Science is the process of discovering truth.  It is an organized way of solving problems.  It also includes facts about the natural world discovered by the scientific process.

Technology includes all the tools and processes used in finding truth.  The better the technology, the better and more accurate the science.

Engineering is the application of scientific facts and principles to real world problems.

Art is the creative process used in coming up with innovative solutions.  It is also used to design products and communicate results in an effective way.

Math is used to measure, quantify, and determine meaning when testing alternatives to problem solutions.

All five parts of STEAM are important in the overall method of solving problems and finding truth.  They MUST also be taught together as a process for learners to fully understand and develop the skills necessary for a smart rational human being.

Teaching STEAM effectively

This integrated STEAM approach is not effective when we glaze over these five parts.  We have to understand how each part fits and teach them together.

When teaching STEAM subjects, I often see educators revert to engineering with a little math.  The most common STEAM lessons are building bridges, catapults, and structures that support weight.

These projects are all applicable to real life and include some components of STEAM but the skills developed can be under-developed and lacking in the entire process of innovation from beginning to end.

Where is the physics about weight distribution?

Where are the projectile calculations?

The kids may discover some of this on their own during the activity.   This would be a great time to teach the science background or artistic design to reinforce their own hands-on exploration.


craft stick catapult

Example Time!

Let’s build a catapult.  This STEAM activity is more common than a mullet at Walmart but lacks any sort of integrated learning.  Typically, kids are given a zip lock baggie with 4-6 popsicle sticks, several rubber bands and a cotton ball or some sort of soft projectile.  The kids will build a catapult and then have a contest to see which catapult can launch projectiles the furthest.

Kids love this one, but what do they really learn?  It’s basically a 3-D puzzle.  There are no physics explanations, no math to quantify, no technology used or developed, and very little creativity.

So, let’s redesign this activity to give kids a true learning experience.

First, give the kids (or have them develop their own) a quantifiable objective.

Objective: Uncle Bob is at the end of the 20-foot table at thanksgiving.  You are seated at the opposite end of the table and need to launch a 10-gram dinner roll into his face, however your mother said you cannot “throw” food at the table.  Therefore, you need to make a machine that can shoot a 10-gram dinner roll 20 feet.

Second, lead a quick discussion on the transfer of energy and maybe introduce the 6 types of simple machines.  Make sure the discussion is age-appropriate.

Third, provide each student with a scale, ruler, and data sheet.

Fourth, explain the rules.

  1. The machine must stay on the ground
  2. The machine must be the one giving energy to the projectile (aka the student cannot throw, kick, blow the projectile), the student can provide the input energy to the machine (wind it up, pull it back etc.)
  3. The machine must not weigh more than 300 grams
  4. All attempts must be recorded on the data sheet
  5. Only raw materials may be used

I would refrain from giving the kids a specific set of materials, except to say that only raw materials may be used.  The restriction of materials has a place in learning but in this case it will only serve to restrict creativity.  The activity is meant to teach kids the skills necessary for innovative design.  Rarely will kids face a challenge at work where the boss says to create a solution using 6 popsicle sticks and three rubber bands.

Fifth, once students have achieved their objective, have them use the data sheet to compute average distance, mean, median and even some statistical analysis depending on the students age and abilities.

Sixth, have students brainstorm possible ways to improve their catapult.  This can include different materials, better leverage, etc.

Seventh, have them build a second catapult with improvements and test it, recording distances on a new data sheet.

Finally, have them compare and contrast the two catapults and determine if the improvements did in fact shoot the projectile further.

Now this is just one example of SO many ways you can take a catapult project.  Go your own way but remember we our goal is the completed El Camino (STEAM) not just parts.

The Tale of 2 Activities

Recently, I took my kids to a STEAM night at their school.  There were numerous stations with craftivities masquerading as STEAM.  At one station the kids did a catapult project with two lines of instructions, and very limited supplies.  As my children began their project, two things became quickly apparent.

First, there were lots of dads building catapults while kids ran around like monkeys.

Second, there was almost no learning, even for the kids that built their own catapult.  I was so distraught over the lost opportunity that I went home and binge-watched The Walking Dead (ok not really…).

By the next afternoon, my kids had forgotten what little they had learned, and I ended up confiscating rogue catapults being used to initiate clan wars.

STEAM night could have been so much better.  Some changes I would suggest for this STEAM night would be

  • have just a “STEAM catapult night”
  • all stations would be different parts of the same project
  • the kids would go around the gym learning about leverage, material strength, etc.,
  • end it with a contest where prizes would be awarded for the best catapult, longest distance, and the least helpful dad.

I guarantee the kids would remember that night and come away with a much better understanding of innovative design.

Our future is in school right now.  Do we want them to rely on smart phones, or come up with creative solutions that make the world a better place?  There is a pile of El Camino parts in the driveway.  Teach the kids how they fit together so they can drive the future in the right direction.

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