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How is elementary STEM defined?

Building STEM Teacher Leadership

Reflections by the STEM teacher leader community on opportunities and gaps in STEM teacher leader development efforts


Elementary STEM teacher leader programs can emphasize different aspects of STEM, from science and engineering to the maker movement, an umbrella term for solving problems through creating and tinkering. Nevertheless, shared characteristics include:

Hands-on exploration and creation

Elementary STEM teacher leader programs emphasizing hands-on exploration as a way to engage students can take different forms. For instance, using manipulatives can make math more concrete for students and using science kits can allow students to carry out experiments. Working in makerspaces, students have the opportunity to explore the design thinking process1 by prototyping, coding, and presenting authentic solutions to real-world problems, thereby developing students’ 21st-century skills.

One program facilitated the use of hands-on materials by training teachers to become elementary STEM coaches. These coaches received substantial professional development; the district brought in technology experts and vendors to teach the coaches best practices for using manipulatives and STEM kits. The coaches then worked with teachers to plan engaging lessons using these materials in an effort to support hands-on teaching throughout the school.

Another program focused on exposing students to the “maker movement,” with cutting-edge technology as diverse as 3D printers, the electronic components for engineering design, modeling, robotics, and green architecture. Students worked with a technology coach to explore various digital tools. Hands-on exploration and creation made learning more engaging relevant for students.

Integration of two or more subjects

Elementary STEM teacher leader programs can emphasize the integration of two or more subject areas, mirroring how subjects interrelate in real-world settings. STEM integration can happen in a variety of ways, from creating cross-disciplinary teams to instructional activities requiring interdisciplinary STEM problem-solving.

For instance, a series of STEM professional development academies integrated STEM education generally and science teaching more specifically into math and literacy instruction. This strategy was developed in collaboration with teachers, and it helped ensure that teachers’ instruction was coherent across grade levels and classrooms. Teachers also highlighted 21st-century skills and real-world applications as they taught STEM. For instance, in a Kindergarten unit on the environmental impact of travel, students created a brochure about a successful trip for literacy, listed the quantities of supplies for math, and studied nature and human impact for science before taking a snowshoeing field-trip.

In another example, a district-wide initiative to train teachers to become elementary STEM coaches put engineering at the center of its STEM education efforts. STEM coaches leveraged familiar school subjects to develop students’ understanding of the engineering profession, and students used math, science, and technology skills to solve engineering problems. The district supplemented this focus on engineering instruction by offering an after-school club that used an engineering curriculum designed to develop creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.

Connection to real world problems and solutions

Elementary STEM teacher leader programs can highlight problem -solving with real-world applications to develop students’ 21st-century skills. For example, students can be given problems centered on solving complex challenges such as designing a product, or using materials, technology, and support to approach problems of interest to them.

One program focused on technology to connect students to the real world. This program encouraged teachers to use 3D printers to model animal cell division and introduced students to computer programming, databases, and web design. The program included an after-school component, and in that setting, teachers introduced students to simple circuits and game controllers that allowed students to solve different challenges in Minecraft.2 Summer programming camps enabled students to participate in design thinking by exploring solutions to problems in robotics, coding, web design, and fabrication.

By embedding teachers in STEM workplaces for summer internships, another program sought to expose the teachers to innovative work environments. While the STEM concepts that these workplaces used may not be directly applicable to elementary students’ learning, the effects of spending time in those businesses could be seen in teachers’ classroom structures at the end of their internships. For instance, teachers who experienced workplaces that fostered innovative thinking encouraged “what if” questions and helped students understand that the classroom is a safe and productive place to fail; while failure is important to innovation, it can be frustrating for young students. Internships can also open teachers’ eyes to collaborating with technology and media specialists and creating working groups with heterogeneous learning styles, thereby encouraging students to focus on communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity.

Use of technology to facilitate learning

Elementary STEM teacher leader programs can use technology to support transformative learning, for example, using technology to provide rigorous, hands-on, personalized learning experiences for students. Students also have opportunities to learn a wide array of skills related to computer programming, databases, web design, and computer modeling. Additionally, technology can provide a forum for conversations among STEM educators as well as with teachers in other content areas.

For example, to personalize learning across the curriculum, one elementary STEM teacher leader program used technology to provide content and skill-building. Students used their one-to-one devices to blog, report information, synthesize learning, and capture their knowledge within an online format. Within five years, all students in the district will have their own devices so that teachers can minimize whole group instruction and create structures for students to work in small groups. Technology tools such as email and Google docs supported cross-disciplinary dialogue among school staff about STEM education vision and practical ways to move science, engineering, and mathematics instruction forward. Finally, an online district platform served as a digital repository of learning resources and was used to push out district-developed curriculum to the schools.



1Through the design thinking process, students first define the problem and then implement solutions using a 5-step process that asks them to: 1. Consider the user and their interest and needs; 2. Define what will be addressed through the design; 3. Generate and evaluate possible solutions; 4. Create a prototype; and 5. Test and refine the prototype.

2In the Minecraft video game, players create structures using blocks and go on adventures involving exploration, resource gathering, crafting, and combat.