This study intends to answer:
(a) What elementary school structures support students in STEM curricular areas?
(b) Do these supports differ for subgroups of students, i.e. students of color, students in poverty, and English language learners?
(c) What are the components of elementary STEM
opportunities to learn that foster interest, participation, and academic success in STEM content areas, especially for marginalized students of color?
Significance of Study
There is great significance in focusing on STEM equity and access to STEM-related content and activities for all students in elementary grades, including general supports for critical and creative thinking and innovation. I focus on elementary levels because research shows that it is in these early years that students find their natural interest in STEM foundational thinking either supported or discouraged, with the result that they are variously successful in the content areas as they grow older (Moomaw, 2013; Helm et al., 2001; Katz et al., 2000; Katz, 2010). Elementary-school students are most likely to gain STEM foundational thinking when they have opportunities to engage in in-depth investigations of phenomena around them worthy of their knowledge and understanding (Katz & Chard, 2000).
Definition of Terms for STEM Foundational Thinking and Instructional Activities
STEM connects the principles of the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics in order to solve problems faced by individuals and society. STEM-focused foundational thinking, teaching, and learning all instill a deep and extensive understanding of STEM content as it is applied to the real world. Students who participate in STEM instructional activities collaboratively engage in (a) critical thinking; (b) scientific inquiry; (c) applying specific content knowledge to real-world contexts; (d) the engineering design process; (e) evidence-based reasoning and argumentation; and (f) effective written and oral communication.
Critical thinking. Critical thinking is an important STEM skill that takes time and practice. It requires students to understand their own reasoning, while dissecting their thinking, and looking at how that thinking is constructed. Finally, critical thinking requires students to evaluate and judge the quality of their own or another’s thinking. These are all needed in order to be successful in society. For example, with such an emphasis on improving test scores, many students are graduating school lacking the critical thinking skills necessary to succeed in higher education or in the workplace
Scientific inquiry. Scientific inquiry is vital to understand scientific concepts, as well as “the diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work” (National Science Education Standards, 2004, p. 23). Students who are participating in scientific inquiry during STEM instructional activities are formulating questions that can be answered through investigation. Students must have a content knowledge that is specific to various aspects of the real-world problem being investigated, while engineering solutions that can be tested scientifically. The National Science Education Standards, which were developed by the National Research Council (1996), and updated and renamed the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS, 2016) state that students need multiple opportunities to:
Use scientific inquiry and develop the ability to think and act in ways associated with inquiry, including asking questions, planning and conducting investigations, using appropriate tools and techniques to gather data, thinking critically and logically about relationships between evidence and explanations, constructing and analyzing alternative explanations, and communicating scientific arguments" (p. 105).
Scientific inquiry is a very powerful way to not only understand science content, but how to ask questions, search for supporting evidence from a variety of sources, and communicate and defend one’s thinking to a real audience.
Content knowledge application. STEM foundational thinking and instructional activities draw on a large base of content knowledge. In order to tackle real-world problems, students need to be able to apply a variety of content knowledge (e.g.: mathematics, science, social studies, technology). Problems need to be authentic, and the content needs to be pedagogically grounded in academic standards. Doing so gives students insight into the interconnectedness of various curricular content areas and how they can be used together to solve novel problems facing society.
Engineering design process. Best pedagogical practices indicate that teachers need to design lessons that introduce creativity and innovation in order to help students with career exploration and development, especially female students and students of color. By helping students build a strong foundation in problem-solving, teachers allow students to use cross-disciplinary tools for discovery and for developing solutions to problems that are open-ended and embedded in the real world. Classrooms that focus on STEM foundational thinking shift students away from learning isolated engineering-design model as a framework for instruction, teachers can advance students’ academic abilities, creativity, and learning. Students will have a framework for thinking systematically about problem-solving. This framework includes: (a) identifying the problem; (b) exploring possible solutions or researching needed information; (c) designing a solution; (d) creating or building the prototype solution; (e) testing the idea; and (f) redesigning or modifying the solution to make it better. This framework focuses on teamwork and open-ended design while emphasizing creativity and feasibility.
facts, moving towards experience-based inquiry with multiple opportunities for independent learning. By using the
Evidence-based reasoning. Identifying sound evidence and drawing logical conclusions is critical to problem-solving. This skill allows students to transfer knowledge from one content area to another and apply to potentially unrelated real-world contexts. In order for teachers to effectively engage their students in reasoning, they must shift their role from that of a lecturer, imparting wisdom for the students, to a facilitator of learning, allowing for discussions and encouraging an open thought process. Teachers need to encourage students to ask questions, evaluate multiple, sometimes conflicting, answers and opinions (Henderson-Hurley & Hurley, 2013; Tsai et al., 2013). Educational philosopher John Dewey always believed that students are motivated to problem solve because they have an “innate love of learning” based on their survival instincts (p. 611). In fact, the simple act of discovery plays a central role in learning. When students “become interested in a problem as a problem and in inquiry and learning for the sake of solving the problem, [student] interest is distinctively intellectual” (Dewey, 1939, p. 614). Students who are strong reasoners will grow up thinking critically about problems and making better decisions as adults; they will be creative, imaginative people who understand the world on a deeper level.
Effective communication. Communication is a learning and innovation skill (Framework for 21st Century Learning, 2007). Effective written and oral communication requires students to “articulate thoughts and ideas effectively” while informing, instructing, motivating, or persuading others (Framework for 21st Century Learning, 2002). Students need to make connections between classroom writing and practical, real-world applications. This includes reflecting on problem solving and technical writing for STEM-related jobs. STEM instructional activities combine oral and written communication with information and technology literacy.
Limitations and Delimitations
The limitations of this study relate to our sample size and lack of qualitative data such as classroom observations and student interviews, making subgroups of teachers and leaders surveyed too small to permit meaningful disaggregated analysis. We had a sample of seven urban elementary schools from an urban public school district in which to survey teachers, students, and other educational leaders. I would have liked to have more schools participate, possibly from different school districts, so that our data analysis might be generalizable to different schools. Although I understand that with regards to many types of educational reform, one size does not fit all; what works as a change effort or leveraging point in one school may or may not work in another building with a different student demographic population. However, I feel that STEM foundational thinking is apropos for raising student achievement in all content areas, preparing students with 21st century skills necessary for college and career readiness. Including an elementary school with a strong STEM focus would also have given this multi-site comparative case study a different context with which to analyze both qualitative and quantitative data.