Written by Hope Smith, a 2015 Galbraith winner from York University.
Recently, I was asked to help a kindergarten teacher implement a STEM activity, and so, of course, I started with the easiest resource: the internet. I searched on variations of “STEM”, “kindergarten”, “inquiry”, and “experiments” to get an idea of activities that were suitable for kindergarten since I have little experience providing STEM activities at that grade. It was, quite simply, heartbreaking. There were countless activities suitable in complexity for three to five year olds, and they all had some elements of science, math, engineering, and/or technology, but none of them were anything more than procedures labelled as STEM activities.
We’ve likely all come across these types of lessons: they list, step by step, what each child must do in a specific order to achieve a very specific outcome. The lesson may include a question or two beforehand that asks the child to make a prediction of the outcome, but there is no opportunity for diversion, experimentation, or individual investigation. Many of them are recipe-based to make products such as Gak or Oobleck, which are fun to make and play with, but leave little room for use of the scientific method without alteration of the lesson. These recipes have their place – in fact, I make them with my students every year as a fun activity – but there is little room for real experimentation.
Those of us who strive to embed STEM in all aspects of our teaching know the difference between a procedure and an inquiry-based experiment, but I fear that many teachers would do the same web searches I did, and believe that the activity they found really was an inquiry-based STEM lesson. The question then becomes: How can we, as STEM leaders, ensure that all teachers have easy access to rich, scientifically-literate, inquiry-based lessons? We often have professional development to help disseminate specific types of information, but the last two STEM workshops I attended provided instruction for procedural activities, rather than real experimentation. Two engineering activities I observed in primary classrooms required students to plan what materials they would use prior to building, but students in primary (and often adults!) need to touch, feel, and experiment with materials to make a good structure. How do we convey to teachers that they need to allow students to manipulate materials prior to planning to allow students to be successful, when their lesson plans clearly state that students need to make 3 plans before even touching the materials?
STEM instruction for teachers needs to focus less on lesson plans and activities, and more on how to take an activity or lesson found on the internet or elsewhere and change it into an inquiry-based experiment. Teachers need to know how to recognize the difference between the two, and how to access scientific information on the topics being covered that are trustworthy and accessible to non-scientists. We need lists of online resources, such as reliable YouTube videos, that allow us to convey complex scientific ideas to young students. Lastly, teachers need someone they can turn to for assistance when developing STEM lessons for their classrooms.
As STEM leaders, we all want to spread the joy of scientific discovery with our fellow teachers, but not all schools have our expertise. We need to find ways to ensure that all students have access to an enriched scientific education based on inquiry, experimentation, and solid STEM expertise.
I think Charles Darwin, Notebook B: Transmutation (1837-8)