Thursday, March 1, 2012

STEM for Homeschoolers

Graphic tile by E. Keyser, ACTS Geometry student

What is STEM and how is it different from science or math?

"STEM" or "STEM education" are hot topics right now, but they sound like you're into teaching plants or helping flowers.  The name itself is misleading.  STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math, all lumped together in a handy dandy acronym.  So - not plants, but math and science loosely glued together?  No, that's not quite it either.  With this post I'm going to break down what STEM is and compare one day's science class versus STEM class.

What is STEM?

Although you can find umpteen definitions of STEM around, many agree on the following: STEM education combines multiple subjects together while using student-centered learning techniques.  It is an effort to bridge the gap between what a pure science class teaches (biology) and the skills a biological research scientist uses in a career (knows biology, but also needs to communicate well, design and test, use math to analyze data, and interact with other scientific professionals).  STEM education has a heavy focus on design, student initiative and "soft" skills such as collaboration, innovation and invention.

What's a real example of the difference between a science, math or computer class and a STEM class?

I teach several high school math and science courses at a co-op to homeschoolers, along with STEM classes, so I experience this every week. Here's the rundown of what happened on a recent day.

Physics class: we are studying periodic motion, and begin a unit on spring systems.  Students sit on chairs around a table and listen while I lecture and use the whiteboard.  I have several visuals to illustrate how springs work.  Students seem like they understand, and I prompt them for where they see springs in everyday life.  I do all my usual "teacher-ey" things to keep students engaged.  We do a lab exercise, where students in small groups measure data about springs.  I review what their lab report should look like.  End of class. The next class will continue with periodic motion.

STEM class:  Early in the year student groups brainstormed areas of interest in any STEM field.  One group picked alternative energy, so this day we are studying wind tunnels.  I arrive with a fan, clear containers and lots of tools.  After a brief lecture on how wind tunnels design, student groups spread out on the floor to make their own models. I walk between groups, making sure everyone is collaborating well.  While each group works, we talk about how to make smoke lines, how a mesh can help reduce wind turbulence, and what kind of turbines might work well.  We also brainstorm about where turbines could be placed.  We pack up and groups take their models home to finish. The next class will test our models and smoke lines.

Let's run that back.  Both classes were valuable.  Physics was concept-centered, and I used strategies to engage students including a hands-on lab.  STEM was also concept centered, but those concepts drew from multiple sciences and design work.  Students chose the topic and drove the flow of class, working with their peers the entire class.  Their end product will be a workable wind tunnels to test turbine prototypes, along with enhanced collaboration and design skills.

In coming posts I'll outline some age-specific STEM opportunities and what some barriers to STEM involvement are for homeschoolers.  If you have any experience with STEM and would like to add to the conversation, drop me a line at or on twitter at @marycsaville.

Science Blogs - Blog Rankings Engineering Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory