How to Plan a STEAM Program in Your School

Lori McDonald
Lori McDonald
Elementary School Teacher; Ed.D. in School Leadership/Administration

STEM learning is an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It is not simply throwing all of these subjects into the curriculum separately. STEM programs work to integrate these subjects into projects that resemble real-life problems and situations. This came about from a need in the workforce for people who were better prepared for the demands of our high-tech world. But more recently, the focus has shifted to STEAM.

What is STEAM?

As you walk into Mrs. Smith’s  fourth grade classroom, you see students in groups of four. They are spread out all over the room. They are busy and excited as they chat to each other. Mrs. Smith gets their attention and gives them directions. She then gives each group a box of popsicle sticks, a roll of tape, and some art supplies. The task? Students are to create a bridge that will support the weight of a textbook. They must also use the art supplies to make it visually appealing, as well as functional. This is STEAM in action.

STEAM, like STEM, centers around science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics. Rather than just adding art to other STEM components, it is more accurately described as seeing and applying the STEM concepts through the lens of liberal arts such as language arts, social studies, music, fine arts, physical arts, and psychology.

What is the difference between STEM and STEAM?

In STEM programs, the focus is dedicated to the pillars of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. However, adding arts to the program encourages the creative thinking that is also important, if not necessary, for real-life projects. Art is not just what happens on a canvas or a sketch pad. Art happens everywhere in different subjects, disciplines, and career paths. For example, an architect uses all STEM components as well as creative thinking and art to create beautiful structures. The arts can compliment so many careers that involve technology and engineering. Imagine the technology of the Apple company without the creative thinking to inspire new innovations. So rather than a separate program, STEAM can be thought of as an updated version of STEM that more accurately represents the skills necessary for real-world projects.

Factors to Consider When Implementing STEAM

The Need. 

More than 65% of today’s students will have jobs as adults that don’t even exist today, according to the Department of Labor. Also, employment opportunities are growing faster in STEM occupations than in non-STEM occupations. So, we understand the importance of preparing students for the future. We also can see the value in teaching students to exercise their creative thinking, as these students of today will be the innovators and inventors of tomorrow.

The Necessities.

Budget – Do you have one? This needs to be the first question asked. Find out how

much money there is to work with in order to determine what kind of program is right for your school. Some schools have teachers that are onboard with implementing these strategies into their regular classroom activities. Other schools opt for an afterschool program that will require additional funds for an extended contract for the teacher or teachers leading STEAM.

Space – If you choose to have an afterschool STEAM program, do you have a designated space for it? There will be a lot of materials to store, so working out the logistics of it will be vital.

Personel – Who is going to lead that afterschool program? Do you have a teacher that is passionate about STEAM? Finding an enthusiastic leader will really breathe some life into your program.

Training – If you are going to implement the program during the school day in the regular classrooms, are the teachers prepared? Do they have the materials and training they need? If not, look for professional development opportunities for the teachers. Give them all the support they need to make STEAM implementation successful at your school.

The Norms. 

Just like you set norms or expectations for PLC meetings, RTI instruction, and parent involvement, you should set norms for STEAM implementation. Start slow! Perhaps suggest one STEAM activity per month in each teacher’s classroom and provide them with ideas. As they see how much the students enjoy these activities and how much they learn and work together, they will be motivated to do more than what is expected!

Proper Teaching Strategies for STEAM

In STEAM instruction, it is important to consider these options:

Collaborative teaching – Two heads are always better than one. Teachers sharing the planning for STEAM will lighten the load and maximize ideas!

Cross subject teaching – Especially since STEAM includes the arts, these are great projects for cross-curricular teaching. It is naturally built in! This is much more reflective of real life.

Cooperative learning – Again, two heads (or three or four) are always better than one. As a teacher, it is thrilling to watch and listen to these groups as they bounce ideas off of each other. They never cease to amaze with the ideas they produce.

A STEAM classroom is more student-focused and student-led than the more traditional classroom setting. Students are not given the answer, because there is not only one correct answer. There can be many different and effective ways to solve a problem or complete a project. STEAM prepares students for a future of thinking “outside the box”, which promotes innovation and creativity.

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