Why I use STEM and STEAM {freebie}

STEM Power! STEM education, driven by learner-centered instruction, provides a powerful learning program for kids. I love seeing my student’s eyes light up when we do STEM. Why? Because its active, hands-on, and most importantly focuses on everything they can do!

STEM is more about integrating science and math into the curriculum with real-world, problem-based activities. STEM in education is NOT about adding something new to my day. Instead, it is teaching science and math in creative and hands-on ways. Often, you will find STEM projects synonymous with engineering projects. You will also see the acronym STEAM which is STEM with “A” added. The A stands for arts and encourages an integration of all of the arts, language arts–reading, writing, drama, as well as visual arts and design.

Why I teach STEM?

Here are my Top 10 reasons for focusing on STEM in my Elementary Resource Room:
  1. Real world application.how many times do your students ask you, “Why are we learning this?” STEM projects help answer that question by encouraging students to use math and science to solve real-world problems. Perhaps they are using area and perimeter to design a zoo blueprint or planning a vacation using math and critical thinking. Many STEM projects offer the skills in a real-world context.
  2. Problem solving. Students practice solving problems that don’t necessarily have a single “right” answer. They practice trial and error and how to come up with creative solutions. (the big word PERSEVERANCE)  They get to practice divergent thinking and adaptability. These are all skills that can be applied in all areas of life.
  3. Hands-On. Students learn by doing, and with many STEM projects, students are using tools and science materials. They are solving problems or constructing structures, not just reading about them or answering questions. (Need I mention--my students LOVE hands on anything)
  4. Differentiated Instruction at its finest. Since there can be any number of possible solutions, most STEM activities are naturally differentiated. Everyone can solve the problem to the best of his or her own ability. Sometimes I find students who are not the best traditional students thrive with STEM projects. There is truly a place for everyone. (think behaviorally challenged)
  5. Cooperative Learning.STEM projects give students practice working as a team. They learn and solve together, often playing different roles on the team. Teamwork skills are important not just in the school setting but in the “real world,” as well. 
  6. Access creativity. STEM activities give my students a chance to show off their creative side. They will get a chance to think outside of the box and sometimes even use art and design. My creative students will get a chance to shine.
  7. Failure. STEM projects give students the opportunity to try a design or solution that may or may not work. With STEM projects, they can fail in a safe and supportive environment and learn from their mistakes. After all, many great inventions were made from failures or mistakes. (multiple iterations with reflections and feedback)
  8. Higher Level Thinking. Students must be able to apply and use their knowledge to solve problems and complete projects. (An easy win on my teacher rubric--YEAH!)
  9. Active Engagement. Students are actively engaged when participating in STEM projects. They are not daydreaming or doodling, they are participating, solving, measuring, and doing.
  10. STEM is the future. As new technologies develop, so do new STEM careers. It’s not just doctors and engineers but architects, graphic design, video game programmers, and more. Think of all the ‘soft skills’ (as my dad would call them) are taught or guided through STEM activities. I reflect on my most challenging student or the one who struggles with reading excel through STEM activities and build those impossibly difficult ‘soft skills.’ 

Teaching Strategies

How can Classroom teachers prepare for and teach students with exceptional needs with STEM activities? 
  • Assume competency. Believe that students with exceptional needs can learn at higher levels and that you can create an environment to help them do that.
  • Build on students’ strengths and interests. Leverage their strong points to increase their comfort and excitement about learning.
  • Use a “flow learning” approach. Clearly define the purpose of their STEM challenge. Set the challenge level high and make sure your students with exceptional needs will have opportunities to be successful with that challenge. Provide clear and immediate feedback so they can change and adapt as needed.
  • Make use of assistive technology tools when needed. Technology can support students with special needs, especially if they have hearing or visual losses. Provide handouts and written materials in a digital format for these students.
  • Focus on safety consideration Be especially alert for safety issues when students are working with equipment to design devices for solving their problem.
  • Model persistence, communication, creativity, and collaboration. These qualities are especially useful to kids with exceptional needs who may need help with social skills.
  • Establish collaborative student teams. That’s a tall order but stick with it all year. Be intentional. Help students understand that respect and inclusiveness are non-negotiable behaviors for all teams. Teammates honor one another’s strengths and accept each other’s differences. Give them specific strategies for showing respect through speech and actions. Teamwork allows ALL students to practice social skills they will need throughout life.
  • Enlist help. Ask for help. Your specialists are there to support you. Use them.  


  • By now you know that teaching any group of students is both rewarding and challenging. Approach your students with exceptional needs with high expectations, but don’t adopt a Pollyanna mindset. You’ll encounter plenty of challenges. For some students, the science and math content may be beyond their current learning level. The pace of the lesson may be difficult for some to keep up. Some students will want to work alone instead of in teams.
  • Noise levels in the class may distract and annoy some students. Busy visual stimulation on classroom walls may distract others. Social expectations may frustrate students with exceptional needs. So what do you do?
  • Get to know your students with exceptional needs. Work together with their specialists and learn as much as you can about their strengths and difficulties. You’ll find many ways to make reasonable accommodations.
  • You might use images and graphics to make handouts clearer, headphones for those distracted by noise, a break zone or a quiet space, and technology that enlarges print. Your specialists will be your most valuable resource as you plan for and include these students in your STEM lessons.
  • The unique design of STEM lessons allows students, regardless of disability, access to the real-life learning experiences. Give these students with exceptional needs STEM experiences to help them get ready for a future society where all types of people live and work together seamlessly.

My Framework

I have adapted John Spencer’s and AJ Julian’s "Design Thinking: LAUNCH". Design thinking is a flexible framework for getting the most out of the creative process. It is used in the arts, in engineering, in the corporate world, and in social and civic spaces. It can use in every subject with every age group. You can read how I use their model with my students here. You can learn more about John Spencer’s and AJ Julian's Design Thinking LAUNCH hereClick here grab a copy of LAUNCH.

Teacher Rubric Impact

I have to tell you when I was challenged (by Principal) to provide more meaningful feedback to score better on the teacher rubric I was at a loss as to what to do. The challenge--students grades 1 to 3 come to me for 30 minutes 4 days a week for reading and math. I need to add more feedback. HOW? The same time this conversation happened, I was talking with a 1st-grade teacher who I knew was going to have my students in her room mentioned LAUNCH and the district was offering a book study as well. As she went on, she continued to tell me AJ Julian was coming to the district summer professional development and would be a good intro to his work.  So my journey began.

One year later

  • I read both books--LAUNCH and EMPOWER. Both are easy reads; filled with information that can be used the same day in your classroom.
  • With district supported group, I was encouraged to use, play with, and make the LAUNCH cycle my own--aka make it work for my students. 
  • STEM and STEAM were not special days or earned days. It was just something we did once a month. Sometimes I would need to carve out more time but I never let it be more than a day. (Why? 1-limited time and 2-attention span). I built Design Sprints. Students loved them and lead to having other professionals visit~engineers or scientists. (A first in my teaching career.)
  • Teacher Rubric. STEM and STEAM days forced me to build in both feedback and higher order thinking. BOTH are weighed heavily on my rubric. Sometimes the feedback was written and sometimes it was shared whole group, or every videotaped in small groups. I found the key was making sure students had enough time for 2 iterations of what they were building.  
  • I built in feedback. Feedback is more than telling students what is wrong but having them reflect on what they doing. This was painful and sometime madding but they each got there in time. I know on my rubric--I had to have both. Having work samples was even better. You can grab them below. These provided a jumping off point to do any videotaping we did. (This was not always me. Using SeeSaw made it super easy for students either to tape themselves or a friend could do it.)  You can grab what I used below.
To read more about how I used Design Thinking visit:

Until Next Time,



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Welcome to my all thing special education blog. I empower busy elementary special education teachers to use best practice strategies to achieve a data and evidence driven classroom community by sharing easy to use, engaging, unique approaches to small group reading and math. Thanks for Hopping By.
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