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Power up STEM with STEAM to get all students engaged

By Team ISTE
March 9, 2017
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You’ve heard it over and over again: Our students need more STEM skills!

Most teachers can tell you, however, that science, math, engineering and technology don’t come naturally to everyone, and an aversion to STEM often gets worse as students get older. Surveys show that by the time they are adults, only 3 in 10 Americans feel that they are good at math.

So how do you get — and keep — all your students engaged in STEM lessons when so many lack a natural interest in, or aptitude for, these subjects?

The first step, says Ayah Bdeir, founder and CEO of littleBits and a leader in the maker movement, is to expand how we think about STEM.

Despite the stereotypes, those who work in STEM are not all scientists and programming prodigies. Bdeir points to the many successful global business people who have STEM backgrounds, including SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk, who taught himself to code at age 10; Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who researched leprosy, AIDS and blindness in India before becoming a business executive; and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who built an electronic alarm to keep his siblings out of his childhood room.

“They’ve all found their way into careers in STEM and STEAM, but through very different paths,” Bdeir pointed out in her ISTE 2016 EdTekTalk. “Some of them from investing in something they did for fun, like gaming; some to solve a problem for themselves, like keeping a sibling out of their room; and others, like Sandberg, by combining interests that were outside the technology discipline, like social impact and economic impact.”   


What these three exemplars have in common is not good grades in math. It’s that they followed their passions and built STEM skills along the way.

In the classroom, this means transforming STEM lesson plans into STEAM-powered projects. By adding an element of A — for art and other humanities subjects — Bdeir believes educators can capture the imaginations of those whose interests lie outside the traditional STEM subjects while broadening the horizons of all students across the board.  

The key to getting — and keeping — a wide range of students engaged in STEAM projects is to focus on fun and on solving problems that are relevant to their lives right now. Some students might be interested, like Musk, in learning how to code so they can create their own video games. Some might be into designing clothes and jewelry with LED lights and GPS locators. And others might be motivated to invent a doodle machine that generates abstract art.
“We want to tell students that it’s not about seeing limits, it’s about seeing possibilities,” said Bdeir. “It’s about really coming up with amazing, unique solutions for problems that are important to you. Yes, these problems can be important to other people and they will inspire other people, but first and foremost, they have to be important to you. Because that’s how you get them to go home and fall asleep thinking about that problem. … It becomes a powerful vehicle for continuous learning.”

Watch Bdeir’s EdTekTalk to see more examples of STEM lessons transformed into STEAM.