How to Identify Effective STEM Activities for Children

STEM is all about problem-solving.

“When you’re looking at real-world problems, a one-dimensional approach will not solve those problems — not the problems of today and definitely not the problems of tomorrow,” says Dr. Suzanne Nesmith, associate dean for undergraduate education and associate professor for curriculum and instruction at Baylor University’s School of Education.

World progress and development depend on science, technology, engineering and math, she says. And the skills STEM education emphasizes — critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity — can apply not only to these fields, but also to other disciplines.  

That’s why STEM learning should begin in early childhood education, says Dr. Sandra Cooper, professor of mathematics education, coordinator of mathematics education, and program director of Baylor University School of Education’s Doctor of Education in Learning and Organizational Change online program.

Not only is early childhood a critical period of brain development, there are also practical reasons for integrating STEM into the classroom for young students.

“It comes more naturally in elementary schools because most elementary classrooms are self-contained, where one teacher teaches all subjects,” Cooper says. “They can easily go from one to the next or integrate these areas.”

When introducing STEM in the classroom, Cooper and Nesmith teach their students to follow the four guiding principles developed by the Early Childhood STEM Working Group, made up of scholars, policymakers, curriculum developers and educators who advocate universal access to STEM education for preschool children:

Develop children’s natural STEM inclinations.

Encourage curiosity by fostering, guiding and building on their interests so they have positive early STEM experiences.

Consider that representation and communication are central to STEM learning.

Use discussion, illustrations and writing to help students understand important concepts and practices.

Be aware that beliefs and attitudes affect how children think about STEM.

Change negative attitudes and beliefs people have about STEM competencies. Be positive and build confidence in everyone’s ability to learn STEM.

Understand STEM education is not culturally neutral.

Acknowledge cultural influences, racial biases and class stereotypes and develop different approaches to STEM education that reduce the biases and stereotypes that can limit students’ success.

What Makes a Good STEM Lesson?

Neither a game involving multiplication nor an assignment mentioning a famous scientist makes a quality STEM lesson.

“It needs to have that rigorous math and science,” Nesmith says. “It can’t just be this fun activity.”

She pointed to a class activity she and Cooper created that involves designing a lifeguard chair. The activity encourages the students to think about real world questions to develop a better design, such as: What will the chair be made of? Does it need to be a certain height? How is an individual going to climb up to reach this chair?  

The professors say part of what makes the lifeguard chair exercise a strong STEM activity is that it can be solved multiple ways.

“Are there better answers, better solutions? Absolutely,” Nesmith says. “That’s part of the process, and I think that’s also why it’s very appropriate to have STEM at the early grades, to start this whole idea of there’s more than one solution, and it’s good to go back and rethink and try something else.”

What should teachers and parents who want to get a jumpstart on STEM education look for in a lesson?

Cooper and Nesmith say every good STEM activity should include:

Balance

Science, technology, engineering and math contribute to solving a problem.

Real-World Applications

The problems and solutions are realistic and relatable.

Teamwork

Collaboration, which requires contribution and cooperation, leads to solutions.

Multiple Answers

The exercise or activity can be completed in more than one way.

Nine Quality STEM Resources Online

There are many high-quality STEM activities online for educators, caretakers and parents to try with kids. Search through the following resources for activities and lessons that can be taught in the classroom or home.

Discover Your World With NOAA: An Activity Book (PDF, 97.3 MB): Activities connecting to topics such as volcanoes, temperature and rip currents.

Engineering is Elementary (EiE) Curriculum Units: Hands-on engineering design lessons for preview and purchase from the Museum of Science, Boston.

Inquiry in Action, American Chemical Society: Free book download provides classroom activities highlighting physical change, water, solubility, gases and how temperature affects matter.

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory California Institute of Technology Learning Activities: Exercises include how to make a cloud in a bottle, a Jupiter orbiter, pinhole camera, and a rocket.

PhET (Physics Educational Technology) Simulations: The PhET Interactive Simulations project at the University of Colorado Boulder creates free interactive math and science simulations.

Science Learning through Engineering Design (SLED) Resources: Designed by Purdue University faculty and teachers, engineering design-based activities focus on STEM for grades 3-6.

Smithsonian Institution Fun Stuff for Kids Online: Activities on topics such as the distribution of fresh water, disaster detection and preparation, geography and migratory birds.

USGS Kids, U.S. Geological Survey: Resources for teachers and other adults that include building a mealworm ranch and making a birdhouse.

Welcome to ASCEville: Just for Fun, American Society of Civil Engineers: Fix skyscrapers and build a geodesic dome out of gumdrops and toothpicks.

Citation for this content: Baylor’s EdD online in Learning and Organizational Change.