High Quality Instructional Materials (HQIM) in STEM: You Get What You Pay For

Three students are gathered at a table opening a Thimble.io STEM kit. One student is smiling and two others have open mouths of excitement. Thimble sources only the best components for kits and the students are pictured opening a kit for the first time and seeing all of the modules, pieces and components available to them to create robotics projects through our curriculum.

Investing in high-quality instructional materials (HQIM) for your STEM curriculum can seem astronomical.  This is the case for both homeschool parents and established school districts. The urge to cut costs however we can is always present.  While mitigating wasteful spending is important when planning out your STEM curriculum purchases, it’s important to remember that old saying we’ve been hearing from generations of dads:  “You get what you pay for.”

Cutting corners usually bites us in the long run- some studies have shown that curriculum reform is more cost-effective than many methods districts use to increase student achievement and improve learning outcomes.

Let’s look at a working “high-quality instructional materials” definition.  We’ll identify indicators of HQIM.  We’ll explore ways to ensure your district is adopting only the best.

What are High-Quality Instructional Materials (HQIM) and Why Are They Essential in STEM?

So many new words. So many new methods.  Acronyms galore.  It’s hard to keep track of all the changes and developments in the education world- but HQIM is an important one.  Arguably, the two most critical components of a solid education are:

  1. Teachers who are passionate, prepared, enthusiastic, consistent, and dedicated make engaged learning possible.
  2. Curriculum is foundational. This is where high-quality instructional materials come into play.  A sports team is only as good as its playbook, and a classroom is only as good as its curriculum.
Two students are smiling as they look at a drone.  Their teacher is beside them also smiling.  The table is covered with science manipulatives and robotics components.  It appears as though this drone was created using robotics components or a STEM kit of some kind, and the two students are presenting their finished product to their teacher.
Image created in Canva.

Forward-thinking state education departments are catching on, and many are developing tools and resources for districts to evaluate and choose curriculum that addresses goals and supports growth among students of every ability in every demographic. (Don’t take our word for it- Check out Texas, Delaware, and Oregon – just three of many states who are emphasizing closing achievement gaps with a push for high-quality instructional material in every district.)

Why is HQIM essential in STEM?  A growing amount of research indicates that access to high-quality instruction impacts student development and academic achievement. This is evidenced- even at first glance- by the proven achievement gap between students in schools with abundant resources and students in low-income schools.  Those low-income schools are less likely to have access to higher-quality instruction.

High-quality instructional materials in STEM become more important than ever as the computer and technology workforce is starved for qualified applicants.  Students continue to graduate with low STEM confidence and pursue other employment choices. 

As of April 2022, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (the official fact-finding agency of the U.S. Department of Labor) projected STEM occupations to grow by 10.5% over the next decade. Schools recognize that to fill those holes in the workforce, they need graduates who are confident and prepared.

Stick with us as we dissect the high-quality instructional materials definition through specific indicators widely accepted among state education agencies, administrators, and teachers.

6 Solid Indicators of High-Quality Instructional Materials

Texas, Delaware, Oregon and many other education agencies are creating tools and literature that spell out unambiguous indicators to help districts streamline curriculum choices.  These states are creating frameworks and rubrics that assist districts and educators during curriculum pilots – so that price points don’t become the deciding factor. 

Here at Thimble, developing high-quality instructional materials in STEM is a priority for us.  We want to serve our districts, students, and future workforce rigorously and engagement.  We do so by paying close attention to the components needed for HQIM.  What are curriculum stakeholders looking for in instructional materials?

1. Standards-Aligned

High-quality instructional materials in STEM and accompanying curricula need to be standards-aligned. Alignment (both vertical and horizontal) are key component of a gap-free curriculum. This is a given with almost any choice a school district makes.  In STEM, we find that education agencies and districts want HQIM that aligns with Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)  and/or state-specific standards.

A teacher with a mask pointing to a screen that has cirriculum.
Photo by Mr. Bochelly on Unsplash

2. Data-backed and Evidence-based

Some of the important characteristics of high-quality instructional materials in STEM are ironically backed by science. The best curriculums are developed and driven by evidence-based best practices in education.  They use sound classroom teaching and fair, timely, aligned formative and summative assessments. High-quality instructional material fits the mold of research-based classroom practices- such as scaffolded instruction models (“I do. We do. You do.”  IYKYK!) or project-based learning.  These methods allow rigor in the classroom- but give students the ability to take ownership of their learning as the teacher steps away gradually.  Information is chunked and mastery is achieved.  In short- the companies developing HQIM are using data-backed research to offer school districts unrivaled educational support.

3. Professional Development

Speaking of support- teachers are crying for it around every corner.  We’ve spoken to hundreds of teachers, many of whom express a lack of confidence in teaching STEM subjects.  At Thimble.io, we’re constantly trying to increase the level of support and training we provide to our users- almost all of whom are educators. Professional development isn’t always an annoying credential requirement.  It’s an essential part of multiple facets of a teacher’s career.  How does professional development (PD, continuing education, CTLE credits- or whatever your state calls it) work into high-quality instructional materials?

    1. Professional development and curriculum-specific training need to happen before the curriculum is implemented.
    2. Professional development must be ongoing and collaborative among a team of teachers implementing the same curriculum.
    3. Post-implementation evaluation and assessment of the instructional materials also fit into the professional development puzzle. 
    4. HQIM developers often provide ongoing support options that educators can utilize as needed.
Three young girls are engaged in a hands on science lesson.  They are all looking at something in one of the girls' hands.  On the table are slides, a microscope, and different types of plants. Student engagement is a key factor in high quality instructional materials.
Photo by Monstera: Pexels

4. Student Engagement

Even the most data-backed instructional materials are useless if students are bored and disinterested.  Engagement is crucial, and often teachers and administrators can only assess the level of engagement during a pilot or observation.  Engagement relies partly on the teacher and their enthusiasm, but integrating inquiry-based, hands-on, or project-based modules and activities drastically increases engagement.  Some other things to note regarding student engagement in HQIM in STEM:

      • Are students tasked with addressing or mimicking real-world experiences that connect learning to their schema?
      • Is the material presented in a way that makes sense?
      • Is the material grade-level appropriate?
      • Does the material require students to create, test, question, manipulate, and experience knowledge and concepts in addition to rote memorization and reading?

In short: is there fun to be had while presenting the material?  Studies show that high engagement translates to retention and progress in STEM learning.

5.  Equity in Learning

While it seems like a “duh” moment, ensuring that your instructional materials are part of an equitable curriculum makes a huge difference.  A curriculum that excludes or misrepresents a gender, socioeconomic demographic, race or religion can leave a lasting impression on students.  Making sure that the materials have something to offer students of every ability, from those performing below grade level to those participating in gifted programming. 

A biased curriculum that excludes or misrepresents any group of students can lead to disengagement, poor student achievement, self-esteem issues and potential legal repercussions for your district.

Manipulatives, science kits, and hands on projects need to involve high quality materials that won't break or fail- leading to frustration instead of engagement.  This picture shows three elementary age students gathered around a table with their teacher.  They appear to be using wires and modules to create a circuit on the table between them.  There is also a laptop in front of their teacher.
Picture created with Canva

6.  Quality of Materials

Reviews are meant to save purchasers from repeating mistakes.  Before purchasing materials, find out what other districts and educators say about them.  Look for red flag words, comments, or reviews like poor quality, low-grade, cheaply made, missing components, etc….  STEM classes rely on materials, equipment, supplies, and manipulatives.  Faulty equipment or cheaply sourced components will lead to wasteful spending as books and materials need to be replaced annually.

High-quality programming is meant to be effective, sustainable and long-lasting. Carving out chunks of your STEM budget to repurchase supplies that are necessary, permanent parts of activities and modules isn’t feasible.  Thimble knows first hand the repercussions of purchasing the best quality components and modules for our kits.  Trial and error lead us to the best of the best, so that our kits can be re-used again and again by multiple groups of students, year over year.

Circling back to every Dad’s famous quip: “You get what you pay for.”  Make sure student achievement is the return for your investment.

Avoiding Unsound STEM Curriculum Pitfalls

Yayyy!  It’s a fun STEM activity! (Mmmm, is it though? IS IT, THOUGH?) 

Small hands are arranging leaves and seeds and things from nature onto a piece of paper.  It looks like a nature-based arts and crafts project.
Picture created with Canva


Not only is the quality of the material an occasional pitfall when purchasing instructional materials in STEM, but the activities themselves can sometimes be deceptively non-STEM.  

Pinterest and other social media platforms can be a wonderful resource for educators, as can Teachers Pay Teachers.  The problem with sourcing activities from these locations is that sometimes, a “STEM” lesson or module contains very little meaningful STEM learning at all.  They’re widely distributed and then socially accepted as STEM learning activities or instructional materials – but in reality are one of the following:

    • A craft disguised as a STEM activity.
      Following up a unit on a sunflowers growing cycle by gluing sunflower seeds into a coloring of a sunflower is more likely to engage children in arts and crafts than in what seeds actually do. It doesn’t require them to ask questions, think independently, or investigate anything.  
  • Demonstrations that confuse science concepts.

Make sure that making a paper mache volcano using baking soda and vinegar is part of a unit on chemical reactions, because it’s not doing much to demonstrate how the earth’s crust opens up to allow molten lava to escape.

  • A standalone demonstration with no context.

Making a saltwater circuit packs a huge punch.  It’s the wow factor for student engagement and getting them excited, but without context- it’s just entertainment.  It’s a lot of ooing and ahhing without explaining what’s happening- the science behind it all.  This kind of activity needs to be a small component of a larger unit on electricity for it to really be a part of the connection-making in a student’s mind.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has written extensively on what they’ve dubbed “pseudo-STEM activities”.  They’ve even developed a handy tool to help educators choose and use high-quality instructional materials in STEM

Image created in Canva.

The Measurable Impact of HQIM

The impact of high-quality instructional materials in STEM is measurable in student outcomes.  Johns Hopkins School of Education points to a study that indicates implementing high quality instructional materials and curricula is a more practical, effective, and cost-friendly approach than many other widely accepted methods for increasing student achievement.  It’s often a smarter choice than methods like reducing class size or awarding teachers merit pay.

HQIM promotes meaningful engagement with the standards and improves achievement across the board.  It’s the foundation for everything else that happens in the classroom.  In short- the quality of your instruction matters.

High-quality instructional materials in STEM have a rippling effect from the classroom to the school culture- and ultimately to the global workforce.  Let Thimble help you change the culture around STEM in your district.  Contribute graduates that are ready to tackle tough, growing technology jobs and make our planet a better place.  Reach out for more information or a demonstration today- and let Thimble show you what HQIM in STEM learning looks like.

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