Teacher guiding students through a STEM project

STEM Classroom: Effective Design, Implementation, & Tips for Improvement

Rebecca Gray Education

An alarming percent of educators report feelings of intimidation and a lack of confidence in STEM education. Creating a STEM classroom, developing a standards-aligned curriculum, and then initiating and maintaining student engagement is overwhelming. Take into consideration an educator who doesn’t have a strong STEM background, and the task can become even less feasible. Half-hearted attempts are a disservice to our students and our future workforce.  So what’s an educator to do?

Veteran educators (you know – the teachers who came with the building) are well aware of the importance of STEM in the classroom but are often resistant to change.  They don’t want to “fix what isn’t broken.”  No, our education system isn’t broken.  But that system is producing students who are falling short globally in math and science scores.  It’s also preparing students to enter a workforce that looks much different than it did a half-century ago.

The two basic steps in implementing effective STEM education are:

  •  Choose a relevant curriculum and STEM classroom activities.

  •  Implement a STEM classroom design that supports your curriculum and activities.

The Importance of STEM in the Classroom

Why is STEM important? As an educator, presenting a well-rounded learning experience is what prepares our students for the world beyond.  With the rise of technology, globalization, AI, and digitalization, the emerging workforce needs to be more STEM literate and tech-savvy than ever.

Two young girls stand in a <mark><mark><mark>STEM classroom</mark></mark></mark> in front of a white table smiling as they code a <mark><mark><mark>robot</mark></mark></mark> with a laptop.
Photo by ThisIsEngineering from Pexels

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts an increase of 8% in employment in STEM occupations from 2019-2029. This is more than double the increase of non-STEM occupations.  Laying the foundations for this sector of the future workforce must happen long before college.

Educators are tasked with this monumental shift in methodology.  Seamlessly integrating science, technology, engineering, and math into one overarching mindset is being pushed in school districts all across America.  We’re even seeing a STEM surge in early childhood education.

As an educator, you can do this with any grade level by making your classroom a STEM classroom.  Create an adequate learning space for our future innovators by putting collaborative, hands-on STEM classroom activities in front of them.  Create confident high school graduates with STEM skills that make them ready and willing to enter fields such as:

  • Computer science

  • Software development

  • Engineering

  • Robotics

  • Medicine

  • Aeronautics

  • Cyber-security

The occupation possibilities are endless, with new STEM jobs being created daily. It’s up to our classroom teachers to prepare their students by facilitating access to meaningful, hands-on STEM learning.

How Are Educators Integrating STEM into Classrooms?

Let’s revisit the two basic steps to implementing effective STEM Education in the classroom.

  • Choose a relevant curriculum and STEM classroom activities.

  • Implement a STEM classroom design that supports your curriculum and activities.

Choosing a curriculum is most often going to be a collaboration with your teaching team to choose or create a curriculum that works for your district.  Your goal should be to choose a pre-built curriculum or design your own that will align with your state’s standards.  Refer to the Next Generation Science Standards during your planning stage.

Make project-based learning opportunities engaging, hands-on, and grade-level.  Use your creativity to choose topics kids will be interested in.  Consider choosing STEM activities that solve real-world problems.  Don’t leave them asking themselves, “When will we ever need to use this?”. You want them to leave your classroom feeling like problem solvers, not failures.

A group of five boys in school uniforms gather around a laptop in their <mark><mark><mark>classroom</mark></mark></mark>.
Photo by Agung Pandit Wiguna from Pexels

Every STEM teacher will have different approaches to integrating STEM into their classroom.  Let’s break down some simple ways to be intentional in your everyday instruction:

  1. Modify and adjust your language.  Primary and early childhood educators know children learn and play at the same time.  Being mindful of the language we use when asking our student’s questions can make them approach play differently.  Use specific, thought evoking words like “plan”, “design”, and “observe”.  Get them in the habit of using their brains like scientists early on.

  2. Be resourceful.  Use lessons you’ve already planned and reflect on how they can be adjusted.  Are you able to rephrase questions to take them up a level in Bloom’s Taxonomy?  Instead of asking students to simply remember facts, can you ask them to understand and apply?  Create problem-solving opportunities in social studies and language arts that let them practice critical thinking outside of their regular math and science classes.

  3. Interdisciplinary instruction is key.  Melding concepts from science, technology, engineering, and math is the foundation of the acronym STEM.  But proponents of STEAM education are encouraging teachers to bring in art, drama, music, and literature as well.  The scientific method and the engineering design process can be mimicked in many art, language, history, and civics assignments.  Even preschool teachers can find ways to blend multiple subjects in a single lesson.

5 Characteristics of Effective STEM Classroom Design

Your STEM classroom design can be a major hindrance or asset to your collaborative learning environment.  Think purposefully about your STEM classroom design before the first moment you set foot in the school.  Classroom design refers to more than just STEM teaching tools and posters.  Things like furniture choice and storage space seem basic – but overlooking some of these minor things can make or break the efficiency and time management of your STEM lessons.  Let’s break down five non-negotiable characteristics of STEM classroom design.

1. Equipped

Our first step in implementing effective STEM education in the classroom is to plan the curriculum.  Know what activities you plan to include so that your room is equipped with all of the utilities, amenities, and technology to carry out your STEM learning plans.

Let’s pretend for a moment that this is an HGTV Home show and you have an unrealistic budget at your disposal.  This is a best-case scenario.  Design a classroom that has all the necessary components.  Do you have enough outlets, sinks, and gas burners to accommodate your anticipated class size?  Get that 3-D printer!  Order those STEM classroom kits!  Get that Smartboard!  Get the projector and all the tech to make your strategic STEM curriculum visions a reality. Who said anything about budget restrictions?

An empty <mark><mark><mark>STEM classroom</mark></mark></mark> is set up with trays, gas burners and outlets.
Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

Now that the words “budget restrictions” have jarred you from your HGTV dreamland, let’s talk about what to do to equip your classroom on a realistic budget. Take stock of what you’ll need, and petition your district to give you an existing classroom in your building that meets as many of those needs as possible.  Consult with IT, the library media specialist, and other STEM teachers to fully equip your classroom to the best of your ability with what you are given.

Don’t forget that established STEM programs can seek sponsorship and fundraise within the community!

2. Flexible Layout

There are going to be moments of inspired STEM instruction where you need to throw back furniture and clear the center of the room for a demonstration, a project, or a team-building activity.  Laying out your classroom in a way that can be rearranged with ease will benefit you and your participants by giving them a flexible learning environment.  Try to keep any anchored items to the outer walls of the classroom to maximize space.

A group of five students is gathered around a table with a large white posterboard in between them. They are having a discussion while adding things to an idea map on the paper with colored markers.
Photo by Edvin Johansson on Unsplash

Choose furniture with wheels or casters.  If you don’t have it in your budget for new furniture, work with your district’s maintenance crew to add locking casters to the furniture that is given to you.  Create a STEM classroom where you can bring furniture together for teamwork activities or spread furniture out to allow room for big builds while students work.

3. Organized

There’s a good chance your 21st century STEM classroom is going to be used by multiple math and science teachers.  With multiple classrooms involved in their own investigations and open-ended exploration, there are bound to be half-finished parts and projects going on simultaneously.  This clutter can create brain fog, hinder learning, and create a dangerous environment.  An effective STEM classroom design utilizes premium organization and storage.

Color-coded rows of storage are arranged neatly on shelves.
Photo by James Lewis on Unsplash

Make sure that all of your materials, equipment, and tools have a pre-established “home” in your classroom.  Set rules with your STEM team and students that dictate a portion of time spent in the classroom to return all items to their “home”.  Trying to find supplies “on the fly” wastes your time and squanders away precious learning opportunities. Good organizational strategy is a precious resource.

4. Collaborative

STEM classroom activities are traditionally collaborative team efforts.  Students often work through a project or design as a whole unit or in small groups, the way scientists and engineers work in the field.  Creating a classroom that forces each student to sit independently at their desk hinders this collaboration process.  If you are stuck with individual student desks, consider pushing them together to make small group stations.

A student writes on the whiteboard in her <mark><mark><mark>classroom</mark></mark></mark> with a blue sharpie marker in her right hand and a notebook in her left.
Photo by Roxanne Minnish from Pexels

Create some kind of universal planning surface for idea mapping.  The simplest solution is a whiteboard, chalkboard, or if your budget allows it – a Smartboard.  Students can work through ideas and keep them visually present and easily adjusted as their project moves forward.

5. Connected

Your classroom needs to be connected to resources outside of their walls that they can draw from.  Make sure there are a strong wifi signal and devices that your kids can use to Google away their heart’s STEM desires.  They are naturally curious and it is inevitable that mid-unit they will ask you a question you cannot answer.  This is the perfect opportunity to show them that they have the power to discover the right answers on their own.

If multiple devices are not a realistic option for the inside of your STEM classroom, be sure your students have a connection to the computer lab or library for research outside.

A student sits at a white desk while having a video conference with a man on her computer screen. She has books and a notebook on her desk.
Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels

You can even make sure your classroom is connected to the community by lining up on-call experts for each of your units.  Doing an architecture project? Connect with a local firm that can support you.  Is your STEM classroom focusing on chemistry?  Connect with a local lab-site who can support you.  Is your STEM classroom focusing on computer programming?  Your district’s IT department can support your connected STEM classroom design.

What Are The Benefits of Using STEM Kits In Your Classroom?

STEM classroom kits are an easy way to offer thematic, well-planned units to your students.  These kits are STEM teaching tools that come with all necessary components, as well as accompanying instructional material designed by experts and educators.  There are STEM kits available in almost every STEM topic out there from chemistry to robotics.

Thimble offers STEM kits that build students’ skill sets up from beginner to expert in robotics, electronics, and basic coding.  The kits come with all necessary components, online learning modules, visual instructions, and mini-lessons.  For example, our Wifi-Robot doesn’t just instruct students on how to build the robot, but why. There is an entire mini-lesson on infrared waves in the learning module.  Students learn why infrared waves help make this robot a reality.  Then they code it themselves.

An open box contains one Wifi-<mark><mark><mark>Robot</mark></mark></mark> kit from Thimble.io.

The benefit of STEM classroom kits is that they take some of the pressure off of the instructor.  You can spend your time supporting students and facilitating learning, rather than being a slave to the curriculum development process.

Tips and Strategies to make STEM part of your Everyday Classroom

Sometimes it’s difficult to figure out how to make STEM learning click into other disciplines – especially language arts.  How can you consistently integrate STEM into your classrooms with ease? Reviewing our previous three methods of being intentional with STEM integration, you know that you can:

  • Modify and adjust the language that you use when leading discussions and questioning your students.

  • Be resourceful with the lessons and opportunities that you’ve already planned.  Tweak your existing curriculum slightly to make it more hands-on.  Make student’s work as collaborative and open-ended as possible without being impractical.  Use all of your assets for effective STEM classroom design.

  • Use interdisciplinary instruction at every turn.  STEM in the classroom isn’t limited to science and mathematics.

A puzzle has one missing piece.
Photo by Ann H from Pexels

Let’s look at some examples of STEM classroom activities you can integrate as pieces into the whole puzzle of each subject.

Math Integration

You can’t spell STEM without the “M”.  Mathematics integration is seamless and easy.  Use or expand on some of these STEM classroom activities:

  1. Have students use math skills to calculate how much water is in a certain container.  Ask them to explain how they determine the volume of water, and why they may need to know how to do this in real life.  (Hint: Who fills up the community swimming pool?)

  2. Have students use balance scales to weigh different produce and calculate how much the produce would cost based on the current price per pound at their local grocery store.  They could even extract these prices from printed ads.  Multiplication and money are math concepts, but using a scientific tool such as a balance scale or print ads integrates science and language arts into this math lesson.

Potatoes rest on a turquoise produce scale. which reads at just under one pound.
Photo by Kelvin Theseira on Unsplash

Science Integration

You can’t spell STEM without the “S”.  Science integration is also seamless and easy.  Use or expand on some of these STEM classroom activities:

  1.  Students can complete any investigation or experiment using steps of the scientific method.  Have them develop a hypothesis and discuss possible outcomes before beginning.  The scientific method is the most widely accepted problem-solving approach.

  2. Students can begin to understand the engineering design process while creating an invention to solve an everyday problem.  This problem-solving approach applies to creating and innovating rather than the natural sciences.

Technology/Robotics Integration

Technology and robotics are two parts of STEM that make some teachers uncomfortable.  Education degrees don’t often come with very extensive technology and robotics training.  But you can rely on other experts to help support the technology integration in your STEM classroom activities.

  1. Utilize video-conferencing tools to bring experts into your classroom in ANY topic.  A local politician can connect with your history class through the magic of technology.

  2. Bring in experts to guide your students through a robotics learning experience.  Thimble.io has a complete learning module to guide students through the assembly and programming of a Wifi Robot project.  We offer live build-alongs and zoom sessions with experts who can answer student questions.

Thimble's fully assembled wifi <mark><mark><mark>robot</mark></mark></mark> rests on a table beside an open laptop.

Electronics Integration

Electronics is present in science, technology, robotics, coding, and engineering. Integrate introductory electronics learning into your STEM classroom activities.

  1. Thimble’s mini starter STEM kit teaches young beginners about voltage, current, polarity, and Arduino.  It mixes coding, tech, and programming with basic electronics.  It’s a great endcap to a science or physics unit on voltage and current.  It’s also a perfect introduction to the hands-on world of electronics and programming.

  2. Have younger students wire a lightbulb to a potato-power source.  This mixes chemistry and electronics for a fun, quick hands-on experiment.

Components of a mini starter STEM kit are laid out on a table. The Arduino board is plugged into a USB cable.

Language Arts and Reading Integration

Language arts seem to be the most difficult subjects for educators to integrate STEM into because they feel so far removed.  One of the best ways to integrate STEM and language arts is through STEM books.  Try choosing one of these books to preface your STEM classroom activities.

  1.  Andrea Beaty and David Roberts wrote The Questioneers book series.  This series touts books with titles like:

  • Rosie Revere, Engineer

  • Iggy Peck, Architect

  • Ada Twist, Scientist

    These literature adventures segue right into STEM activities inspired by the STEM heroes from history.

  1. Students could write out their own invention ideas.  Writing their ideas in complete sentences and then creating those inventions with their own hands mixes science, engineering, problem-solving, and language beautifully.

Final Tips for STEM Classroom Integration

Whether you choose to go with the ease provided by all-inclusive STEM kits or develop a STEM curriculum yourself, we at Thimble challenge you to begin your next school year with bold STEM planning.  Integrate nuggets of STEM knowledge and critical thinking across all facets of your curriculum.  Make it relevant, and do it often.

It All Begins with STEM Classroom Design

Effective STEM classroom design is the first crucial step in creating STEM literate graduates.  Create a learning environment that facilitates open exploration, critical thinking, and a love of learning is going to pay off at the end of the school year as you say goodbye to lifelong learners.

Three children are smiling at a table as they open a Thimble Creator Kit together.

Let Thimble STEM classroom kits help you deliver quality STEM classroom activities, designed by experts, straight to your students. Subscribe today!