so you want me to teach STEAM?

How many educators have been introduced to STEAM teaching by a principal saying, “I need you to teach 80 million sections of STEAM in 40 minutes or less each week for the rest of the year.”?

And what do teachers say? Yes- of course. Teachers always say yes.

So then, the hunt begins. Teachers spend grant money and their own funds on projects, materials, set-up instructions, tools and technology gizmos. Teachers pour effort into finding lesson ideas they believe will best help students learn STEAM concepts. The efforts are tied together with hope and the understanding that this all a big experiment.

There are some positives to the big experiment approach. It gives teachers autonomy and creative control. Often, joining resources from various sources allows the teacher to introduce varied concepts and types of lessons. Teachers model the ideas they are teaching. Try it, if it doesn’t go exactly right, we can always try again.

These lessons, carefully cherry picked by teachers, make up a larger effort to teach kids about STEAM. But STEAM learning is more than STEAM concepts and an engineering/design process. Jo Boaler asserts mathematics learning is made up of procedural learning, conceptual understanding, and problem solving. STEAM learning is also multi-faceted and requires many skills and strategies that enable kids to innovate.

I have two proposals for the courageous teacher that took on this massive job. These are meant to support your efforts and empower you.

  1. Start with what you’ve got (or can get for free).
  2. Teach skills, not just concepts or the making process.

Start with what you’ve got.

Teachers spend so much personal time trying to make their classrooms a better place and their lessons more meaningful for students. By starting simply, there is more time to inventory supplies, plan to use these materials, and create a list of needed items.

Let’s move through these steps together.

Find out what you already have access to.

Check the teachers’ copy room and front office. Is there cardboard you can have? Are there die cut machines no one uses anymore? Are there boxes of fabric leftover from bulletin boards that kids can use to make prototypes? Is there anything you can use? Be sure to source pencils, cardboard, and if possible, hot glue and duct tape.

Then, organize materials. Miscellaneous craft supplies can be sorted into categories and stored together. Cardboard can be piled up in a large recycling tub.

Next, look at what you already have and create a list. This list will inform projects you can easily plan and what you need to ask for in the future. In other words, use what you have in front of you to inspire project ideas to for students. Feeling stuck or overwhelmed by cardboard? Start here.

Use your inventory and ideas to make a wish list. Go crazy. Dream big.

There are multiple pathways to access your dream classroom and curriculum. Ever heard of Donors Choose? Donors love to fund meaningful STEAM education initiatives. If it’s a big dream, break it down into smaller pieces: donations are made when teachers meet their goal. Or, go low-tech, and use an old chalkboard or laminated poster to inform parents of donation opportunities. Hang it in the office with a box underneath. The box should full more quickly than you’d expect. Consider having an open donation once a year. Invite families to donate craft supplies, old technology no longer in use, broken toys, and anything else they’d like to be rid of. Keep what you want, and donate the rest.

Once you have your materials, store them in a way that is modular, mobile and easy to access. I’d recommend clear bins on an old rolling projector cart (or two!) if possible. Bins that stack in various configurations are helpful, but may be expensive. Rolling carts with smaller open compartments also provide easy access to materials. The more that is in-view, especially in a maker-space style STEAM classroom, the more access students have to materials.

People share various free/low-cost projects all over the internet. Besides cardboard construction projects, you can invite students to take apart broken technology and battery-operated toys. Sometimes called a “breakerspace” kids love to take apart the hidden insides of tech and toys. (Just be sure to teach proper safety procedures and rules.) As students take items apart, they can salvage battery holders, DC motors, and switches to repurpose later.

Another free idea is to teach students how to work effectively in groups, by asking questions, holding one another responsible for learning, and requiring equal participation. To bolster STEAM concepts, you could also teach systems thinking and look for systems within the classroom and school. Authentic engineering and design often focus on solving real-world problems. Students can spend time researching problems in their school, community, or region and make a prototype out of cardboard. Complete thinking around this problem might also include a presentation of the solution and explanation of how it solves the problem. All free. All can be taught within a making/STEAM project, or in isolation. All skills that are based on 21st learning standards, which leads to the next proposal.

Teach skills, not just concepts or the making process.

Let’s say you have chosen to make a balloon-powered car in your STEAM classroom. It’s cheap, seems easy, and can be used to teach kids concepts and engineering.

For the purpose of our discussion, the focus will be on what you could teach, rather than how to do the project.

Science concepts: potential energy, kinetic energy, physics (Every action has an equal and opposite reaction), etc.

Engineering concepts: wheel alignment, various capacities of air in the balloon, body design, material choice, etc.

Engineering process: look, brainstorm, try, test, fix (iterate), test again, continue process.

Most teachers have a handle on NGSS and connecting learning standards to lessons. This is important, but well-within a teachers’ area of expertise. But what if a teacher begins to layer generalizable skills into each lesson?

Academic skills: questioning, noticing patterns, clarifying, identifying parts and their function, predicting,etc.

STEAM classrooms already provide many of the contexts that can be difficult for authentic classrooms to achieve: real problems, open exploration, multiple pathways to learning, and integrated subject matter. Teaching academic skills maximizes student learning. As you plan to integrate academic skills, start small with skills that generalize to any subject area.

If it is helpful, run through these questions. We’ll use the skill “asking questions” as an example. Do students ask questions in Science? Do students ask questions in technology? Do students ask questions in engineering? Do students ask questions in art? Do students ask questions in mathematics? As an added bonus, do students ask questions in reading? The answer is yes.

Asking questions is a skill. If you are familiar with reading, you might be familiar with QAR- Question Answer Relationships. These questions are either based on the information in front of students or based on the interaction between the student and the information presented.

Using the balloon powered car as an example, students could ask a variety of questions using QAR as a frame.

Right there: What happens when the balloon deflates? How far does the car go?

Think and Search: How does the distance traveled relate to the capacity of the balloon? How does the size of each car’s wheels relate to the distance traveled (assuming the balloon has the same amount of air each time).

Author and Me: When else have I seen something move because of the movement of air? What else uses air displacement as a source of power?

On my own: How else could I use a balloon to power movement? How can I make my car faster?

The possibilities are endless, and kids will stretch the limits. My examples draw a clear connection to algebra concepts and draw out vocabulary. As kids learn more vocabulary, their questions will use them and hit on more mature concepts. Please feel free to leave feedback or email me at

I am writing this to empower you. The teacher who said yes to the unknown, who may or may not have vast expertise in STEAM, who ultimately is in it to teach students the best they can.

Each month, our company is publishing STEAM-focused skill based resources for teachers. Our first set of resources will be available August 1. Please visit for more information.

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