Skip to main content

NSTA Reports

Life Skills, Literacy, and STEM

By Debra Shapiro

Life Skills, Literacy, and STEM

Students at Tarrant Middle School in Hampton, Virginia, observe magnetic fields under the direction of National Institute of Aerospace graduate student Cecilia Mulvaney.

Afterschool programs around the country have discovered that students benefit when programs combine science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and English language arts (ELA) content with opportunities for students to develop life skills. For example, Brave Hearts, a national nonprofit organization that promotes leadership, literacy, and STEM for young women, was founded to help girls “understand how to advocate for themselves” to “make a difference in their homes, schools, and communities,” says CEO Jennifer Boykins. Eventually, “it became apparent that an important anchor was missing,…the inclusion of STEM” in the Brave Hearts curriculum, so girls could learn about STEM careers and opportunities, Boykins contends. 

Working with Hampton City (Virginia) Schools, “we created a...curriculum that included practical applications for [STEM] through [the Flying Classroom program,” Boykins relates. The Flying Classroom, a K–12 STEM curriculum, was created by Barrington Irving, a Guinness World Record holder as the youngest person and first African American pilot to fly solo around the world. “It was through those integrated experiences in leadership, literacy, and STEM [that] we began to see the girls soar and thrive,” Boykins maintains.

When she was principal of Forrest Elementary School in the Hampton City Schools (HCS) district, Kelli Cedo heard Boykins speak at a conference and was inspired to bring Brave Hearts to her school. Later, when Cedo became the HCS ELA curriculum, instruction, and assessment lead, “we worked with the community to expand the program to middle school girls. The expansion continued through collaboration with the HCS Out of School Time program coordinator,”  she says, who obtained a Department of Education 21st-Century Community Learning Centers grant that helped Brave Hearts expand to five HCS middle schools. 

Expansion beyond ELA has enabled the infusion of “STEM-based activities, presenters, and field trips,” notes Cedo. “The curriculum has all of that embedded.”

Betsy McAllister, HCS STEM teacher specialist and National Institute of Aerospace (NIA) educator in residence, has connected Brave Hearts girls with female employees from NIA, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and NASA Langley Research Center, who lead them in STEM activities. “It’s important to give girls [opportunities to interact with] individual females in STEM that they can relate to,” she maintains. A recent lesson on magnetic fields, for example, “was tied into navigation because one of the women [teaching it] is a pilot,” she relates. 

Adding to STEM

In Petri-dish Science, an afterschool STEAM (STEM plus arts) program in Cupertino, California, “we work on science and engineering challenges, but incorporate literacy, storytelling, arts, and public speaking in our curriculum,” says Pragya Bhatnagar, educator and Petri-dish Science’s founder. Her lessons, which support Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), feature “hands-on, integrated stories and games and design challenges,”  she relates. 

For example, Bhatnagar continues,  “I bring in Force, Motion, and Gravity as characters [in a story], with Friction as the enemy—at first. The story gets kids to think about these concepts, then I do hands-on activities with them.” The stories often “get kids laughing,” she adds, and help them “remember the concepts better.”

While Petri-dish Science serves grades K–5, “I work with mostly first to third graders…[Those grades seem to be] the sweet spot for hands-on activities,” she points out, noting these activities frequently incorporate the arts. “The materials are everyday [items], which students use to create models,” she explains. Drawing and designing are integrated.

Students build devices, and “we do a lot of testing, make a game out of it sometimes,” Bhatnagar relates. For example, “when we are building sampling devices for drilling into soil on the Moon, we also talk about NASA missions…[In one game,] we test a sampling device via a relay race [in which the goal is to] capture small [plastic foam] balls,” she explains. The goal in her lessons, she says, is to explore “real-world phenomena, apply what is learned to solve a real-world problem.”

Lessons always include an opportunity for students “to tell their stories [to their classmates]. Students feel proud of what they’ve accomplished,” and gain experience with public speaking, Bhatnagar observes. And she tells children, “It’s okay to talk about success or failure; we will learn from both. It’s important to share information and data like scientists and engineers do.” 

This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Read the full issue now.

Aerospace Careers Curriculum Inclusion Literacy News STEM Middle School Elementary Informal Education

Asset 2