A collaborative approach to integrated STEM
Science and Children—March/April 2023 (Volume 60, Issue 4)
By Laura Robertson, Alissa Lange, Jamie Price, Andrea Lowery, Holly McAvoy Scott, Qiuju Tian, and Ryan Nivens
In the folktale Stone Soup, a group of townspeople make small contributions that result in a feast for everyone (Forest 2005). Our experiences collaborating as a group of elementary teachers, preservice teachers, and education professors feel much like the story of Stone Soup. Each of us brought our own challenges and strengths to the project and made unique contributions of time, energy, and experience (Figure 1). The result was a wealth of materials and opportunities that benefited all of us. After reflecting on six years of collaboration, we believe that this model could be adopted by others seeking solutions to difficult problems related to elementary science teaching and learning.
Our collaboration began with the adoption of new science standards in our state, Tennessee. While different from the Next Generation Science Standards, our state standards are also based on A Framework for K–12 Science Education and promote rigorous, three-dimensional instruction and assessment. In anticipation of the demands on classroom teachers as they navigated this shift, the education professors of our team wondered if they could leverage the time and energy of preservice teachers to support classroom teachers through this transition. Also, the professors saw an opportunity in which the challenges of the classroom teachers would offer authentic and applied opportunities for preservice teachers replacing previous course work that lacked such real-world connections. The education professors recruited interested elementary teachers and organized the logistics of the collaboration and supported the preservice teachers through modeling, scaffolding, and feedback. After the first year, we began to share our results, including preliminary positive pilot research findings (Lange et al. 2022), through presentations and publications by different teams of people (see Online Resources for examples of our work with full details for classroom implementation).
In the current version of our project, we focus on integrating math and science for meaningful learning. The elementary teachers provide lists of their most difficult to teach science standards as a starting point for the preservice teachers. In this way, we focus our efforts strategically by offering solutions to the most prevalent challenges faced by the classroom teachers. The preservice teachers, who are likely to face similar difficulties in their future classrooms, gain valuable experiences through confronting these real issues in their preservice program with support from professors and elementary teachers. Each preservice teacher selects one of the science standards (e.g., engineering design) and then identifies a math standard to integrate (e.g., making line plots). Over the course of the semester, they develop their projects, which they share in electronic and print formats with the classroom teachers at the end of the semester.
A critical element of our collaboration is the implementation of the 5E Learning Cycle (Bybee 2015); all preservice teachers use this as a guiding framework for their projects. For most preservice teachers, this is their first introduction to the 5Es, so we stress the alternation of minds-on and hands-on learning. We highlight the value of the Engage phase to prompt students’ interest and prior knowledge, the Explore phase for students to experience science phenomena, and the Explain phase to cover explanations and definitions of vocabulary terms. For the Elaborate phase, we discuss the importance of students applying what they have learned, and in the Evaluate phase, we consider how to best conduct student self-evaluations as well as teacher assessments. For example, one elementary preservice student created his project around sail cars, with actual sail car engineering embedded in the Explore and Elaborate phases (see Online Resources).
Since our collaboration involves preservice teachers and education professors in elementary education and early childhood education, the structure of the final projects varies for each program. In the elementary education program, the final product is organized into an interactive notebook (Marcarelli 2010). In the early childhood education program, the project requirements are to create a two-week integrated unit plan (Kostelnik et al. 2008). Other strategies that we have included are curriculum webs (Jalongo and Isenberg 2012) and the Claim, Evidence, and Reasoning Framework (CER; Zembal-Saul, McNeill, and Hershberger 2013). The CER Framework is a method that helps students summarize their findings from investigations by making a claim (a statement that answers the question being investigated), supporting the claim with evidence from their investigations (specific data are cited), and providing reasoning (connecting the claim and evidence with scientific principles). The elementary teachers have found both project formats valuable and adaptable to their needs.
To support the preservice teachers in the development of their projects, the professors schedule multiple points for feedback and revision throughout the semester. Peer reviews occur throughout the semester, and preservice teachers are provided with self-evaluation checklists that align with grading rubrics (see Supplemental Resources). Smaller assignments help break the projects into manageable pieces over the semester to discourage procrastination by the preservice teachers. Significant time for support and feedback is provided during the weeks when preservice teachers are trying to find a mathematics standard that fits well with their science standard. To locate points for integration, preservice teachers create concept maps, and they discuss the difference between surface level and deep integration. Throughout the semester, the professors model best practices in STEM and share high quality teaching resources, and at one point, the elementary teachers attend a class to share exemplar units they have developed. Class discussions and project requirements also prime preservice teachers to consider multiculturalism and differentiation strategies for their projects. A final, critical consideration is helping the preservice teachers identify and plan for student safety during hands-on activities. In the sail car project, the student revised his plans many times over the semester before submitting the final project (and he has continued to revise it for implementation with other groups of students).
At two points during the semester, we arrange for the preservice teachers to work with small groups of elementary students. For the first visit, the preservice teachers and professors go to the school. This allows preservice teachers to experience authentic classroom environments and get a sense of what students in particular grade levels are like and what they already know. Their experiences are helpful resources as they create their projects. At the end of the semester, the elementary students and teachers visit the college classroom to participate in selected activities from the preservice students’ projects. In the following year, the education professors select two to four outstanding projects to implement with an entire elementary classroom. The preservice student who created the project co-teaches with the elementary teacher and education professors to try out the project in a whole-class setting.
Each year we review what worked and what needs to change in the upcoming year. Preservice teachers complete written reflections on their experiences, and the elementary teachers offer feedback on how the collaboration worked for them. The elementary teachers and education professors typically meet once each year prior to the start of the semester to discuss what worked and make plans for the upcoming projects.
Each year our collaboration to implement integrated STEM results in benefits to each group of participants including materials, experiences, and opportunities. Last year, we generated 65 integrated STEM units for grades K–5 in electronic and hardcopy formats. Each unit included at least two hands-on learning activities (one of which was field tested with a small group of elementary students), materials lists, activity directions, assessments, and reference lists. The materials are shared with the elementary teachers and among the preservice teachers.
The collaboration also leads to revised teaching materials and strategies for STEM courses in the elementary and early childhood education programs as well as the classrooms of the elementary teachers. For example, the fourth-grade teacher has continued to adapt many of the interactive notebook documents created by preservice teachers to differentiate instruction based on the individual learning needs of her students and characteristics of each class from year to year. Likewise, the CER Framework was new to the classroom teachers, and they have appreciated learning about and implementing this approach into their classrooms.
For the preservice teachers, the collaboration is a new experience in integrated STEM and an opportunity to see something in practice that they have only heard about previously. The experiences working with elementary teachers and elementary students are particularly valuable for the preservice teachers. For instance, some preservice teachers have learned that their hands-on activities were not as engaging as they had imagined, while others learned that they had underestimated the capabilities of elementary students. When the preservice teachers work with small groups of students, the elementary teachers are able to observe the projects that have been created to address their standards.
Sharing the projects with the elementary teachers is a requirement of the project; however, all of the preservice teachers are also invited to share their projects with classmates and others through the university website (see Online Resources). We have presented our work in workshops, conferences, and professional development sessions, and we have published eight exemplary projects in practitioner journals (e.g., Science and Children; Teaching Young Children).
Based on our experiences, we recommend this collaborative approach to anyone seeking to improve elementary science teaching and learning. We encourage others to look for possible collaborators in their local area. Unlike models in which teachers of similar grade levels come together, this collaboration works because of the differences in the participants. The needs of one group happen to be resources that another group can provide. For classroom teachers, there may be a school of education near you filled with preservice teachers and professors that are interested in tackling the challenges that you face.
The projects completed by preservice teachers in the first year had fewer components and were only focused on science. We added math in year two after we had some experience scaffolding support for the preservice teachers. Likewise, we have added more collaborators over time. In the first year, the project involved two elementary teachers, two education professors, and approximately 40 preservice teachers. Now the project regularly includes six elementary teachers, four education professors, and approximately 90 preservice teachers.
Our collaboration began with a specific challenge facing science teachers in our state, and each year it has evolved with the changing needs of the participants. In 2020, we began incorporating online teaching elements in the projects. This year we plan to have some preservice teachers begin with the most difficult to teach math standards. This is partially due to the fact that we have four years of materials focused on science and in part because it will leverage the strengths of the math education professors. We are also really curious to see what happens!
Planning and implementing integrated STEM aligned to the NGSS is a daunting task, but collaborations offer a possible solution. In our example, all participants benefit because of a focus on authentic problems. Elementary teachers tossed in the pot the need for resources on new science standards and access to classrooms of children. Preservice teachers tossed in a semester worth of time and effort, and professors contributed expertise, project management, and scaffolding. We strongly believe that collaborations among elementary teachers, preservice teachers, and education professors have the potential to make lasting impacts on students through integrated STEM.
A sample self-evaluation checklist for preservice teachers and grading rubric is available at https://bit.ly/3SkhdnG.
ETSU Early Childhood STEM lab: www.ecstemlab.com
Published examples: www.ecstemlab.com/student-activity-plans.html
Laura Robertson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate professor of science education, and Alissa A. Lange is the Director of the Center of Excellence and EC STEM Lab, and Jamie Price is an associate professor of math education, all at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tennessee. Andrea Lowery is a teacher at Indian Trail Middle School in Johnson City. Holly McAvoy Scott is a seventh-grade math and science teacher at Unicoi County Middle School in Erwin, Tennessee. Qiuju Tian is an assistant professor of Early Childhood Education at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania. Ryan Nivens is a professor of mathematics education at East Tennessee State University.
Bybee, R. 2015. The BSCS 5E instructional model: Creating teachable moments. Arlington, VA: National Science Teaching Association.
Forest, H. 2005. Stone soup. Little Rock, AK: August House LittleFolk.
Jalongo, M.R., and J.P. Isenberg. 2012. Exploring your role in early childhood education (4th ed.). New York: Pearson.
Kostelnik, M.J., G. Spalding, D. Howe, K. Payne, and B. Rohde. 2008. Teaching young children using themes. Culver City, CA: Good Year Books.
Lange, A.A., L. Robertson, Q. Tian, R. Nivens, and J. Price. 2022. The effects of an early childhood-elementary teacher preparation program in STEM on pre-service teachers. Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science and Technology Education 18 (12). https://doi.org/10.29333/ejmste/12698
Marcarelli, K. 2010. Teaching science with interactive notebooks. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Zembal-Saul, C., K.L. McNeill, and K. Hershberger. 2013. What’s your evidence? Engaging K–5 students in constructing explanations in science. London: Pearson Higher Ed.
Pedagogy Preservice Science Education Teacher Preparation Elementary