Skip to Content


Virginia Journal of Education

Making STEM Work for You

One way you can incorporate science, technology, engineering and math into your instruction.

By Gayle T. Dow and Sarah Wagner

“Leadership tomorrow depends on how we educate our students today, especially in math, science, technology and engineering." -- President Obama

Before students can navigate our rapidly-changing global economy, they need teachers who can effectively use research-based teaching methods to promote critical and creative thinking skills. One such method is an approach, called I-STEM, which blends science, technology, engineering and math into instruction.

I-STEM simply challenges students to create and evaluate projects using the scientific method of hypothesis testing and authentic learning,  under the guidance of more capable peers or teachers. Educators have long understood the importance of experiential learning, and of having students explore real-life contexts.
Beyond boosting creative and critical thinking, I-STEM teaching also offers students the opportunity to grasp imperative skills, including collaboration, adaptability and taking initiative. These skills allow young people to make mistakes, fail early, fail often and then adapt and try new methods. We recommend the 5E Learning Cycle as an excellent way to bring the I-STEM approach to your teaching: Engaging, Exploring, Explaining, Extending and Evaluating. 
Here’s an example of an elementary school lesson plan using the 5E Learning Cycle. It deals with anemometers, wind energy and other renewable energy sources and is designed for fourth-graders, but can be easily modified for primary or higher grades. 

Engaging.  Give students an object, event, experiment or question to spark curiosity and generate interest. This is also an ideal time to assess students’ prior knowledge and understanding. For the lesson on wind energy, teachers could use a picture book called The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer. This inspiring story, based on Kamkwamba’s autobiography, tells the tale of William’s adventures building an electricity-producing windmill from scrap materials for his drought-ridden and literally powerless Malawian village.
Exploring. Give students relevant materials to investigate—without teacher instruction but with question prompts to promote critical thinking and exploration. Look for common misconceptions students may have. For the wind lesson plan, ask them what wind is, where they think it comes from, and how we measure and use it. Let students know there are no wrong answers, that this is simply brainstorming. If students are getting materials for an engineering design challenge, this is also where they have a chance to look at those materials and start thinking about how they might be used. 

Explaining. This is explicit instruction of aligned content. For example, the wind lesson plan is aligned with SOL objective 4.6: The student will investigate and understand how weather conditions and phenomena occur and can be predicted. Key concepts include weather measurements and meteorological tools, and use of those measurements and weather phenomena to make weather predictions.

This is also where you can address the misconceptions you observed during the exploring phase, while teaching new vocabulary and content. It’s crucial here for students to reflect on their current level of understanding, while assimilating and accommodating new information.

Extending. Here, students lead in the design process and the final testing of the prototypes they’ve developed. Give them their engineering design challenge: have them role-play, imagining they’re a group of NASA engineers working to build anemometers to measure wind speed. You can serve as a guide through the design process and scaffold students to reach their own solutions. After students finish building their anemometers, they can test them under three separate fan speeds (low, medium and high) to determine how the number of revolutions varies according to how fast the fan (wind) is blowing. Have students graph their data to visualize this relationship. Finally, they can convert the number of revolutions in a given time period to miles per hour to understand how meteorologists use anemometers and mathematics to predict wind speed and other wind-related weather patterns. 

Evaluating. Once students have constructed their anemometers prototypes, evaluate their prototypes by determining if revolutions have increased in speed. This is another opportunity for students to experience failure and adapt as part of the learning process. If the anemometer fails to rotate based on design and velocity, students should be able to understand why. They should also be able to make predictions about storm and weather patterns and brainstorm future design improvements they’d make if given unlimited resources. Finally, this is the time to gauge the students’ understanding of new concepts using relevant assessments. 

I-STEM training offers clear benefits for teachers. One strategy available here in Virginia is the InSTEP (Integrated STEM for Pre-service Teachers) program, which prepares pre-service teachers in methodologies, pedagogy and STEM content.  InSTEP is a two-week intensive training program featuring a variety of I-STEM workshops led by master teachers and experts from the Virginia Space Grant Consortium, NASA Langley Research Center and NASA Wallops Flight Facility.

As part of a recent InSTEP program, pre- and post-assessments were given to all pre-service teachers to determine any increases result in STEM knowledge and teaching competency. After the two weeks, the average increase in science was 33 percent; technology 102 percent; engineering 472 percent; and math 19 percent.

In 10 years, it’s estimated that 80 percent of jobs in the global economy will require STEM training. I-STEM education, taught by well-prepared K-12 teachers, can help to not only prepare our students in those fields but also provide experiential and authentic learning opportunities.

Dow, PhD, is an educational psychologist and associate professor of psychology at Christopher Newport University, where she serves as director of the Creativity Research Lab. Wagner is an undergraduate student majoring in psychology at CNU, and is currently a pre-service teacher who has been through the InSTEP Program.



Virginia Capital

Fund Our Schools Now


Stay in touch with VEA and your fellow members.

Check out VEA and NEA Member Benefits savings programs.

Embed This Page (x)

Select and copy this code to your clipboard