STEM Lesson Planning

Alissa Lange - Laura Robertson - Jamie Price and Annie Craven

In elementary school classrooms, teachers are often responsible for teaching many subjects. Therefore, there is a great opportunity for integration. When thinking about this in our STEM teaching, we need to consider, a) what integrated STEM education is, b) why we should integrate STEM, and c) how we can integrate STEM.

The Integrated STEM education report from the National Research Council (2014) acknowledges that integration can mean very different things. “Far from being a single, well-defined experience, integrated STEM education includes a range of different experiences that involve some degree of connection. The experiences may occur in one or several class periods, throughout a curriculum, be reflected in the organization of a single course or an entire school, or be encompassed in an out-of school activity. Each variant of integrated STEM education suggests different planning approaches, resource needs, implementation challenges, and outcomes.” (p. 2: NRC, 2014).

Therefore, they define integration as, “working in the context of complex phenomena or situations on tasks that require students to use knowledge and skills from multiple disciplines.” (p. 51, NRC, 2014). The NRC report goes on to discuss three elements in determining the scope and nature of integration:

  1. type of STEM connections
  2. disciplinary emphasis, and
  3. duration, size, and complexity of initiative.

“Regarding the nature of connection, integrated STEM education may bring together concepts from more than one discipline (e.g., mathematics and science, or science, technology, and engineering); it may connect a concept from one subject to a practice of another, such as applying properties of geometric shapes (mathematics) to engineering design; or it may combine two practices, such as. science inquiry (e.g., doing an experiment) and engineering design (in which data from a science experiment can be applied).”

In integrated STEM education it is frequently the case that one STEM subject has a dominant role— the explicit or implicit focus of a project, program, or school is to develop students’ knowledge or skill mainly in one content area, such as mathematics…The inclusion of concepts or practices from other subjects is often intended to support or deepen learning and understanding in the targeted subject.

In terms of scope, integrated STEM education initiatives exhibit a variety of relevant parameters, such as duration, setting, size, and complexity. Initiatives may occur as a single hourlong project or over one or several class periods, or they may be reflected in the organization of a single course, a multicourse curriculum, or an entire school. Most of the programs we examined have very small footprints, existing as pilot efforts involving just a few students. But some have been implemented much more broadly, sometimes across several schools or states, engaging hundreds or thousands of participants.”

(NRC, 2014)

Levels of Integration

Once we determine the type of STEM connection, disciplinary emphasis, and scope, we also must consider the level of integration in an individual activity. We can think of integrated STEM education in terms of levels or depth of integration.

Integrating subjects can be labor intensive in planning and implementation, so consider how likely the integration is to extend student learning when making instructional choices about when and what to integrate. For the greatest impact on student learning, comprehension of the content in one subject area should be dependent on the content from the other subject area(s). For example, if students are exploring the best designs to solve an engineering problem, their abilities to measure results and arrange them in a graphical form are essential to their understanding of the engineering. Likewise, the math skills are best used and understood within the context of the real-world engineering problem.

If, on the other hand, integration is surface level (related but inconsequential), the impact of the integration on student understanding is low; therefore, it might be preferable to teach specific topics or skills separately. Regardless of depth of integration, there are often times when discipline-specific skills need to be taught directly. Taking time to review or practice the process for two-digit subtraction, for example, is may be best accomplished with a focus on math. Then students can apply that skill within the context of an integrated STEM activity.

Why Integrate STEM?

Teaching integrated STEM, both within STEM domains – or with other domains like literacy or social studies has many benefits. Benefits include meeting demands of teacher preparation and evaluations, saving time, represent content authenticity, and promoting powerful learning. Below, we describe each benefit in more detail.

Important Part of Teacher Preparation

First, many teaching proficiency exams require that students demonstrate that they can create an implement an integrated lesson plan that has clear learning objectives. For example, a preservice teacher candidates must pass an assessment as a part of acquiring a state teaching license. So, it is important to understand integration more broadly, and it is also a benefit of building competence in teaching in an integrated way.

Maximize Instructional Time During the School Day

Second, we can meet two or more learning objectives within one or more planned experiences when we pay attention to how the domains are integrated. This may save time when done well, for school days that are increasingly packed with demands. For example, first grade reading experiences that require practice reading informational texts, students must read about something. The content could be science! An Earth science standard related to, “Earth’s Place in the Universe, 1-ESS1-1. Use observations of the sun, moon, and stars to describe patterns that can be predicted” and an ELA standard “1RL.KID.2 Retell stories, including key details and demonstrate understanding of the message Levels of Integration Unrelated Subjects are covered independently of one another Related but Inconsequential Connections between subject areas are surface level Enhanced but Not Essential Increases in engagement or understanding result, but are not essential to understanding one or both subjects Dependent, Synergistic Comprehension Understanding of one subject is dependent on the other; results in deeper learning and unexpected insights or lesson” could be addressed in an experience that involves researching the phases of the moon, reading an informational text or researching in others ways (e.g., Google moon), then creating a model to represent and label the phases and then describe the cause of the phases (see NASA for a lesson plan for moon phases). What other educational standards could be met here?

Authentic Representations of the Real World

Third, the content across and between STEM disciplines, as well as with areas such as language and literacy, are actually connected to one another, naturally in our world, in everyday life, and in our minds. We may focus on one specific content area separate from others sometimes for a variety of reasons in the context of teaching, such as teaching and assessing a specific skill in math. For example, we may want to know if our kindergarteners understand 1-1 correspondence in math, so we do a small group activity in which we ask children to count a set of toy cars so we can assess that skill. In another example, we may want to check if students understand the meaning of vocabulary words related to density, so we ask students to take all the objects out of the water tub that are sinking. However, content across domains is very much intertwined. As educators, we are preparing students to solve problems in their personal and professional lives, problems which will require students to draw on their knowledge from multiple domains simultaneously.

Promote Powerful Learning

Finally, seeing how disciplines are connected can bring them to life, help students make connections to their real lives, and enhance engagement (NRC, 2014). Consider a case in which a 3rd grade teacher identifies a real problem in the classroom: the bins for the classroom’s books are old and there are now more books than they have space for in the room. Can the students come up with a solution within some given parameters or constraints, such as that the solution must be at low or no cost, fit within the limited space, be strong enough to hold the books, be easy to move around if needed, and allow specific books to be easily found? What opportunities for STEM learning might this challenge offer? How is this challenge and the resulting experience integrated? Do you think the students would be interested and motivated to engage with this? What might they learn from it?

That said, note that it is imperative that we pay attention to each domain such that students have opportunities to master content as well as abstract concepts (e.g., students have to learn the number sequence in counting, which will require memorizing the number names, in the correct order). Research suggests that it is especially powerful when students have opportunities for both.

How should we teach integrated STEM?

The value of integrated STEM may be clear, but how do we do it? Below, we outline a number of strategies to support integrated STEM teaching and learning. They are to identify a disciplinary emphasis, making integration explicit, ensuring sufficient attention to each discipline, identifying the level of integration, and determine the scope.

Identify a disciplinary emphasis

Identify an anchoring discipline, which may translate in practice to identifying an anchoring standard. For our integrated STEM projects, we found that science was often a strong candidate for the anchoring standard because it’s a domain rich with content to connect to the other domains. We can read about and use math to understand phenomenon related to weather (Earth science), to gravity (physical science), or to hibernation (life science). However, math can also be the anchoring standard. The important message here is to choose one dominant standard around which the rest of the project will orbit.

Make integration explicit

Be sure to tell students that they will be engaging in an integrated STEM experience. It is not always clear to students that what is happening is integrated. Note this warning from the NRC report:

“Observations in a number of STEM settings show that integration across representations and materials, as well as over the arc of multi-day units, is not spontaneously made by students and therefore cannot be assumed to take place. This highlights the importance of designing integrated experiences that provide intentional and explicit support for students to build knowledge and skill both within the disciplines and across disciplines. In many integrated STEM experiences, such supports are missing or only implicitly embedded within the classroom activities or the CAD software, measurement instruments, and computational tools used in the classroom.” (p. 5: NRC, 2014)

Say things like, “We will be doing an experiment today where we will get to be mathematicians and scientists! We’ll be using measurement (math) to figure out how tall our plants grew in the closet versus on the windowsill (life science experiment).”

Ensure sufficient attention to each discipline

As noted above, students’ understanding and skills in each of the individual disciplines in S.T. E., and M. – as well as other domains involved, like English Language Arts or ELA – must be supported and appreciated on their own. In early math, for example, research suggests that children benefit most when they have both experiences focused on a specific math goal, and experiences in which they find math all around them, in their play, and across the day. Young learners benefit from explicit attention paid to math, such as a small group focused on cardinality with concrete objects. Trying to integrate everything, all the time does not necessarily lead to better learning (NRC, 2014).

Identify the Level of integration

Note that not all content lends itself to integration. If it does, consider the extent to which integration can occur. When thinking about a unit or project that will involve meaningful, deep, integrated STEM, be clear on your learning objectives, which standards you are trying to meet, and the big ideas in math or science. You might have a topic to explore that comes from a current issue in the news, state or national standards, or from your students. Once you have a big idea or theme, then, figure out how you might integrate meaningfully: how can students use a math concept in the service of understanding a scientific phenomenon?

Determine the Scope

Determining the scope of the integrative project is part of the planning process. As a teacher, your district or center may require you to plan in a certain way. Sometimes, that involves submitting lesson plans for each day and each week; other times, planning may involve showing that your classroom experiences align directly with the district’s chosen curriculum. Whatever your requirements are, we want you to think about the science and integrated STEM experiences of your future students in terms of how they will be 1) long-term, with repeated opportunities for students to engage meaningfully with content, and 2) allowing for room for inquiry or the science practices

The 5E lesson examples in tis book  will describe “products,” which is a Unit Plan, and that might be used to plan out integrated STEM activities in a K through 5th grade classroom. Elementary programs in which the authors taught used a Unit Plan as the major assignment. It included 2 weeks of learning experiences that must integrate a variety of areas with the focal science standard. Pre-service teachers created a calendar, at least 10 separate learning experiences across the 10 days that have clear learning goals and that follow the 5Es lesson planning template.

Make it your own. As pre-service teachers, you may or may not have a choice for a given course or for your future classrooms. Once you are teachers in your own classrooms, we want you to have a variety of approaches at your disposal. Whatever method or “product” you choose to engage your learners in integrated STEM, we want you to see the 5Es and the other frameworks and guidance discussed here as a roadmap to guide your curriculum and planning efforts.


Lange, Alissa A.; Robertson, Laura; Price, Jamie; and Craven, Amie. 2021. Teaching Early and Elementary STEM. Johnson City: East Tennessee State University.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License



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Elementary Science Methods Copyright © 2023 by Alissa Lange - Laura Robertson - Jamie Price and Annie Craven is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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