STEM Lesson Planning

Alissa Lange - Laura Robertson - Jamie Price and Annie Craven

What is STEM?

We want to start with a definition of the domains of STEM and what we mean by integrated STEM education. A 2018 brief focused on NSF-funded early STEM projects provides a concise definition of each domain.

Science is the study of the natural world, seen and unseen. Science includes what scientists and children who are doing science learn (concepts and crosscutting ideas) and how they go about learning it (the practices of science). Science is connected to math, technology, and engineering in many ways.

Technology involves the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, such as to improve productivity, make things, or provide services. It includes all human-made objects—basic and advanced, non-digital and digital— that support us in work and in our daily lives. Again, it is inextricably linked with the other STEM domains, like how we create technology using engineering.

Engineering is the process of designing to meet human needs and wants under various constraints such as time, money, available materials, and the laws of nature. Engineering has strong connections to many other disciplines, particularly mathematics, science, and technology.

 Mathematics is the study of quantity, structure, shape, and change. It provides a foundation for many aspects of daily life, including for much of science, technology, and engineering. Math is used in science, technology, and engineering. The mathematical sciences include more than numbers and arithmetic— they also deal with such topics as geometrical figures and structures, measurement, and logical argumentation. Mathematicians and children doing math use the practices of mathematics to identify crosscutting patterns and structures and to understand and explain phenomena. (Adapted from Sarama et al., 2018)

As in the 2018 report noted above, we use STEM to refer to each of the individual domains as well as the ways in which the domains can be linked to one another when we teach and learn. The science and engineering practices described below are a good illustration of the overlap between the four disciplines. We talk about integrated STEM in this text to describe efforts specifically to teach two or more of these domains, S.T.E., and M., at the same time. STEM is an acronym because of the special ways that these subjects can be – and are – linked. Another national report published by National Academies Press (2012) discusses how integrated STEM education is not one thing. It may look very different in different contexts, or when the teacher has different aims.

“I was not taught science and math this way”

When many of us were in school, we learned science by memorizing a bunch of facts and had to recall them on multiple-choice tests. Old ways of learning math were similar. We had to memorize  procedures without understanding the reason behind the procedure. We did not do what scientists or mathematicians did for the most part. We sometimes did labs, where the procedures were predetermined as well as the outcome. And the labs usually occurred after we had taken the required notes and defined the key terms. This is no longer regarded as best practice in science teaching.

“…traditional views of science learning focused on individual learners’ mastery of factual knowledge. As a result, lecture, reading, and carrying out pre-planned laboratory exercises to confirm already established findings were common instructional strategies (National Research Council, 2007, 2012a). Contemporary views of science learning and teaching instead emphasize engaging students in the practices of a science framework, including asking questions, developing and using models, carrying out investigations, analyzing and interpreting data, constructing explanations, and engaging in argumentation…” (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018; p. 145)

In our course, we will learn about the current thinking in science and math teaching and how we need to ensure students have a chance to DO the science and math and engage with the practices and processes for themselves. We must give our students the chance to find out answers for themselves through meaningful opportunities to explore, learn, explain, and collaborate. Through projects such as those you will find in the chapters that follow, we aimed for our prior pre-service teachers to learn this way too…to create projects like Unit Plans or interactive notebooks, and to the extent possible, actually deliver them to small groups of students prior to the typical “placement” or “residency,” in order to see for themselves how to teach this way and how this approach might help students learn science, math, and integrated STEM. This might sound like it draws from constructivism, which we discuss in another chapter. In our course, we want you to create a project that you will draw from to teach real students, and that practicing teachers may eventually use in their own classrooms.

We Need Our Planet

Science education is critical for our elementary-age students for many reasons. First, there are a number of significant issues facing the survival of our species and other life on Earth right now. One notable issue is that of climate change. Although the issue has become political, most of the scientific community agrees that this is a real phenomenon that will have devastating impacts on our lives and the lives of our children, and sooner than we think. For more information about climate change, read about the work of the young environmental activist, Greta Thunberg.

Another issue related to life on our planet is the fact that ecosystems are interconnected. Our planet is delicately balanced such that changes to one species or habitat can cause huge disruptions across the globe. For example, bees play a large role in life on earth, and their numbers are shrinking. If this continues, our whole food chain could be negatively impacted. Another issue is deforestation. Trees are critical to producing oxygen among other benefits to humans and animals, and we need to know what are the threats to our trees and how to protect them.

It is imperative that we have a scientifically literate citizenry that is both able and motivated to 1) identify and understand these issues, and 2) address and solve the current and future problems. Some of our young students will become future scientists while others will use science to make personal and civic decisions based on scientists’ recommendations; both groups need to be prepared to use science. One colleague’s favorite definition of scientific literacy is, “the ability to read and understand the New York Times science pages.” This part is also important for your future students! Whether or not they choose STEM careers, they all need to have some degree of scientific literacy.

Our Technological Future

Another reason that STEM education is so critical for elementary students is that we are increasingly dependent on technology (or the contribution of the “T” in STEM) in our country and across the globe. This is only likely to increase and to be even more prevalent in our daily lives over time. We need people who can do and understand computer programming, who can use technology and teach others to use it, and who have the habits of mind, approaches to learning, and specific and systematic approaches to solving problems – like flexible thinking, creativity, computational thinking, and a growth mindset – to use and create technology in the future (see more on digital citizenship from ISTE). Employers are increasingly looking for staff, who have these types of characteristics. Technology goes beyond only smartphones or computers.

The Nature of Science and Society

We all need to learn about science, including what it is AND what it is not. Science impacts our lives every day. We need to understand the nature of science, what we do and do not learn and know from the practice of science and use this information to make good decisions (e.g., about immunizations). The section below was written by David Harker, philosophy professor at East Tennessee State University:

“It’s rewarding to know a little bit about the world we inhabit, whether it’s the different parts of a plant, the planets in our solar system, or the processes by which canyons and mountain ranges are formed. Children are curious, and curiosity is something that should be encouraged and cultivated. No matter how much we each learn, however, there will always remain an extraordinary amount that we don’t know. The pace of scientific progress and the degree of specialization ensures that we can only ever come to know a tiny fraction of what others have learned.

It’s partly for this reason that students [and pre-service teachers] should also think about how science is conducted, how problems are investigated, how scientists support their conclusions and theories with evidence and argument, and how the sciences are as concerned with correcting prior mistakes as they are with exploring new ideas. We can emphasize for students [and pre-service teachers] the importance of asking good questions, finding suitable methods, and seeking out relevant evidence, but we should also be mindful that scientists spend their careers refining and improving their questions, methods and analyses. Attempts to reduce all of science to a concise sequence of steps serves no-one well.

The scope of modern science, both in terms of its subject matter and its methods, reminds us that science is, and must be, a collaborative enterprise. Teams of scientists work together, bringing different skillsets to the table. Scientists trust one another. They trust one another to report data and observations carefully and honestly. They look to other disciplines and research programs for corroborating evidence, opportunities for partnership, and alternative perspectives on shared interests. Science is the product of vast networks of individuals, not the lone geniuses that are so often given credit. When we study science, we benefit from the labor and talents of large communities of scientists, working collectively to identify and develop the best and most promising methods and ideas. Recognizing that trust plays a pivotal role within the sciences, furthermore, needn’t imply that scientific ideas aren’t rigorously questioned and scrutinized; rather, it underscores how scientists learn from each other, as much as they learn from experiments and observations.

Trust is important for scientists, but it’s also important for the public understanding of science. Whether for financial or ideological ends, many special interest groups seek to undermine scientific conclusions, either because those conclusions are inconvenient or unpalatable. Science detractors promote their own agenda by magnifying uncertainty surrounding the science, creating the appearance of scientific controversy where no substantive controversy actually exists, and generally seeking to confuse the public about the current state of scientific knowledge. All this can lead to poor decision-making and undue sympathy for conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated rumor. Science education is critical, because all our futures are improved if students learn to listen most carefully to those who are best informed.” –

 David Harker, 2020

The Role of Math in our Future

Similarly, we need a solid mathematical foundation for many reasons. In order to make sense of the big data that are now a part of life, we need a workforce and the general public to understand data analysis that gets used to make major policy decisions. Math is critical to the practices of science and engineering, as they help us make sense, measure, and understand the phenomena we observe. Math is a part of our everyday lives as well, and contributes to our abilities to function and make sense of the world around us.

Applying Mathematics Skills for Success in Science



[Power Up What Works] (2014, Mar. 25). Applying Mathematics Skills for Scucces in Science. [Video File} (6:12 Minutes) from


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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