5 ways school leaders can break down silos to get more students in STEM

Most real-world problems require interdisciplinary approaches. Integrating science, technology, engineering, and math brings learning to life.
Reid Whitaker
Reid Whitaker
Reid Whitaker began his education career with Teach for America as an elementary science teacher and served as a content specialist and principal in Houston ISD. He later served as associate director for the Center for Education at Rice University where he created the STEMscopes curriculum. He is the founder and senior vice president of research and measurement for Accelerate Learning.

Does your school or district teach STEM, or does it teach science, technology, engineering, and math as four separate and distinct subjects? Are students at every grade level eager to take STEM courses, or do some think that “STEM isn’t for me”?

One way to provide all students with opportunities to build their knowledge, skills, and confidence in STEM is to de-silo STEM education.

Most real-world problems require interdisciplinary approaches. Integrating science, technology, engineering, and math brings learning to life. It allows students to see how the subjects they are studying apply in real-world situations. That perspective makes learning more meaningful, which increases their motivation to learn.

Connecting the STEM disciplines—and others such as English language arts, social studies, art—creates a more welcoming environment and helps cultivate a sense of belonging for all students. Some students may feel more comfortable in some subjects than others. Tearing down silos gives all students a chance to get comfortable with STEM—and to give and get help from their peers.

Integrated STEM instruction also makes it easier for teachers to engage students in rigorous, relevant learning experiences that will prepare them for college, careers, and everyday life. These experiences not only provide rich opportunities to build analytical, problem-solving, and critical thinking skills, but they give students the chance to develop creativity, collaboration, and communication skills as well.

There are a number of ways to break down silos to get more students into STEM. Here are a few I recommend:

1. Create cross-curricular connections

Identifying cross-curricular connections can help de-silo STEM and provide deeper context for students’ learning. There are many ways to link concepts, vocabulary, and skills from more than one discipline. Teachers can:

  • Apply theoretical work from one subject area in the real-world practice of another. For example, in a geometry lesson, the teacher could talk about bridges and explain how specific shapes provide structural support in ways that others do not. Such a discussion could integrate engineering concepts with math instruction. Science could be added by talking about forces such as gravity or weather. Additionally, the teacher could explain how planners use technology and math for precise calculations on how to counteract those forces.
  • Focus on one discipline in the context of other STEM disciplines. For example, students in an art class could design a car that includes aerodynamics and energy efficiency as design factors.
  • Incorporate real-world problems or projects that require the application of knowledge and skills gained from two or more disciplines.
  • Present a common theme across two or more subject areas through shared lesson plans and team teaching.

2. Provide hands-on activities

Having students participate in hands-on activities is another effective way to break down STEM barriers. Hands-on learning sparks students’ interest and shows them that anyone can do STEM. These experiences help students build confidence in their abilities, and empower them to embrace challenges, tap into their creativity, and dive deeper into their learning.

Digital platforms offer a flexible tool to support inquiry-based learning and cross-curricular connections in any learning environment. For schools with limited equipment or lab space, virtual manipulatives and interactive STEM simulations can also provide more equitable options for hands-on learning.

3. Create culminating projects

Teachers can integrate STEM education by using culminating projects that require the application of multiple disciplines. For example, a project could require the application of scientific knowledge via the engineering design process and real-world problem-solving. Math could be used to make estimates or calculate the solution, while technology could be used to analyze the issue or manipulate variables.

To be most effective, culminating projects should address authentic, real-world problems. Classrooms come alive when students tackle local, national, and global challenges. Students also build and hone their social skills when they work together to discuss, develop, apply, and refine their solutions.

4. Engage in professional learning

Since most subjects are typically taught independent of others, integrating the disciplines will require different pedagogical approaches. Professional learning can ease the transition.

National STEM certification programs can help teachers develop and grow in their STEM teaching skills. The most effective programs will focus on high-impact STEM instructional strategies that work synergistically across content areas. In addition to being comprehensive and standards-focused, certification programs should also be personalized, job-embedded, and convenient to help working educators make the most of their limited time.

For teachers interested in quick, on-demand options, online courses and micro-credentials can provide highly targeted, just-in-time professional learning. By focusing on a specific area of practice, teachers can learn exactly what they need and immediately apply it in the classroom.

5. Highlight career connections and diverse role models.

Another way to break down barriers is to expose students to career connections. Many STEM occupations integrate multiple disciplines. Showing students real-world careers with diverse role models helps them see themselves in these fields. It ignites their interest and underscores that what they are learning is relevant and important.

Building a diverse, inclusive STEM talent pipeline

De-siloing STEM education means seeing these subjects for what they are — part of an integrated whole. By creating connections, preK-12 educators can create a more inviting, engaging environment for STEM learning. They can help all students see themselves as capable STEM learners and build a more diverse talent pipeline to create a more inclusive, equitable STEM workforce.

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