Beginning of year STEM planning ideas

This morning I've been brainstorming some key elements of STEM planning and implementation. I've been emphasising planning through the Australian Curriculum and implementation through PBL strategies.


  • Consider students prior knowledge and experiences. If you don't yet have a deep understanding of students prior knowledge, try and be general - but incorporate student experience as early as possible -- Ownership!
  • Draw on local resources and materials (* cross-curriculum priorities, 'real world' STEM). Use real 'problems' or 'scenarios' from students' lives or context to inform your topic in a way that links 'real tasks' into the learning experience. Simple things like giving student (teams) role names like 'engineers' can be a start, but try to make these roles significant. Students as members of multiple teams should also be considered. 
    • Team ideas: Leadership team / Problem-solving team / Scientists / Engineers / Mathematicians / Computer scientists.
    • If you're stuck for local resources - try exploring local companies, if you can identify S/T/E/M in these industries you can highlight this for students. There's STEM in everything! Here in Roxby Downs there are abundant STEM jobs: miners, scientists, engineers. Identification, while often seemingly superficial, can be incredibly useful in highlighting the importance of knowledge and skills (from the curriculum). Thinking... "why do I have to learn this?" 
  • Embedded formative assessment. A no brainer for the PBLs, but important to consider. It may also be worth planning links to what we want students to know, do and understand and why. Arguably, if this were a numbered list, this would come first. How are you going to know what your students' know, and track back from there. (Something like the Learning Design framework might come in handy here.)
  • Cross curriculum priorities. Connections with cross curriculum priorities, particularly sustainability, are abundant across the primary Australian Curriculum, and an important consideration for students in their project work. There are so many opportunities to connect 'real world' learning with the cross curriculum priorities.
  • Authentic audience. For project based learning, we must consider presentation of the finished 'product' to an authentic audience, and while this can seem daunting - especially in planning - don't be turned off, there are lots of ways this can happen. In considering the local resources and materials you might draw on, think about the kinds audiences you might use. For example, in the year six science curriculum we have a knowledge descriptor that reads: 'electrical energy can be transferred and transformed in electrical circuits and can be generated from a range of sources' and let's imagine we're planning a unit that focusses on electricity... We might be able to draw on the local energy company, electricians / electrical engineers (think parents!), or even scientists. 
  • Literacy, numeracy, ICT, critical and creative thinking, ethics. Increasingly, we focus on literacy and numeracy in isolation, but there are many opportunities to include them in STEM project work. If you take time to consider the recommended general capabilities against the main curriculum content descriptors you are using for planning, there should be lots of suggested capabilities already. The general capabilities can also form useful starting points for students' self and peer assessments, for example, providing students with a self assessment (single point) rubric that includes the following items could prove valuable in the assessment of the achievement standard.
These capabilities link to interdisciplinary thinking and reflection and evaluation (science). Think about these as possible goals for a workshop, after delving into the scientific method... 

These capabilities link to interdisciplinary thinking and reflection and evaluation (science). Think about these as possible goals for a workshop, after delving into the scientific method... 

  • Links to other learning areas. Though at first linking multiple parts of the curriculum together can seem challenging, consider other areas students may be drawing on in your planned project. If you're only using PBLs for your STEM time, it's worth considering how you might bring other areas of the curriculum together - toward a wholly integrated curriculum. Remember to make explicit the learning students are doing - before they do it, and afterwards through reflection. Make learning visible in the projects students create.
  • Interdisciplinary thinking. In your planning for assessment, consider how students might think about the links between different knowledge, and make sure your assessments include opportunities for students to demonstrate prior learning. As above, interdisciplinary thinking might start with something as simple as identifying the S/T/E/M in a familiar job, and can be further encouraged through asking students to work across different discipline teams.
  • Inquiry skills and project management. Students will need support to develop inquiry skills, depending on your site and context students may have little experience with PBLs and might need extra help. Conversely: some students might flourish with the freedom to inquire. Make sure that you plan division of labour in student groups, this is where you can easily include differentiation. If you have a team of project leaders, help them understand how to re-delegate workload among students, and use visual tracking (stay tuned) strategies so you can see if students are ahead, or behind.   


  • Project Based Learning. By now you've probably noticed I use 'PBLs', but favour project-based learning as the pedagogic strategy for STEM learning. PBL is not as daunting, or airy-fairy as it is sometimes made to look. Critically, during planning, consider (as above): how students will present their work to an authentic audience, and how learning tasks can be related to real contexts; give opportunities for students to submit multiple drafts - the first product is not the final product; use critique and reflection - provide your students with guidance at the point of need, and ask students to conduct self and peer assessment -- but make sure you workshop those skills first! I'll be writing much more on PBL in the future. For now, if you want more take a look at this great guide.
  • Use exemplars, rubrics, learning criteria, and reflections.
    • If you can, use examples of work that has been completed to a high standard -- even if you have to make these examples. Help students understand, in general, what it is they're working towards. But don't make this prescriptive. If you have students who are likely to want to reproduce the exact sample, refrain from showing one. Use your judgement here.
    • As above, use single point rubrics to help students identify where they need to improve - this will also help you understand where students are up-to with a 'glance', if most of the writing is in the left column, students probably need help! Snag an example one I whipped up here.
    • Establish learning criteria with your students. Leave room in your planning to allow the co-development of learning criteria with your students. This helps students feel ownership over over their learning experiences.
    • Use reflections. If you can include curriculum-informed language, do! Reflections are another key element in explicit learning.
  • Peer-assessment. When students work in groups there are many opportunities for them to assess one another. This can be formal, or informal. Consider how you might ask students to assess one another -- and again, workshop this process with students, alongside project-management skills.

Big tip

  • Make project management visual. Take a look at eduSCRUMs, or consider any form of visual project management, not only does this help students keep track of their projects, but it allows you to see who needs help, who's finished, and what's happening around the classroom at a glance -- woo hoo time save!


Until next time, best wishes.

πŸš€ Aidan.