Engaging Students in the STEM Lab

Eighth graders in Englewood Middle School's STEM Lab

In the STEM Lab at Englewood Middle School in Englewood, Colorado, eighth graders
discuss plans for building a quadcopter drone of their own design. Students in the
Englewood school district research the careers associated with each of their STEM Lab
projects. Photo by Bill Gilmore

Schools nationwide are adding STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) Labs, spaces where students can apply science and math concepts. “We have two dedicated ‘STEM Labs’ spaces,” shared by two grade-level groups, K–4 and 5–8, says Jessica Boualavong, K–4 STEM teacher at Town School for Boys, an independent school in San Francisco. “For our STEM program, we integrate engineering projects and skills into traditionally science-based units,” she notes.

“One STEM lab is designed for heavy-duty prototyping and experimenting, [with] tool chests and large sinks for easy access and management of supplies and cleanup,” she explains. “It’s essential to have a very well-defined, student-accessible supply area for prototyping across subject areas.” 


The second STEM lab “is a forum space with three projectors for…presentations, [where] students can show off their projects or participate in a videoconference,” she explains. This space has a smaller Maker Corner where students can do “open-ended tinkering and practice with tools and supplies,” she relates.

At Franklin Avenue Middle School in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, STEM Education Teacher Eileen Antonison teaches a 45-day STEM Lab cycle class. “I developed and wrote the curriculum for my [grades 6–8] integrated STEM courses that are aligned to the full-year core science classes…I collaborate with the science teachers to make sure we’re supporting [one another]” and not assigning duplicate projects, she relates.

For example, seventh graders study life science in their science classes and “bioengineering—life science and environmental engineering,” in STEM Lab, she notes. In science, they study photosynthesis; in STEM Lab, they build, use, and collect data from photobioreactors, systems that use light to grow algae using only the photosynthetic mode of cultivation.

Some schools are adding STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) Labs. “[W]e built brand-new [ones] in all five of our elementary school[s],” says Tara Kristoff, director of curriculum at Cook County School District 104 in Summit, Illinois, a K–8 school district with high percentages of English language learners and students living in poverty. STEAM classrooms “are state of the art with writable wall[s], windows, and furniture…[T]he furniture is movable to encourage collaboration and discussion,” she explains.

The curriculum delves “deeply into Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) science and engineering instruction and assessment,” she asserts. For example, first graders learn in science class that waves make sound through a material. In STEAM Lab, they create their own drums using different materials and see which sounds they make, and draw the type of sound waves that match their drum’s sound. “Students see the connection of science to everything else in the world,” Kristoff contends.

General education teachers and STEAM teachers co-teach the class. “Many K–5 teachers in our district who [don’t] feel confident teaching science are becoming confident with the help and support of ” STEAM teachers, who have been trained “in the pedagogy shift of NGSS and truly embody the three dimensions in their teaching,” she maintains.

In group projects, students practice teamwork, compromise, and conflict resolution—“the skills to be the best STEM employee possible,” she asserts. “Most importantly, we have [groups] who have been historically [considered disinterested] in STEM thinking about [future STEM] careers.”

Focus on Careers

In the Powhatan County Public Schools district in Powhatan, Virginia, every school has a full-time STEM lead teacher, and “we have two full-time STEM coaches for our K–5 [STEM Lab] program” because “we believe by building interest early, our students will not only have a better understanding of the types of work people in STEM career fields do, but also they will be more likely to pursue STEM electives” and STEM careers, says Libbey Kitten, K–12 science/STEM curriculum specialist. 

The program’s design was based on recommendations from a steering committee of parents, teachers, engineers, and representatives from local businesses. “We’re a small, semi-rural district with limited resources, but we have discovered that if you build it, and you have the support of your community, the money will come,” she relates.

STEM Lab teachers in Colorado’s Englewood School District are certified “through the Colorado Department of Education as CTE [Career and Technical Education] STEM teachers,” says Bill Gilmore, the district’s STEM coordinator and STEM coach. “We have STEM Labs in…our high schools, our middle school, and one elementary school. We hope to [expand to all elementary schools] and our preschool by fall 2017.”

STEM Labs “are stand-alone…classes at the middle school and high school level, and specials at the elementary level…We want these spaces to be places where students can be creative, collaborate, think outside of the traditional boxes, and fail in an environment where failure is expected and part of the process,” he maintains.

“We have three STEM pathways for K–12, based on Colorado’s economy: computer science; natural resources and energy; and engineering, robotics, and advanced manufacturing. In the STEM Lab, students are free to come up with ideas and apply them through a pathway, following the design process,” he explains. Students “explore careers related to their projects and connect their projects to their core classes.”

Providing Enrichment

Crocker High School in Crocker, Missouri, offers STEM Labs as enrichment, says science teacher Marteen Nolan. “Enrichment activities have proven to be strong incentives for our students,” she asserts. Students need “at least a C average and no Fs, 95% attendance,…and no written disciplines” to participate, she explains. Students in level two, Thinking Labs, which involve high-level STEM activities, must have a B average and 100% attendance.

Students in Thinking Labs can program robots, use a 3D printer “for agricultural structure creation,” or join ExMASS (Exploration of the Moon and Asteroids by Secondary Students), an independent research project with a NASA mentor scientist, says Nolan. 

STEM enrichment time gives other teachers time to help struggling students, explains Nolan. “This works well in a smaller school like ours…in a rural, high-poverty community…, [and] we’re seeing trends in the right direction so far in all subjects that are tested.” 

This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports, featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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5 Comments

  1. Tom Trapp
    Posted January 4, 2017 at 6:01 am | Permalink

    Flinn Scientific has a free online tool called U-Design that can be used as a space planner for STEM Learning Spaces. Some STEM labs (spaces) are pre-designed.
    A budget estimate and 2-D rendering are printable. Here’s the link:
    https://www.flinnsci.com/online-resources/udesign-science-facilities-planner/

  2. Connie
    Posted January 8, 2017 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    STEM Labs should engage ALL students and not be an exclusive “enrichment” club.

  3. Steve
    Posted January 9, 2017 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    Check out http://www.stemystuff.com and their “Guitar in a Bag” kit. it is the ultimate low cost STEM activity. Kids design and fabricate their own electric guitar while studying sound, electricity, waves, music, engineering, etc. Hits so many NGSS standards. Designed by two classroom teachers.

  4. Judy Song
    Posted October 18, 2017 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing.

    It was interesting to hear about the STEM/ STEAM movement, and how it is materializing into specific classrooms across the nation. The general consensus seems to be that the movement is an excellent motivator and an opportunity for students to have hands-on experience with topics that they are exploring. As I was reading, I could not help but wonder if STEM spaces would become another issue of equity around schools in the United States. If the focus is on enriching students’ experiences, how can we as educators convince policy makers and communities to invest in our kids’ opportunities at deeper understanding?

    I also appreciated your reference to NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards), which are fairly new and being implemented in pockets around the nation. As we are further along in the world of technology, NGSS seems to unify what students need to know to successfully navigate the world of science.

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