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Guidelines for Building a STEAM Curriculum

By Donald Spellman posted 11-28-2018 02:15

Many people are aware that STEM refers to a push within the education community to place more emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in curriculum, even for younger students. This was driven by the idea that our students were falling behind in those fields, making the U.S. less competitive with other industrial countries. 

According to Edutopia, an influential blog for K-12 educators, the idea of STEAM came from the realization that STEM is not enough and likely was not spurring enough creative thought in order to help our students compete in a world-wide village of other potential employees and workers. In fact, when the Great Recession hit 10 years ago, many school districts were faced with funding cuts. One of the first places in school district budgets to be sliced was arts education. This has had a deep and profound impact on education in the U.S. public schools. 

As explained by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), arts education helps students to hone their observational and visualization skills, work with materials, and create. Highly focused observation, visualization, spatial skills, and creativity are key abilities needed by all scientists. Arts also helps students to synthesize ideas and realize that the problems of the world don't have one pat solution. This follows how scientists may find their hypotheses to be incorrect, based upon evidence, and need to have the creativity and mental alacrity to look for other solutions. Also, as stated by Healthline, curiosity helps improve a student's learning and their memory. STEAM simply adds the emphasis on the arts and creativity to STEM. 

Begin With Your State Standards

As stated by McTighe and Wiggens, the key to Constructivist learning, such as in a STEAM program, is to begin with your state standards. Most states follow the Common Core State Standards Initiative. The goal is to create projects that teach the STEAM skills and allow students to learn the state standards as they work through the project. 

For example, if the state standards at your grade level involves learning to perform computations with two and three dimensional objects, your classroom might work to design tiny house mock-ups to solve the issues of homelessness in your city. Designing interiors would need to be done to work around the dimensions of people and traditional furniture. The English language arts standards covered could include a persuasive essay about their project and why it is important that teams of students create and present to your city council or county board of supervisors. 

Projects Cover Multiple Curricular Areas

You will find that the project will likely cover state standards from different disciplines, like mathematics, science, and even English language arts. English language arts standards that will need to be presented in mini-lessons will often relate to how students report the results of their project. 

McTighe and Wiggens emphasize that the project needs to solve a real world issue so that the students will be engaged and will learn to utilize what they are learning in school as it applies to daily life. When students get to a point in the project that they need to learn a new skill, the students will learn these skills that you will teach them more deeply, because the skills are taught in highly relevant context of completing an engaging project that solves a real world issue. 

Relate the Solution of the Project to a Big Picture Question

McTighe and Wiggens stated that the projects need to focus students upon some larger picture question that ties interdisciplinary curriculum together. In our example of the tiny house project, one bigger picture question could be, “How is geometry and applied mathematics used to solve real world issues of home construction?” The big picture question helps students focus upon why they did the project and what they learned in the process. 

Grade the Projects With a Rubric

McTighe and Wiggens explain that the students need to be presented the grading rubric before they begin the project. This allows them to understand what is being expected of them right at the outset. It is even better to show students some exemplars of varying quality and have the students help devise the rubric. This will help set student expectations from the beginning. You will likely have rubrics to cover the major project as well as the other state standards taught in the project. The goal is to see how well the student learned each state standard taught in the project as they solved the problem. 

How to Keep the Fire Stoked

According to The Center on Standards and Assessment Implementation, if you can create a maker space in your school, you can encourage students to continue creating more STEAM projects after school as well. Maker spaces tend to include things like 3-D printers, robotics kits, hammers, nails, wood, electronics kits, craft supplies, and computers. Your school can have a competition or exhibit of projects. Also, schools that host after-school maker classes can earn money to fund the maker space as well as fund additional projects. This keeps students curious and working on their own to solve problems of their own choosing. 


STEAM is simply adding the creativity, visualization, and spatial skills of art to STEM education. It helps students develop more mental agility and creativity to help them have the capacity to take the school curriculum and solve real world issues. STEAM makes learning more relevant, engaging, and helps students learn all content more deeply. It prepares students to be able to synthesize what they have learned in the application of real world problems.