Academic journal article Science and Children

From STEM to STEAM: Incorporating the Arts in a Roller Coaster Engineering Project

Academic journal article Science and Children

From STEM to STEAM: Incorporating the Arts in a Roller Coaster Engineering Project

Article excerpt

Teaching STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) in elementary school could be even more promising than teaching STEM. This is due to its ability to cross multiple subject areas and its appeal to multiple types of learners (Ahn and Kwon 2013; Bequette and Bequette 2012). Intentional integration of the arts in science and engineering lessons has the potential to more deeply engage all learners. Ultimately, STEAM teaching is about the student rather than the subject areas--students may see themselves not just as future scientists or engineers but also as designers or creators. In this integrated STEAM lesson, fourth-grade students design roller coasters. The lesson builds on existing roller coaster lessons by emphasizing the arts throughout the design process, as students use their imaginations and engineering skills to create their own designs.


Setting the Tone

This integrated experience began by prompting students to visualize roller coasters--asking them to close their eyes and recall the feelings that come to mind when thinking of roller coasters. Moving around the classroom, we asked each student to share one word that came to mind. Whether or not students have ridden one, mental images might include fear or thrill. This imagery exercise gets students excited, as they begin to imagine roller coasters and the feelings associated with riding them.

Next, students used their science journals to respond to three preassessment questions (Figure 1), meant to point their attention to the science concepts for the lesson. The preassessment questions asked for students' prior knowledge regarding concepts of velocity/speed, potential and kinetic energy, and Newton's first law of motion. (Note: The Next Generation Science Standards [NGSS] for third grade state that velocity is a boundary term, meaning that it is not introduced at this level, but the concept is developed. Discussing the term will yield important discussion about concepts that students link to the idea, which is helpful in the discussion-based preassessment.) To formatively gauge the depth with which we needed to teach each topic, we took note of student responses as they wrote and through a class discussion after the preassessment.

Because a current trend in education is to build 21st-century skills (that is, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and communication), we approached this lesson through an arts focus on "Imagineering," which blends imagination with engineering. Walt Disney Imagineering allows educators to demonstrate that STEAM-related disciplines can lead to creative careers. Imagineering is the development and design group of the Walt Disney Company (see Internet Resources for an overview of jobs related to Imagineering).

We first began by introducing Walt Disney as a leader in STEAM, asking students:

* What makes someone creative?

* What qualities do makers and innovators have that contribute to their successes?

* How do makers and innovators overcome failure?

* What value does imaginative and fearless thinking add to something you create or do?

Students shared their experiences in which they have persevered through failures and even shared that being unable to overcome failure limited their thinking or development of abilities. This discussion helped students focus on creative thinking and multiple approaches to design, while laying the foundation for overcoming failure, which is a key part of the lesson.

Choosing Roles

This lesson can be taught in two hours, allowing teachers to break up the challenges or teach the entire lesson in a single block. We elected the latter and also co-taught with an arts and science educator in the school.

Students are grouped into design teams of three, and each student chooses a role to maintain during the lesson (i.e., accountant/materials manager, scribe, and public relations officer [see Table 1, p. …

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