The Secret to Success in Elementary STEM Education

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Lost Einsteins, anyone?

A shortage of STEM teachers imposes costs that are more easily captured by imagination than data. We have to conjure in our minds thousands of STEM-trained educators and millions of students, proportionally diverse in demographics, who simply do not exist in the current STEM education landscape.

The picture that results from this thought experiment will differ for everyone who carries it out.  One construction of the problem imagines a cohort of “lost Einsteins” tossing off innovations and advances in all kinds of fields, to the economic, civic, and material benefit of the whole country. Under any scenario, though, we would certainly be enjoying more effective solutions to more problems for more different kinds of people – some more choices than just yellow emojis, perhaps?

Agents for change

At the center of a large network of groups working to address the STEM teacher shortage is 100Kin10, a group that formed at the end of the Obama Administration to catalyze efforts to train 100,000 more STEM teachers over a 10-year period. The group’s experiences with this teacher-training project have yielded the happy by-product of deep insights into why the STEM teacher shortage exists and ideas on measures to fix it.

The seven Grand Challenges that make up the STEM teacher shortage, according to research done by 100Kin10.

The seven Grand Challenges that make up the STEM teacher shortage, according to research done by 100Kin10.

An elementary problem

Among the seven “Grand Challenges” that 100Kin10 identifies as key to solving the STEM teacher shortage, “elementary STEM” stands out as especially vexing. At exactly the stage of schooling when the “lost Einsteins” are most receptive to STEM learning, their teachers are least equipped to deliver it. If elementary school teachers, in large numbers, brought passion and knowledge about STEM education to the classroom, the demographics of STEM in higher ed and the workforce would look much different, as would the technologies we live with.

The elementary STEM teacher challenge has three main elements:

  • Pre-service training

  • Professional development opportunities

  • Teachers’ anxiety about STEM subjects

Each of these elements requires different approaches to solve, but they are all tractable. Implementation, more than discovery, of the solutions is the hard part.

A way forward

To reduce the extensive research into teacher training questions to a core concept might be impossible. But we could do worse than focus on the idea of “integrative STEM” learning. Such an approach emphasizes cross-curricular, multi-modal learning involving problems connected to real-world scenarios already familiar to kids.

Enabling teachers to put their STEM training to work as a tool for them and their students to build knowledge is key, according to the research. For teachers, approaching STEM as a series of tasks, rather than as a perspective on the world, yields worse learning outcomes and less engagement among students.

An approach that works

To drill down into more concrete terms, effective STEM integration must include learning activities that come both before and after the core designing and testing activities. That means time researching and understanding the problem, revising and improving a possible solution, and, crucially, socializing the solution among end users. You can see here how language skills, collaboration, sociohistorical context, and quantitative and qualitative analysis all come into play.

Integrative STEM education engages students in varied modes of learning across multiple disciplines.

Integrative STEM education engages students in varied modes of learning across multiple disciplines.

This approach showed demonstrable impacts on teachers’ abilities and levels of confidence in delivering STEM lessons, in a long-term study of educators trained along these lines. It might not be easy to deliver this kind of training, but it is the kind of training that works.

Solutions in action

Teacher training programs focusing on integrative STEM education are becoming more common. One is at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, which offers a fantastic program option for early childhood education along these lines. The goal of the program is for future teachers to bring enthusiasm and confidence to integrating STEM learning into their classrooms, even as they are primarily occupied with reading and math. This video captures some of the excitement and satisfaction that teachers in the program feel about what they’re learning.

Program graduates – about 22-24 per year – qualify for an endorsement in Integrative STEM Education in Pennsylvania. Sharon Brusic, a director of the program, reports the program “has been popular beyond our wildest imagination,” requiring a waiting list to capture the full level of student interest. She estimates that five jobs are available for every graduate of the program. “The need is huge,” she says, “and we need to figure out a way to get more young people into this dynamic and rewarding career path.”

Supporting teachers in the field

Looking at professional development options, 100Kin10 highlights online options as especially promising. Tufts University, for example, offers the Teacher Engineering Education Program, an 18-month program with tracks for elementary or middle and high school teachers. Teachers learn how to align their work with Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) that make engineering design a foundational component in K-12 science learning.

The first step can be the hardest

Help just getting started – and minimizing the anxiety teachers feel  – is available in many quarters.

  • Our own Dream, Invent, Create program was recently shown to increase users’ levels of interest and knowledge of engineering by significant margins, in an assessment of 107 students enrolled in a elementary-level program using the book itself and accompanying Teacher’s Guide.

  • The Virginia Children’s Engineering Council is a hub for professional development and peer networking among elementary educators at all levels of comfort with STEM integration. In line with NGSS emphases on design, the group offers a series of K-5 “Design Briefs” suitable for immediate classroom use.

  • TeachEngineering is an all-time favorite of ours for its free, high-quality teacher resources.

And, finally

The STEM teacher shortage hits hardest in the earliest years of schooling. The integrative approach, though, seems well suited to elementary educators’ natural inclination to cross-cutting, general learning that engages the whole child.

Learn more by digging more into the examples we’ve cited here. And let us know what you might have seen that hits the mark, as well, and please do share with interested colleagues and friends.


Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEnginNow.

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