STEAM myths debunked

Sarah Hillyard has been a teacher and coordinator at pre-primary level and is now an ELT consultant for bilingual schools in Argentina. As a freelance teacher trainer and materials writer she specializes in STEAM education in language learning. In this series of articles, she explains what STEAM is and gives lots of practical ideas for the classroom. In today’s post, Sarah sets us straight on some of the common myths regarding STEAM. 

Find out more about STEAM on our experiences page.

STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths) sounds like an overwhelming combination of subjects to teach – and only suitable for expert educators. But the reality is, doing STEAM is simpler than you think! Here are 5 common STEAM myths and the truth behind them. We also outline a number of simple activities you try with your students.

1. STEAM requires a lot of time 

STEAM projects encourage curiosity, creativity and collaboration in the classroom – but they have a reputation for being preparation-heavy and for requiring a lot of teaching time and energy.

But to get the full benefit of STEAM, there’s no need to plan out a full-blown project that lasts a whole month. In fact, you might integrate just one STEAM lesson into your syllabus. Or, a lesson could contain a one-off 10-minute STEAM challenge. There’s really no need to feel overwhelmed!

Here are some easy, low-preparation challenges your classes can take part in: 

10-minute STEAM challenges:

  • Winter unit: How tall can you build a snowman using paper cups? 
  • Shapes theme: Using five toothpicks make a pentagon; two triangles; a letter of the alphabet. 
  • Bug project: Can you create a symmetrical butterfly?

2. You need fancy materials to do STEAM

The biggest misconception is around technology. When you think of STEAM, you might imagine you need apps, computers, tablets and robots to teach it successfully. It’s true that you will certainly find STEAM challenges out there that involve extensive supply lists, expensive equipment, knowledge of programming and robotics. 

However, in reality, you probably have everything you need already. Technology doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. It can refer to simple, non-electronic tools and machines, too. Think funnels, measuring cups and screwdrivers, for example. You can use low-cost regular classroom or household items and recyclable materials that learners families’ can donate. Toilet paper rolls and cardboard boxes are very popular items in STEAM! 

Here is a low-tech activity you can try: 

Combine engineering, art and math using cardboard and a pair of scissors

This challenge involves creating 3D self-portrait sculptures in the cubist style using only cardboard. First, teach about parts of the face by observing and analysing some Cubist portraits (e.g. explore Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso). Then have learners cut out cardboard shapes and make slits in them to attach together. They create their self-portrait sculptures by fitting the pieces together using the slits so that the final product will stand by itself. Display the self portraits and talk about them.

3. STEAM is targeted to older learners

Young children are naturally curious about the world around them – and STEAM experiences begin very early in life. They explore with their senses and test their hypotheses about the world, just like scientists do. Much of their play is based on engineering skills like when building houses with LEGO bricks. They learn to manipulate tools while they develop their fine-motor skills and their awareness of non-electronic technology. They use dramatic play and enjoy getting their hands full of paint while engaged in art. They learn about maths concepts very early on, such as size (big and small toys), quantities of things, and even babies start using the word “more” if they’re still hungry. 

Check out this simple STEAM experiment to learn about plants and their needs. 

How do plants eat and drink? 

Have students put water and food dye in a pot. Put a white flower in the water. Ask students to guess what will happen. 

After a few days, students should check their flowers and observe how it has changed color.  They must then record their results. Extend the experiment by asking if they can make their flowers two colors.

STEAM in action
Example from English Code Student’s Book

4. You have to be an expert to teach STEAM

Educators widely believed that teaching STEAM requires having expertise in all these disciplines. In reality, while some basic knowledge about the concepts and processes behind the challenges is ideal, it is up to you to decide what you feel comfortable teaching.

What’s really important is that the learners master the skills behind STEAM – that is, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and inquiry. Rather than being an expert, the teacher needs to facilitate learning and discovery. 

Here’s a simple activity to demonstrate this:

Building a ramp

In this activity, your students will build ramps to test how toys roll/slide down them. This activity covers the following disciplines:

  • Physics: the science involved in creating a stable structure and moving objects
  • Technology: using a simple machine that allows objects to move
  • Engineering and design: planning and building structures to achieve a result
  • Mathematics: reasoning about distance and numbers

Find out more about this ramp challenge in our next STEAM blog (coming soon!). 

5. You either teach STEAM or teach your curriculum 

Some teachers think that you have to stop teaching your regular lessons to do STEAM. However, this is not the case. It’s key to think of ways to connect the challenges with themes and units of work that you plan to teach and integrate them. STEAM can coexist with literacy programmes, mindfulness programmes or anything else you are teaching. 

Here’s an example:

Shadow projector project

If you’re teaching a unit on Space and Planets, make a shadow projector

Have learners cover one end of a cardboard tube with some thick transparent tape. They should then draw a star, planet, sun or moon on the tape with a permanent marker. Next, have them shine a flashlight through the tubes in your darkened classroom and describe the night sky. They can explore how to make the sky items bigger or smaller by moving the source of light.  

Explore STEAM Experiences

We hope we have inspired you to try out simple STEAM projects with your students this year. If you’d like to find out more about teaching STEAM, stay tuned for the next articles in the series. 

You can also discover more resources, podcasts, worksheets, guides and more on our STEAM Experiences page, which have been created by our STEAM Expert, Sarah Hillyard. 

English Code – our new primary course with STEAM activities 

Teach STEAM with English code

English Code is a 7-level course for 7-12 year olds, offering 5 hours or more of English study per week. Available in both American English and British English versions, it promotes hands-on creative learning, investigation, fun projects, and experiments. 

With a syllabus that incorporates STEAM learning, children develop a coding mindset, learn how to solve problems and work on their collaborative skills. Core functional language is at the forefront, giving students the vocabulary and tools they need to become confident speakers of English inside and outside the classroom.

Learn more about English Code or download a sample now!

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