How to improve learning experiences: Integrating STEAM and stories

Teaching STEAM with stories

Sarah Hillyard has worked as 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 shows us how stories can be used to integrate STEAM into your primary classes.

Find out more about STEAM on our experiences page or read Sara’s previous articles: 5 STEAM myths debunked and 5 steps to planning a successful STEAM lesson.

People have been telling stories for tens of thousands of years, ever since we sat around the campfire and told our families and friends about our travels and adventures. Stories are built into our DNA and they captivate and engage our attention. 

That makes stories a great starting point for almost any type of class and any type of teacher. Whether you want to extend your learners’ science, technology, engineering, arts or math skills (STEAM) – stories can spark imaginations, provide context, and even help students remember important details.

So how can children’s literature support and enhance your STEAM classes? 

What are STEAM Experiences?

STEAM experiences use stories as a foundation, providing lots of ideas and challenges to tackle a combination of all five subjects together. When you deliver a STEAM experiences lesson, your learners will typically progress through a number of stages: 

  1. Plan and predict
  2. Explore and create
  3. Record
  4. Present and reflect

As you explore the ideas below, note how each aspect of STEAM is addressed and remember you can mix and match as you please for your next lesson. We have chosen three stories as springboards for STEAM activities in this article. 

Story 1: Lost and Found, by Oliver Jeffers 

For this STEAM activity your learners will create a boat for a penguin in the story. The students must experiment with different materials, designs and shapes to find the best model for the boat they can. The boats can be made of different materials, or the same material with changes made to its shape so they can explore the concept of density. By the end of the activity, your learners will have begun to understand what properties make things sink or float. 

First, present the students with the STEAM challenge: How can you make a boat that floats for the penguin to travel on? 


Explore: Your students will discover how making changes to the shape of materials help them float. For example: a ball of plasticine will sink – a flat piece of plasticine will float.

Explore: Your students will find out how weight influences whether an object sinks or floats. They will start to grasp the concept of density. 


Plan: Your students will google different types of boats including big ships or boats, like the Titanic, to notice its size and shape. 

Explore: They will use tools like tweezers, kitchen tongs, ice-cream scoops or large spoons, etc., to scoop out the boats and penguins which have sunk and try to do so without getting wet.

Explore: Learners will also weigh the boats and the toy penguin on a weighing scale and learn how to read the measurements. 


Create: Instruct your students to create a boat that floats by testing out different materials, such as aluminium foil, plasticine, paper, etc. Explain that it should be strong and buoyant enough to support a toy penguin passenger.

Create: Have your students create a toy penguin that will fit on their boats. They can use aluminium foil, paper, cardboard, toilet paper roll, and whatever materials you have to hand. 

Reflect: Finally, ask your students how they could improve their designs.


Plan: Tell your students to draw a sketch of their boats.  

Create: Instruct them to create a “sketch” of the boat collaboratively by joining their bodies together (e.g. for a sailboat, one learner lies on the floor, another stand and holds their arms like the sail, etc). 

Explore: Have students pair up, hold hands and sing “Row, row, row your boat”. 


Predict/Explore/Record: Ask students how many toy penguins (or coins) they think their boats can support before it sinks. They should test their theories and record the results. 

Record: Ask students how much their boats weigh. They should then weigh their boats and record the results. 

Story 2: The Very Busy Spider by Eric Carle 

In these activities, learners will engineer a weight-bearing web just like a spider does. Students will use stones to represent flies caught in the web, like in the story. Learners will make strong webs and experiment by placing these “flies” on the web to see how many it can “catch” in 20 seconds.   

STEAM challenge: How many flies can your spider web catch in 20 seconds? 


Plan: Your students will learn about spider webs, their strength, what they’re made of, why spiders make them, what spiders catch in their webs to eat, etc… 

Plan: Instruct your students to go on a spider web hunt. They should go out in the school grounds (or somewhere safe) and see what they can find. What do they observe? Have them note down whether there was any prey caught in the webs. Make sure you accompany them at all times. Remind your students that sometimes spiders can be dangerous and they should not get too close or disturb the spider or its web. 

Plan: Have students think about what materials could replace spider web silk. For example; wool, string, pipe cleaners, dental floss, fishing line, etc. Ask them to consider what other objects/items they would need to be used to make a horizontal web (make reference to the fence in the story). For example, two chairs, a coat hanger, a cardboard box, or a hula hoop. 

Finally, ask what will replace the spider’s prey (e.g. stones/rubbers).


Plan: Have your students use a tablet/computer to research spider webs online.  

Plan: Tell them to use software to design a sketch of the web they will make.

Plan: Ask them to find a video that explains how spiderwebs are made. 

Explore: Ask them to explore which tools they can use to test the strength of their webs. (e.g. a hairdryer as wind).


Explore: Your students will try making different spider web designs.

Create: Have students decide, as a group, which spider web design to make. They should also decide on the materials and think about how to make it as strong and stable as possible. They should then make it (horizontally). 

Present: Have students demonstrate their webs for the rest of the class. They should show their initial designs, explain what materials they used and try out the experiment. They must then place stones one by one on the spider web and count for 20 seconds. How many did it hold? 

Reflect: Have students reflect on how they could improve their designs and how they could make them stronger. 


Plan: Your students will try drawing different web designs individually (e.g. orb web, funnel web, zig zag web, etc.). They should then share their ideas with their group.   

Explore: Have your students sing “The Incy Wincy Spider” while building their webs.

Create: Tell students to compose a song, rap or poem about your web. They can even find free backing tracks to sing over on YouTube.


Predict: Have students vote on which will be the strongest web. Use a tally to make predictions.

Present: Teach students how long a second is. Have them count 20 seconds.

Record: Have them write down how long the prey stayed on the web and how many stones it held/captured in 20 seconds.  

Explore: Have students describe the shapes they can see in their webs. They should identify the properties of shapes (e.g. number of sides, angles, tessellations, triangles, etc.). 

Story 3: The Three Billy Goats Gruff

In this series of activities, learners not only discover that there are different types of bridges but also get to sketch and build one for themselves, using simple classroom materials or recyclables. Their bridges need to be safe – with no troll under them – and strong enough for three toy goats to cross over. Learners will explore how many goats their bridges can hold, exploring stability and strength of materials.    

STEAM challenge: How can you create a bridge that is safe enough for the Three Billy Goats Gruff to cross over? 


Explore: Your students will explore the concept of stability while building bridges. 

Plan: Have your students research and notice the features of different types of bridges.


Plan: Instruct your students to research different types of bridges: truss bridge, suspension bridge, arch bridge, etc. 

Plan: Have students discuss which tools can be used to measure their bridge. Include standard units of measurement (ruler, tape measure) and non-standard units of measurement (building blocks, erasers, fingers). 


Create: Your students design and build a bridge. 

Explore: Have students test which material is the best for bridge building. 

Predict: Ask your students to predict which bridge will be the strongest/weakest. 

Reflect: Have students reflect on how they could improve their designs.


Plan: Your students draw a sketch of their bridges. 

Plan/Create: Have them collaboratively create a bridge with their bodies. 

Explore: Have them sing London Bridge when one of the bridges falls down.  

Create: Instruct them to compose a song, rap or poem about your bridge and the Three Billy Goats. 


Plan: Students should plan how long their bridge should be. 

Record: Have them measure the length and height of their bridges using standard or non-standard units of measurement.

Predict/Explore/Record:  Ask them to predict how many toy goats their bridges can hold. They should then test and record results.

Start planning a STEAM lesson now

It’s easy to think of STEAM integrations connected to stories. Let your imagination run free and plan out your next wonderful STEAM story lesson.  

If you are not currently teaching learners face-to-face, think about how these activities can be adapted for the online environment. While you can introduce the stories to your students without any problems, you may need support from their parents for the more hands-on activities.

Learn more by downloading this practical pocket guide to STEAM or reading these articles about STEAM myths and planning successful lessons for language learning

To find more stories like this check out English Code, a new innovative primary course where students learn English through hands-on creative tasks, investigation, projects, experiments and more. 

Download a sample now! 

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