Using the overarching theme of sustainability, environmental concerns, the 3R’s, and conservation, students brainstormed and collaborated to create in-class projects and solved local or global issues. STEM (or STEAM+G) education allows students to understand, evaluate and synthesize information beyond traditional lecture-style learning, therefore encouraging more independent learning situations and providing greater opportunities for critical thinking. Rather than trying to process isolated pieces of subject-specific content, STEM-based learning emphasizes real-life applications of knowledge that allow students to make sense of the world around them. Through project-based activities like STEAM+G, students can grapple with challenges, collaborate, debate, find creative outlets for ideas, problem-solve, and take their thinking to a higher level.
As an integrated, STEM-based learning experience, subject information relating to our theme of sustainability was incorporated with student interests at heart. In math, for example, students designed a vertical garden using a variety of edible or ornamental plants. Students implemented math skills such as calculating proportions and measurement, then drew a scale model of their designs. Aside from utilizing math skills, students focused on sustainability by utilizing recycled or repurposed materials to engineer and construct their vertical garden projects.
STEAM+G was a natural fit for geography, particularly because of the recent Model UN event. Geography and world cultures connections included environmental sustainability in developing countries and issues surrounding access to clean water and deforestation. Students spent a considerable amount of time collaborating on these important topics. They researched sustainability content online and synthesized and evaluated their findings during Model UN presentations.
In Spanish class, students were introduced to the sustainability theme while viewing an online UNICEF video in which children from all over the world were interviewed about their environmental/conservation concerns. After viewing the video, students conducted problem-solving exercises, held discussions about lifestyle changes that could be implemented at school, at home, and within our community, and made posters reflecting their thoughts. Students then created bilingual travel/ecosystem brochures reflecting sustainability tips and advice previously documented in the poster activity.
In science, students focused on local and global issues relating to sustainability, pollution, deforestation, renewable and non-renewable energy, fossil fuel emissions, global warming, and extinction. They conducted computer research, participated in a hands-on oil spill lab activity, collaborated on project ideas, and designed, engineered or constructed a product or device which educated or informed others on an environmental/conservation issue.
Students were also involved in two library/science days which helped generate ideas connected to sustainability topics, helped students frame questions, and reinforced the importance of authentic research. Some science-based projects were designed to solve problems such as reducing carbon emissions during seed dispersal on agricultural land, while others were created to educate classmates about animal extinction. Students also constructed new composting devices, offered alternate ways to utilize solar panels, or engineered original devices out of recycled materials such as used plastic and wood. iClicker technology was incorporated into a STEAM+G follow-up lesson reinforcing environmental/conservation topics.
In English class, students read about environmental threats to the Great Lakes ecosystem. In a Writing for Understanding activity, students analyzed data that illustrated the state of the Great Lakes today, such as bald eagle numbers, wetland areas, and pollution levels, and then debated this data from the perspective of “Great Lakes Boosters
” and “Great Lakes Doomers.” During this meaningful exercise, students were fascinated to learn that invasive plant and animal species can also play a significant role in damaging this fragile environment. Students then reflected on creative solutions implemented by scientists to correct previous damage done to the Great Lakes fresh water ecosystem.
Last, but certainly not least, students designed colorful clay invertebrates and fish
during art class. They also gathered campus trash, strung it all together, and created a giant ‘trash train.’ To enhance the MS quad beach display on STEAM+G day, students painted backdrops and poured out buckets of sand to re-enact a polluted beach scene. Thoughtfully designed, the art display helped integrate all aspects of our inquiry-based sustainability theme.
The STEM environment designed by the fifth grade teaching team compelled students to disseminate information in multiple subjects, research ideas, debate topics, examine problems from different perspectives, and construct and present a project that would address a local or global real-life sustainability issue. Students then shared their projects with classmates in a gallery walk format on June 1. Through persistence and hard work, students utilized STEM-based learning principles to discover, explore, design and innovate, and better understand the world around them. As a fifth grade teacher team, we hope that students are now inspired to find solutions to environmental problems in their own communities and will make a difference both locally and globally. Fifth grade students are our future leaders and decision-makers; they will lead the way for a more sustainable tomorrow.