foundational to instructional success
in STEAM-focused, problem-based
Another common obstacle is a lack
of resources and materials, and I’m
obviously not referring to textbooks
and worksheets. If possible, leaders
should budget for appropriate supplies
and materials, but schools can also
make a coordinated effort to collect
and organize a range of household
disposables that can be repurposed
for projects. Plastic water bottles, egg
cartons, bottle caps, paper towel or
toilet paper tubes, bubble wrap, glass
jars—all of these can be useful. If
budgeting doesn’t allow for tools and
equipment, parents and local business
partners are usually enthusiastic to
donate hand tools, safety glasses, work
gloves, and even power tools such
as drills and saws. Creating room for
a makerspace or innovation lab—or
even just encouragement for teachers
to do so—can also be helpful.
Teachers should be given opportunities to attend educational conferences and visit nearby STEAM-focused
schools. It may not be feasible to send
entire faculties, but selected individuals can host teacher workshops to
share what they learned. Most of the
ideas I share as an instructional coach,
including the ones in this article, were
learned through taking regional professional learning courses, attending
state and national conferences,
visiting established STEM/STEAM
programs and schools, and reading
Cultivating an Inventive Spirit
The possibilities of STEAM and
problem-based learning are limited
only by our fixed mindsets and
restrained imaginations. Schools
must cultivate an inventive spirit that
invites risks and welcomes failures—
and learns from both.
Although the projects I’ve highlighted may seem unconventional,
STEAM and problem-based learning
together represent a pragmatic
approach to school improvement,
offering the potential for academic
gains, collaborative and social-skills
development, enhanced communication, and increased family
engagement. I can attest from my
own experiences that the benefits are
substantial, but they can only be
realized by courageous educators
who not only dream of transforming
learning in their schools but also are
intrigued by and embrace the
challenge of change. EL
Blair, D. (2009). The child in the garden:
An evaluative review of the benefits of
school gardening. Journal of Environmental Education, 40( 2), 15–38.
Hackathorn, J., Solomon, E. D., Blank-meyer, K. L., Tennial, R. E., & Garc-zynski, A. M. (2011). Learning by doing:
An empirical study of active teaching
techniques. Journal of Effective Teaching,
11( 2), 40–54.
Han, S., Capraro, R., & Capraro, M. M.
(2015). How science, technology,
engineering, and mathematics (STEM)
project-based learning (PBL) affects
high, middle, and low achievers differently: The impact of student factors
on achievement. International Journal
of Science and Mathematics Education,
13( 5), 1089–1113.
Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The surprising
truth about what motivates us. New York:
Wirkala, C., & Kuhn, D. (2011). Problem-based learning in K– 12 education: Is
it effective and how does it achieve its
effects? American Educational Research
Journal, 48( 5), 1157–1186.
Charlie Harper ( harper.charles@mail.
fcboe.org) is a district-level instructional
coach for science in Fayette County,
Georgia. He is currently working toward
a doctorate degree in educational
leadership at Georgia State University.
These simple hands-on activities can
offer rich interdisciplinary learning
opportunities for elementary and
middle grade students.
n Use the engineering design
process to design and construct
a gingerbread house. (Instead of
a traditional holiday craft, this can
become a fully integrated STEAM
n Design and build bird houses,
feeders or a bird reserve, observatory, or aviary. The Great Backyard
Bird count ( http://gbbc.birdcount.org)
is another way to encourage
n Construct a lasting work of
environmental art that provides
ongoing learning experiences, such
as a terrarium, bog, or bat house.
n Use cinematography, graphic
design, or web design to create a
public service announcement or
run a public awareness campaign
addressing a current issue.
n Plan and prepare a single meal
that meets predetermined criteria
(drawing from specific learning
standards) and stays within a given
n Submit a field trip proposal and
plan every aspect of the trip, from
transportation and admission costs
to parent permission slips.
n Build a first aid or supply kit for
a Civil War soldier based on the
technology of that time.
n Watch the inspiring video
“Caine’s Arcade” (http://
cainesarcade.com) and then have
students design and create their
own games for a school arcade.