Teaching, Learning and Assessments

Using STEM to Encourage Innovative Designers

The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) highlights in standard 4 the importance of encouraging students to be innovative designers. Laura McLaughlin (2017) commented that by encouraging students to think through problems and come up with creative solutions, we are helping foster adults who will be open-minded, flexible, self-directed problem solvers who can make a difference in their own communities and the world.  

One way to give your students opportunities to be innovative designers is to do STEM challenges in your classroom.

What is STEM? 

The acronym stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. STEM instruction is a unique approach to learning that allows students to work through a design process to creatively solve a problem. STEM challenges can be used in any subject and require students to collaborate, communicate, create, and use critical thinking skills. You can see why STEM instruction ties perfectly into ISTE Student Standard 4: “Students use a variety of technologies within a design process to identify and solve problems by creating new, useful or imaginative solutions.”

But how do teachers find time to fit another thing into their schedule? I can empathize with teachers when they say they want to do STEM, but struggle to find a time because they are constantly moving from one subject to the next and feel pressure to work through their grade level curriculums. I believe that if we try to add STEM as another subject during the day, we will fail. However, Miranda Reagan (2016) offers three suggestions for K-5 teachers on how to incorporate STEM instruction into their current curriculum in her book: STEM-Infusing the Elementary Classroom. Let’s explore these approaches together. 

1. The Cross-Cutting Concept approach:

Choose a cross-cutting concept that can be applied in various subjects, such as patterns, cause/effect, problem/solution, drawing conclusions, etc. 

For example, Reagan describes a Kindergarten teacher who may choose to focus on the cross-cutting concept of cause and effect. As part of the unit, the students can explore fact-families in math, drawing conclusions and character interactions in reading, wellness in science, and communities in social studies (Reagan, 2016, p. 32). By connecting the dots across subject areas, students will gain a better understanding of cause and effect. Next, decide on an essential question that will drive the project and create a design challenge that allows the students to apply knowledge from various content areas (Reagan, 2016, p. 34). For example, in that Kindergarten classroom, the teacher may plan a project focused on how germs spread or the effects of littering. Or instead of doing a project, the teacher could continue with his or her regular instruction, but rearrange the standards so that he or she is teaching the ones that fit under the umbrella of “Cause and Effect”.

 Things to consider:

  • This approach requires teaching standards out of order. The administration must trust teachers to cover all standards with an appropriate amount of rigor.
  • Works best when school allows a high level of teacher autonomy.

2. The Standards Alignment approach:

The teacher looks at the standards being taught currently in the various subjects and creates a design challenge where all of the standards can be practiced. Reagan (2016) notes “This approach allows you to teach and practice the skills prescribed but in a way that helps students form connections between those unrelated skills” (p. 40). 

One example Reagan (2016) gives of a standards-aligned project is challenging students to design a new package for shipping candy canes (p. 42). Standards from multiple subjects were incorporated in the challenge: students must defend an idea with evidence and persuasive writing (in language arts), money (in math), economy (in social studies), and designing solutions to real-world problems (in science) (Reagan, 2016, p. 42). This project was based on what was already happening in each subject- no need to rearrange any standards.

Things to consider:

  • Reagan shares this is the approach she sees teachers use most often. Its main advantage is not having to rearrange standards to fit your projects. 
  • Teachers must get creative when designing projects.
  • Works well for schools that require teachers to stick to pacing guides. 

3. The Thematic Approach:

Determine a theme, perhaps from a story or an event your studying in history, and use it as the foundation for a STEM challenge.

For example, when studying narrative writing a second-grade teacher could read her students the story of The Three Little Pigs. Then she could pose the challenge to her students to rewrite the story with the pigs using alternative supplies other than the classic straw, sticks, and bricks. Students can build an actual replication of their pig’s house and test it to see how much weight it can support. 

Things to consider:

  • In contrast with the first two approaches, the thematic approach isn’t meant to strengthen the understanding of a concept or be built around curriculum standards. Instead, it is meant to give students the opportunity to practice 21st-century skills of collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity (Reagan, 2016, p. 47-48). 
  • It is a great first step for teachers to try STEM in their classroom.
  • It allows teachers to test out a new role of being a facilitator of learning, instead of the giver of knowledge.

Learning Theories and STEM Instruction

Two widely supported Learning Theories are cognitivism and constructivism. Both of these learning theories support STEM instruction and encourage students in their journey of becoming innovative designers. 


Cognitive psychology is focused on the search for rules, principles or relationships while processing new information, and then making meaning and reconciling new information with previous knowledge (Bates, Chapter 2.4). When it comes to education, the most commonly known theory of cognitivism is based on Bloom’s taxonomies of learning where there is a hierarchy of learning. That means that learners need to progress through each level, from remembering information all the way through to evaluating/creating (Bates, Chapter 2.4) Problem-based learning and STEM instruction are a perfect fit for the cognitivist learning theory since students are asked to explore and understand a problem, develop a design plan and put it into action, then analyze and reflect on what worked in order to make improvements. Students hopefully walk away with something they have created and a better conceptual understanding of their learning and how it applies to the real world. 



Constructivism learning theory emphasizes the importance of consciousness, free will and social influences on learning (Bates, Chapter 2.5) According to this view, we “construct” new knowledge through experiences rather than gaining it auditorially or through memorization. Constructivists believe that understanding is reached when we take new information, relate it to prior knowledge, and then process it (Bates, Chapter 2.5). In the classroom, reflection, seminars, discussion forums, small group work, and projects are key methods used to support constructivist learning (Bates, Chapter 2.5). Technology allows for online constructivist classrooms that are centered around collaborative learning communities (Bates, Chapter 2.5). Is there a better way to “construct” new knowledge than to have hands-on experience exploring real-world STEM challenges and bouncing ideas off of others? You can see the direct tie between the constructivism learning theory and STEM integration in the classroom. To put it simply, we learn by doing and having social interactions with others. 


I have seen from personal experience how excited and engaged students are when given the chance to design and create innovative solutions. When you look around your classroom imagine your students as future lawyers, doctors, chefs, social workers, or entrepreneurs. No matter what career they pursue, they will need the skill set to be able to think creatively and problem solve. By rethinking how we can include STEM instruction into our current curriculum, we can give our students consistent opportunities to be innovative designers and nurture those important skills. 


Bates, A. W. (n.d.). The nature of knowledge and the implications for teaching. In Teaching in a digital age (2). Retrieved from https://opentextbc.ca/teachinginadigitalage/part/chapter-2-the-nature-of-knowledge-and-the-implications-for-teaching/

BBHCSD Media. (2014, April 16th) STEM Education Overview [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5GWhwUN9iaY

ISTE Standards for Students. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.iste.org/standards/for-students

McLaughlin, Laura (2017, September 13). 5 ways to help students become innovative designers. ISTE. https://www.iste.org/explore/ISTE-Standards-in-Action/5-ways-to-help-students-become-innovative-designers

Reagan, Miranda Talley (2016). STEM-Infusing the Elementary Classroom. SAGE Publications Ltd.


  • Megan

    This is such a great blog post and right in line with things I’ve been thinking about. I appreciate how you broke the ideas apart and shared the three different approaches including things to consider. That is so helpful when thinking about my own classroom or working in other classrooms and what approach might work better. I am really curious about your thoughts when it comes to pacing guides and following a scope and sequence, how well does the design process fit? I’m excited to check out some of your resources and dig deeper into the standards alignment approach and what that would look like at the secondary level.

  • Sarah Straume

    Wow! I learned so much from this post. The three separate ways of getting started with STEM integration and STEM challenges was extremely helpful for me. As a STEM teacher, I find myself most frequently using the standards-aligned approach, however, I feel that I would like to try the thematic approach. I feel that this approach ties into the idea of constructivism and gaining knowledge through experiences. I tend to lean towards the more stereotypical cognitivism teaching, as that is what I learned in school. Thank you for sharing!

  • Jessica Sarr Lewis

    Thank you so much for succinctly providing an overview of these resources and the ideas regarding how the different theories relate to learning, STEM, and elementary classrooms. Very helpful to connect different pieces together and to elaborate beyond Bloom’s taxonomy. Do you think constructivism helps generate student excitement because the activities reflect a complex jumping around within the different levels of learning instead of marching linearly from start to finish?

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