K–12 STEM Lesson Plan Guide

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Various school supplies for an engineering project

There’s a bright future for students who are interested in careers in STEM, an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. According to an information note from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, science, technology, and innovation are crucial as countries work to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, which include eradicating global hunger, providing every person with access to clean water, and ensuring equitable economic opportunity for all. For K–12 students, this means there is increased value in a strong STEM education, which can pave the way to jobs where they’ll be active participants in solving these problems, from software developer to mechanical engineer, chemical technician to the science teacher.

But besides the rapid increase in STEM-related careers, there are also specific benefits that lessons and activities in STEM can provide now to students of all ages. STEM lessons can help introduce elementary students to “scientific linear thinking, creative problem solving, inventiveness, and instilling the importance of collaboration and teamwork,” according to TODAY.com. For high schoolers, who have more freedom to choose specific electives and who are often beginning to think about their future careers, exposure to STEM can offer useful hands-on experience. TechCrunch describes how Ohio high school students who were enrolled in advanced biomedicine classes were given valuable exposure “to real-world science” while being pushed to solve “interdisciplinary problems that require problem identification, investigation, and analysis.” These are all helpful skills for high schoolers as they enter college and, later, start their careers.

The benefits of lessons in STEM are clear, but school districts and officials don’t always have the necessary funding or resources to provide effective education in these areas. According to the U.S. Department of Education, access to these types of courses differs among school types across the country, and even when they are offered, enrollment rates vary. The department notes that “80 percent of all eighth-graders attend a school that offers Algebra 1, but only 24 percent of these students are actually enrolled in the course.” This lack of enrollment in Algebra 1 can often negatively impact enrollment in future STEM studies, as the course is a fundamental stepping-stone for future math and science courses.

However, teachers can still make a difference and provide strong STEM education in their classrooms, even if funding or resources for these subjects aren’t strong within their school or district.

Chapter 1: Facts About STEM

Many people are aware of both the benefits of STEM lessons and the booming career opportunities within these fields, but not everyone is aware of specific educational or career troubles that may face students and professionals who are not properly prepared in these fields. Below are some facts and statistics about STEM.

A. STEM workers generally earn more than non-STEM workers (Pew Research Center)

A full-time STEM worker with some college education earns, on average, nearly $15,000 per year more than an individual not working in a STEM field. Additionally, STEM professionals who hold advanced degrees in their field, like a master’s or doctoral degree, have been reported to earn $20,000 or more than counterparts who hold similar degrees in non-STEM fields. Even for workers not in a STEM field, college-educated workers who have completed some sort of STEM lessons and training often earn more than those who have not.

B. The percentage of women in certain STEM job areas is small (Pew Research Center)

Over 95 percent of speech-language pathologists are women, and 75 percent of health-related jobs are held by women as well. But across other STEM fields, the percentage of positions held by women isn’t as strong. In life science, math, physical science, computers, and engineering, women comprise less than 50 percent of the workforce.

C. Only 21 percent of students taking the ACT met the STEM benchmark (ACT)

The highest score that a student can receive on the ACT is 36. The STEM benchmark, comprised of both math and science scores, is 26. This benchmark is intended to evaluate the likelihood that a student will earn at least a B or C in introductory university STEM lessons and courses like calculus or chemistry, along with their level of preparedness for pursuing degrees in STEM majors.

D. Fewer than 50 percent of high-poverty high schools offered physics courses, and just over 25 percent of them offered computer science courses (ACT)

Even if students are interested in and want to dedicate time to excelling in STEM subjects, schools may not have the resources to provide them. In 2015, “fewer than 50 percent of high-poverty high schools offered any physics courses,” according to ACT. Additionally, just over a quarter of these high schools offered computer-related courses. While increased enrollment and participation in STEM classes tends to correlate with a higher percentage of students meeting the ACT benchmark, it also depends on whether schools have the ability to provide these courses in the first place.

E. Students in high-poverty schools often don’t have the necessary materials available (National Science Board)

In this survey of middle/high school math teachers for 2011–12, a school was designated as high-poverty if more than 50 percent of its students qualified for free/reduced-price lunch, while schools that had from zero to 10 percent of students receiving free/reduced-price lunch were designated as low-poverty. Less than 80 percent of teachers who responded to the survey believed students in high-poverty schools had the necessary education materials available. Additionally, teacher responses also indicated that parents of students in high-poverty schools were less supportive than those of students in low-poverty schools and that more teachers in high-poverty schools worried about job security due to test scores than those in low-poverty schools.

Chapter 2: Tips for Building STEM Lesson Plans

Even though the importance and benefits of STEM education are clear, there are still many difficulties and challenges when providing effective lessons in STEM. Teachers who wish to provide more enriching STEM lessons and activities will benefit from these helpful tips.

A. Encourage exploration and teamwork among students in STEM lessons (Education Week)

STEM fields and careers require deep knowledge in their specialties and often incorporate teamwork and an exploratory spirit. Education Week Teacher reports that a great STEM lesson “is open-ended, within constraints.” Students can use their own creativity and teamwork skills to find solutions to specific problems. For example, if a teacher tasks students with building a tower using a certain amount of toothpicks, students are able to share ideas, collaborate, and find inventive solutions while staying within defined limits.

B. Use real-world problems or examples (Scholastic)

One of the challenges that teachers can face when building STEM learning activities is finding a way to keep students interested. Educators can help increase engagement within these lessons by using real-world examples. If a lesson is focused on engineering, a teacher could instruct students to build a replica of something that exists or operates outside the classroom. If an activity is scientific in nature, it could be based around a current scientific conflict or issue that is impacting the world at large. Christy Crawford, a writer for Scholastic, says that for teachers, “cross-curricular project-based learning will mean more planning on your part, but more meaningful, real-world connections for your students.”

C. Clearly communicate goals and objectives (ASCD)

Students can be eager to participate in STEM lessons, but they may have trouble understanding directions or goals when completing an activity. Referring back to the toothpick tower example earlier, if a teacher doesn’t clearly state that the tower must be built with as few toothpicks as possible or that it needs to reach a certain height, students might misunderstand the objectives and not perform to expectations. ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) recommends teachers set clear learning goals, provide scales and rubrics, track student progress, and celebrate student success.

D. Choose projects/lessons that are challenging but encourage failure (Education Week)

A goal of a STEM lesson is to try and spark a new interest in this field or subject among students. That’s difficult to do if students feel as if they failed and didn’t perform to expectations. Projects that include multiple right answers and that encourage students to make attempts at a resolution without requiring that they solve the problem will likely be more impactful. If students are trying to replicate how the gears of a watch work in an engineering STEM lesson, there may be multiple correct answers or students may not be able to find the correct answer, but that’s an acceptable outcome. As Anne Jolly writes for Education Week Teacher, “They are expected to learn from what went wrong and try again. Failure is considered a positive step on the way to discovering and designing solutions.”

E. Encourage hard work but emphasize the importance of breaks (Scholastic)

Both adults and students who have some experience with STEM know the frustration of spending a long time in one setting trying to find a solution to a problem but not succeeding. Taking breaks in between STEM lessons and activities can help students recharge while staying excited about a particular subject. These breaks can take place for a few minutes or hours at a time in the classroom, or potentially with a lesson starting one day and then being revisited sometime later in the week. According to writer Christy Crawford of Scholastic, “When they return, it will be easier for most to debug or find solutions to errors quickly.”

Chapter 3: STEM Resources for Teachers

STEM lessons can be enriching to students and children now and in their future lives, but for instructors, taking the time to effectively prepare and initiate these lessons can be difficult. These resources can help.

A. Stem engagement that’s out of this world (NASA)

NASA has an extensive array of educational resources for both teachers and students within STEM. K–12 teachers can sign up for weekly education emails, enter students in specific educational challenges, access different publications and websites, and more. Students can participate in online activities, learn more about pioneers within STEM fields, and even sign up for the NASA Kids’ Club.

B. Personalized learning resources (CK-12.org)

CK-12.org provides students easy-to-access, personalized learning in various STEM subjects. Students can learn more about specific concepts in subjects such as chemistry or statistics and use simulations, games, practice tools, and study guides to enhance their learning.

C. Dive deep into subjects (BioInteractive)

On Biointeractive, all teachers have to do is type in a particular science subject or topic to find helpful animations, videos, and other digital resources that can help capture students’ interest while explaining STEM lesson areas.

D. Prepare engaging STEM lessons (Smithsonian Science Education Center)

With extensive curriculum aides and resources as well as engaging content, the Smithsonian Science Education Center is an exemplary, robust resource that can help teachers better provide strong STEM education to students.

E. STEM education for any grade or subject (National Geographic Education)

Teachers who visit National Geographic Education’s intuitive website can select which type of educational resources or STEM lessons they want, what grade or grade range they want it for, and what subjects they are interested in. For example, searching biology lessons for grade nine yields eighteen helpful results that teachers can use.

Ohio University: Master of Science in Electrical Engineering

The importance of STEM subjects to the future success of K–12 students cannot be understated. These students benefit from instructors who hold an extensive knowledge base in a STEM subject and have achieved career success thanks to advanced STEM education. Discover how you can increase your STEM expertise and become a leader of tomorrow with Ohio University’s online Master of Science in Electrical Engineering.

Additional Reading

Video Game Development: The Ultimate Guide for STEM Students


ACT, “STEM Education in the U.S.: Where We Are and What We Can Do”
ASCD (formerly Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development), “New Art and Science of Teaching”
Bureau of Labor Statistics, “STEM 101: Intro to Tomorrow’s Jobs”
Education Week Teacher, “Six Characteristics of a Great STEM Lesson”
NASA STEM Engagement
National Geographic Education
National Science Board Science & Engineering Indicators 2016, “Teachers of Mathematics and Science”
Pew Research Center, “7 Facts About the STEM Workforce”
Scholastic, “5 Quick Tips for Successful STEM Lessons”
Smithsonian Science Education Center
TechCrunch, “Exposing Every Student to STEM”
TODAY.com, “Benefits of STEM Education for Elementary Kids”
U.S. Department of Education, “U.S. Department of Education Fulfills Administration Promise to Invest $200 Million in STEM Education”
United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, “UN Highlights Critical Role of Science, Technology, and Innovation in Achieving the SDGs”