3 Ways to Create a STEAM Program that Gets Results

An elementary school principal shares how to encourage student and teacher growth and excitement in STEAM.

Topics: STEM

At Wilemon STEAM Academy, STEAM isn’t simply about science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math. STEAM is about how we solve problems. It’s about real-world skills.

When we opened the doors to our K-5 school in August of 2018, we set out to create an innovative learning environment where students would use critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration to solve real-world problems and promote career awareness.

Since then, we have seen student growth at each grade level every year. From 2021 to 2022, the percentage of fifth grade students who approached, met, or mastered grade-level learning goals increased by 6 percentage points in math and in science on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR).

Following are three of the strategies we have implemented to build a strong STEAM program.

1. Get STEM Certified

Prior to opening our doors in 2018, our district and campus leadership decided to pursue an online certification program to help everyone on our campus develop the same understanding of STEAM, regardless of their background or experience.

During the 2018-19 school year, all K-5 teachers—along with the librarian, assistant principal, and me—completed the National Certificate for STEM Teaching from the National Institute for STEM Education. One of the reasons we chose this program is that it aligns with our vision for STEAM education by focusing on instructional strategies that work across content areas.

I enjoyed learning alongside our teachers throughout the program. The experience not only brought us closer together, but it helped me see how to better support them. Since then, any teacher who joins our school gets STEM certified.

Our teachers have said that the experience was “fun” and “eye-opening.” While some initially worried that STEM certification would be something “extra,” they said afterward that their workload feels lighter because they’ve learned to become facilitators of student learning.

2. Create a Safe Place to Try

At Wilemon, we believe in a growth mindset and that “the power of yet” will create personal resiliency to enhance our success. We embrace that failure is a “First Attempt In Learning.”

This applies to teachers, too. To create a positive STEAM culture schoolwide, it’s essential that teachers feel safe to try new things. For example, in the spring of 2023, our fourth grade teachers came up with the idea to hold a student debate at the local courthouse instead of the classroom. As students delivered their arguments about the pros and cons of a four-day school week, we saw the depth of their critical thinking and communication skills, and the ease with which they made connections between subjects.

Later that spring, one teacher asked her students to draft an argumentative essay and said she saw noticeable improvements in their writing. One student told her, “When I write now, I think about being in the courthouse!”  

Our students are successful when they move on to junior high because of the skills they’ve learned on our campus. Their learning sticks with them.

3. Engage Students in Inquiry-Based Learning

Our curriculum resources have played a role in our success as well. We began using STEMscopes Science in 2018 and added STEMscopes Math in 2020. Within the digital curricula, each unit is developed around the 5E model of instruction (Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, Evaluate). This approach helps our teachers build engaging, coherent, student-centered learning experiences, and it helps our students develop the knowledge, skills, and confidence to tackle challenging concepts.

Take math, for example. One teacher said that before when she’d introduce long division, it was “very hard” for her students and “there were usually tons of tears.” In contrast, when students learned using the 5E model, they came to the end of the lesson and said, “That was easy!” She said that doing the Explore before the Explain phase was key. It gave students confidence and prepared them to learn.

Making Teaching and Learning Fun

At Wilemon, students don’t see STEAM subjects in isolation. They see the connections and how what they’re learning relates to the world around them. Our students and teachers have a passion for learning, which makes school fun! As a result, we don’t have a lot of turnover on our campus. There have been only a handful of people in the last five years.

When students walk into our classrooms each morning, they’re smiling, and they’re still smiling when they leave at the end of the day. They’re excited about what they’ve learned and what’s in store for the next day — and we are, too.

Kate Authier is principal of Wilemon STEAM Academy in Waxahachie Independent School District in Texas.