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4 Educators’ Keys to Connecting STEM and Social Studies
First, there was STEM. Aiming to move education beyond isolated subjects, it was an integrated approach linking science, technology, engineering, and math. Then the arts educators got involved and created STEAM. Then the robot designers joined the team and built STREAM. As more and more subjects jump on the STEM train, what about social studies? Here, four teachers share their best practices for linking social studies and STEM.
Meghan Raftery, Coordinator of Elementary Social Studies
We like to use social studies as a topical focus for STEM-based tasks. A key way to do that is to focus on social studies disciplines other than history. For example, we look for organizations or problems at the intersection between geography and earth science. We also try to help kids respectfully consider the engineering feats of the past in context with the resources available at the time. Students often think people long ago were unintelligent because they did not have the knowledge we have now. Asking them to imagine how simple machines may have been used to build the Roman aqueducts really open their eyes to how incredible engineering of the past really was!
"STEM to me is real-world application of knowledge and skills, and I use it to develop projects that cross all curriculums and focus from the past all the way through to the modern society." — Kate Dodson
Social Studies in Context
Sustainability issues provide another perfect context for combining social studies and STEM. Many globally minded organizations and businesses require a deep knowledge of the geography, economics, and civic issues of specific regions.
Using a tool like Defined STEM helps teachers and students see how social studies is relevant to those in STEM careers. One of our favorite Defined STEM tasks is called "Shipwreck." Students can see the intersection of STEM and history when they consider the technology needed to make discoveries about the past that were previously inaccessible.
Social studies without context does not make much sense for students. They need to understand the relevance of what they are learning in terms of the priorities of the modern world. Career-focused lessons show students a side of social studies they may not otherwise see if they are only exposed to textbook and worksheet social studies instruction. Using project-based learning based on the work of actual STEM careers using a platform such as Defined STEM opens students' and teachers' eyes to real-world context for social studies.
The 'Doing' of Social Studies
Just because the "s" in STEM does not stand for "social studies" does not mean that social studies does not have a place. Economic, geographic, and civic knowledge are crucial components to good citizenship and deserve an equal place in terms of emphasis in curriculum, as early as pre-K and kindergarten.
The "doing" of social studies is the most important part. Students need to be able to analyze information and establish arguments supported by evidence across all the domains of social studies. What a more informed and enlightened citizenry we would be if this was treated as important as learning to add and subtract decimals!
Michelle Warrington, 5th-Grade Teacher
Connecting STEM and social studies shows the students that events are not isolated. For example, technological advances such as the cotton gin and the electric lightbulb both had societal implications. Students need to understand the integration between science and technology and world events.
"Student choice is an important part of my teaching. I believe students have more buy-in to the lesson when they have choices about what they learn and how they provide evidence of their learning." — Darren Faust
Using Kids Discover Online, my students create questions about the content that they read online, and we plan inquiries to learn and discover more. We take the time to evaluate different sources, discuss crucial evidence and discuss our findings.
I think that today, students need to be able to ask meaningful questions about problems in society. They need to learn how to consider solutions and analyze the consequences. They need to be able to collect evidence to support their findings and, when necessary, communicate what they have learned. Wouldn't it be great if they acted upon it to create change?
Kate Dodson, Social Studies Teacher
In my social studies classroom, everything we do is project-based: I may briefly explain topics, or we may discuss them for a day or two, but then my students get to work using apps and their knowledge of today's society to create virtual timelines, evolution projects of culture, presentations and more. My students constantly look back into the past to figure how we have developed into our modern society but also look at the world we live in today.
STEM to me is real-world application of knowledge and skills, and I use it to develop projects that cross all curriculums and focus from the past all the way through to the modern society. Every single decade that my students dive into, they look at what would have been considered "technology" at the time, whether it be the 1910s or the 2000s. Science is also easily integrated into my class because we talk about the global world we live in, which is a world of science. Math is much more straightforward. For example, when we explored unemployment rates throughout the Great Depression, my students charted and graphed the data they found.
I believe that social studies is the forgotten core subject. People often don't feel like it's important for students to learn about dead people, but what they don't understand is that because of those people we have science, technology, engineering and mathematics! And STEM itself is social studies because it is a way of exploring the world and where we came from.
Social studies is everything around us, from the geography to economics to government to the way people think and feel. I want my students to feel like the subject comes alive, whether they are researching the evolution of blues music or looking at businesses in America.
Darren Faust, General Education Teacher
Using an online curriculum and other resources allows me to make the connection between social studies and STEM at any time. When students select a social studies topic online they immediately see many articles related to that topic and related science content. Yesterday I had my students reading about Ancient Rome. As they were reading online, they found information relating to the Roman's building techniques. We then had an engaging discussion on their aqueducts and how/why they worked. My favorite moments are when students make connections between social studies and science on their own.
Another time where my students learned both STEM and social studies was when we learned about ancient Egypt. One of my students noticed that the early Egyptian society started around the Nile River and made the connection to Mesopotamian society starting around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers as well. We were then able to make connections between the importance of rivers and the development of early civilizations. We were able to research and discuss the science behind what rivers do that would be beneficial to a new civilization.
Student choice is an important part of my teaching. I believe students have more buy-in to the lesson when they have choices about what they learn and how they provide evidence of their learning. Textbooks are "boring," according to many students; I would rather give them a choice of articles that are concise. It helps if they are also visually appealing, with photos, maps or illustrations.
When it comes down to it, my job as the teacher is to show my students why social studies is important. I have to show them that learning about Rome, for example, can help us learn about building and engineering today. I have to show them that learning about Mesopotamia gives us great insights into how societies formed and what lives were like. Getting excited about social studies engages them in the learning process, and makes those valuable connections between social studies and STEM.
Meghan Raftery is the coordinator of elementary social studies for Virginia Beach City Public Schools.
Michelle Warrington teaches 5th-grade reading, writing, language arts, science, social studies, social-emotional, and math classes at North Barrington Elementary in TK.
Kate Dodson teaches 6th-grade social studies at Horace Mann Middle School in Charleston, WV.
Darren Faust teaches 6th-grade general education at Jim Maples Academy in Porterville, CA.