10 STEM Terms for Elementary Educators (and a FREE Engineering Design Process poster set)

10 STEM vocabulary words for elementary teachers

Just like any educational approach, there are lots of words, phrases, and acronyms related to elementary STEM education. When my school first started its STEAM program, our staff spent a good bit of time considering whether we wanted to be known as a STEM school, a STEAM school, or even a STREAM school (much advocated for by our reading specialist!). Some other phrases, like inquiry- or project-based learning and the 4 Cs, also seem to pop up often in conjunction with STEM education. Then there are words like makerspace and prototype that have specific meanings in relation to engineering, a field in which I didn’t receive any formal training during my teacher preparation courses. As I’ve learned more about STEM education, I’ve developed a better understanding of the nuances of many of these terms, and I thought it might be helpful to make a list here! I’m also sharing a free engineering design process poster set. Scroll down to see it!

  1. STEM and STEAM: STEM is an acronym that stands for four content areas and skill sets that are in high demand in the 21st Century: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. STEM education programs emphasize the connections among these fields. A biology lesson in which the teacher assigns a textbook chapter and questions about animals’ physical adaptations is just a science lesson; a STEM project might require students to research physical adaptations and build a prototype of a prosthetic limb for an animal in captivity. The acronym STEAM includes the Arts in addition to the four STEM fields described above. Incorporating the Arts into core content areas allows students to process and apply information across multiple modalities and senses, which increases understanding and retention. (Some schools have STREAM programs, where the R stands for “reading.” However, I prefer the STEAM acronym, because reading and other language skills are communication tools used in service of the other STEAM areas, and literature, poetry, and other language arts fall under the broad Arts umbrella.)
  2. Engineer: Google’s dictionary defines the verb form of engineer as “to design and build (a machine or structure),” so an engineer is anyone who designs and builds machines or structures. Let’s apply this definition broadly enough to recognize that all of us – especially teachers – engineer solutions to small problems everyday. You’ll find any number of ingenious classroom design hacks with a quick scroll through the instagram teacher community. Our students are also engineers. One year, I had a student who could make anything out of paper clips and index cards! I think regularly using the word engineer – in both noun and verb form – to refer to our students and their work is really empowering and makes the Engineering part of STEM far more accessible and far less intimidating.
  3. The Engineering Design Process: The engineering design process is the cycle of steps engineers engage in when creating a solution to a problem. I purposefully didn’t write that engineers “follow” these steps, because they are not rigid. If you google the engineering design process, you’ll find many variations on the same ideas: First, engineers (or their clients) ask a question or identify a problem. Then, they brainstorm and plan possible solutions before creating an initial product, prototype, or model. Next, engineers test and improve the product. These steps can be very fluid. Some parts of the process can take longer than others or can vary greatly between different projects. Sometimes, ideas or tests can lead to new questions, or a product may need to go through several iterations before it is an acceptable solution. I designed this poster of the Engineering Design Process to try to emphasize that all of these steps fit together and work best when we continually share and reflect on our work. Click below to get a free copy of this poster sent directly to your email!
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  4. Models and Prototypes: I often hear these two words used interchangeably to describe the products created using the engineering design process, but they do have different meanings. A model is a representation of a concept that isn’t to scale or doesn’t fully function. A prototype is a basic, functioning version of a product, often made with cheap, readily available materials that are easy to work with. In an elementary STEM classroom, students might create models of the solar system or of a futuristic city. They could make prototypes of a new musical instrument or of a unique paper airplane design.
  5. Technology: When educators talk about technology in the classroom, we are often referring to student access to laptops or tablets, online learning opportunities, or the latest educational apps. But it’s important to consider a much simpler definition of technology: any tool designed to make a task easier, quicker, or simpler — that is, just about any product of engineering! You can look at some basic, everyday pieces of technology, like pencils or scissors and consider how design variations make necessary tasks easier. When I shared this idea with my students, it helped them view themselves as “real” engineers, no matter how simple or complex their projects were.
  6. Makerspace: Quite simply, a makerspace is any area that provides students with tools, materials, and space to make things. A makerspace can be a dedicated room, a corner or a table in your classroom, or even a mobile cart or individual boxes containing basic supplies. Some other names for spaces like this include an Engineering Lab, an Innovation Station, and – my favorite so far – a ColLaboratory. I’d love to hear if you use a different name for your makerspace!
  7. Project Based Learning: This is an approach to teaching and learning that enables students to apply and gain knowledge and skills while making connections to complex, real world challenges. Teachers and/or students pose an open-ended question that guides classroom activities. Students usually collaborate to create an authentic product in response to the guiding question and publicly (within the school or broader community) share their work. While project based learning isn’t inherently part of an elementary STEM program, they do incorporate many of the same process ideas and opportunities for content integration. Here’s a fantastic article about the relationship between PBL and STEAM from Education Closet.
  8. Inquiry Based Learning: I received training in inquiry based learning before my school developed its STEAM program, but this approach is another natural fit with STEM education. Basically, every lesson or unit begins with a focus question (again, either teacher or student created), and the learning activities are designed for students to discover new concepts and build understanding through experience. One of the most valuable aspects of inquiry based learning for my students is the idea of introducing key vocabulary after the students have engaged in the learning experience. At the end of the lesson or unit, students respond to the focus question using key vocabulary and concepts, providing an opportunity for formative assessment. Many science concepts are an obvious choice for using inquiry based learning opportunities, but this approach can work in any content area. Here are some inquiry based lessons in my TpT store, including one of my favorite math inquiry lessons about circle area and a beginning of the year social studies inquiry lesson about primary sources and artifacts.
  9. The 4 Cs: A conversation about the benefits of elementary STEM programs isn’t complete without considering the importance of helping students develop the “21st Century Skills” of communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. We expect the adults we interact with, professionally and personally, to have these skills, but traditional classroom instruction doesn’t always provide students with enough opportunity to hone these skills. When we give students consistent opportunities to work together to engineer solutions to authentic problems relating to the curriculum, we create space to teach and practice these 4 Cs.

Whether you’re thinking about starting a STEAM program or already incorporate some of these concepts in your classroom, I hope this list of terms helps clarify some of the terminology relating to elementary STEM education. Are there any other words or phrases that I should add to this list? Please leave a comment below!

If you’d like to be notified when I publish new STEAM products, click here to follow me on TpT. Don’t forget to get your free Engineering Design Process poster!

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