Approach to teaching STEM

A report from the National Research Council, Successful K–12 STEM education: Identifying effective approaches in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, identifies elements which characterize successful K-12 STEM teaching. According to the report, effective STEM instruction capitalizes on students' early interest and experiences, identifies and builds on what they know, engages them in STEM practices, and provides them with experiences to sustain their interest (1). 

Key elements that contribute to effective STEM instruction include a coherent set of standards and curriculum, teachers with high capacity, a supportive system of assessment and accountability, adequate instructional time, and equal access to quality STEM learning opportunities (1, p. 25).

The National Research Council report goes on to propose that school districts can support effective K-12 STEM education by:

Consistent with these practices, the Minnesota P-20 Education Partnership in its STEM achievement gap strategic planning workgroup final report, recommends that STEM curricula and instruction:

Best practice in the teaching of science focuses strongly on the process and practices of conducting scientific inquiry and developing scientific knowledge. That is, it puts major emphasis on what scientists do (methods and practices of inquiry) as well as conveying scientific content knowledge. Scientific knowledge and scientific methods/processes are seen as an integrated whole. Science is both a body of knowledge and an investigatory process that revises, refines, and extends knowledge. Hence, science classrooms should provide ample opportunities for students to learn about and engage in the process of investigations, and talk and write about what they have observed, their emerging understanding of scientific ideas, and how these could be tested. According to the National Research Council's report Taking science to school: Learning and teaching science in grades K-8, students who are proficient in science have proficiency in the following four strands:

The National Research Council's Framework for K-12 science education is built around the following three dimensions:

Linking instruction to the students' contexts

There is evidence that science instruction that connects well with the context of students' lives is more successful in reaching students and fostering learning. Teachers using this strategy make learning science relevant to students by presenting material in the context of the world that students experience, using real-world examples and problems. For groups underrepresented in STEM fields, it may be especially important to connect STEM instruction to their socio-cultural context.

The real-world context can be brought to students through technology or field experiences. The theory behind The Bakken Museum's classroom residencies is that in order to improve mastery of the what of science (content knowledge), and the how of science (processes and skills of inquiry and engineering design), students must grasp the why of science (personal relevance) (2).

A meta-analysis was conducted of 61 studies that used a variety of different teaching strategies to try to improve K-12 academic performance in science. Eight different strategies were studied: questioning, manipulation, enhanced material, testing, inquiry, enhanced context, instructional technology, and collaborative learning. Results suggested that the enhanced context strategy had the largest effects on learning. The authors of the article conclude that "if students are placed in an environment in which they can actively connect the instruction to their interests and present understandings, experience success early in the learning process, and have an opportunity to experience scientific inquiry, achievement will be enhanced" (5).

Informal education

People of all ages learn science in a variety of informal environments. A National Research Council report on learning science in informal environments, Learning science in informal environments: People, places and pursuits (6), included the following as informal science environments:

Those who participate in informal science programs and environments can become excited and interested in science, gain science knowledge, carry out scientific processes of inquiry, reflect on science as a way of knowing, engage in scientific activities and learning practices with others, and develop an identity as a science learner.

The report provides recommendations on how to organize, design, and support science learning in informal environments.  Rather than well-established evidence-based practices, these recommendations are seen as a "research and development agenda to be explored, tested, and refined" (6, pp. 6-7).

Recommendation 1: Exhibit and program designers should create informal environments for science learning according to the following principles. Informal environments should:

Recommendation 2: From their inception, informal environments for science learning should be developed through community-educator partnerships and whenever possible should be rooted in scientific problems and ideas that are consequential for community members.

Recommendation 3: Educational tools and materials should be developed through iterative processes involving learners, educators, designers, and experts in science, including the sciences of human learning and development.

Recommendation 4: Front-line professional and volunteer staff of informal science programs should actively integrate questions, everyday language, ideas, concerns, worldviews, and histories, both their own and those of diverse learners. To do so they will need support opportunities to develop cultural competence, and to learn with and about the groups they want to serve.

According to the Report to the President, Prepare and inspire: K-12 education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) for America's future, out-of-school informal STEM education opportunities are especially important for underrepresented populations to counter messages that they may not belong or excel in STEM areas (7).


1. National Research Council. (2011). Successful K–12 STEM education: Identifying effective approaches in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Retrieved from The National Academies Press website:

2. MN P-20 Education Partnership. (2011). STEM achievement gap strategic planning workgroup final report. Retrieved from

3. National Research Council. (2007). Taking science to school: Learning and teaching science in grades K-8. Retrieved from The National Academies Press website:

4. National Research Council, Committee on a Conceptual Framework for New K-12 Science Education Standards. (2012). A framework for K-12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Retrieved from The National Academies Press website:

5. Schroeder, C., Scott, T., Tolson, H., Huang, T., Lee, Y. (2007).  Meta-analysis of national research regarding science teaching.  Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 44(10),1436–1460. Retrieved from:

6. Bell, P., Lewenstein, B., Shouse, A. W., & Feder, M. A. (Eds.). (2009). Learning science in informal environments: People, places, and pursuits. Retrieved from

7. President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. (2010). Report to the President, Prepare and inspire: K-12 education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) for America's future. Retrieved from