What is STEM?

STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. STEM does not simply accentuate the basic importance of teaching science, technology, engineering, and mathematics across the entire precollege spectrum of grade levels, but inherent in the STEM concept is that these subjects be taught in an integrated, coordinated manner.

Thus, the teacher needs not only grade-level understanding of the concepts, skills, and methods of each of these areas, but must also be able to understand, see, and teach the interrelationships between these subjects, and the strong influence they have on each other.

This is not a simple task. But there is a logical, research-based way to move forward and be a successful STEM teacher. However, let’s first look at how the basic concept of STEM has been adapted in recent years to include other elements of the curriculum.

STEM Permutations

While STEM incorporates science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, STEAM education incorporates an “A” that stands for Art. This modification followed closely on the heels of the initiation of STEM programing to accentuate the importance of art in developing creativity in precollege education.

STEAM proponents would agree with Dr. Carl Sagan when he wrote: “It is the tension between creativity and skepticism that has produced the stunning unexpected findings of science.”

Not only does art education increase creativity, but also there are many direct links between science and art. In the visual arts, for example, perspective, color, lighting, symmetry, and compositional balance all can and have been examined directly by scientific study. Music is also deeply related to science in terms of the physics of sound waves, pitch, tone, and volume. The inclusion of an “A” in STEM to make STEAM therefore makes sense.

Many parochial schools, Catholic schools in particular, use a STREAM approach that incorporates an “R” for Religion to emphasize the importance of theology, ethics, and values. STREAM proponents would argue that, without integrating religious morals into STEAM programming, one runs the risk of losing sight of the higher levels of human aspirations in what might otherwise be a purely analytical worldview.

Other educators also use the acronym STREAM, but where the “R” stands for Reading and wRiting rather than Religion. It would, of course, be difficult to underestimate the fundamental importance of reading in any curriculum. These STREAM proponents argue that reading and writing are, or should be, the basis of all education including STEM.

Finally, there is a small but interesting contingent in the business community, proposed in a 2013 article in the Entrepreneurs section of Forbes magazine, that has suggested that mankind’s best chances at success both in the past, notably during the Renaissance, and in the future are the combined and integrated forces of Science, Economics and the Arts, or SEA. Referring to SEA as the “Innovation Curriculum” they would argue that leaving out an understanding of economics from the curriculum works to exclude progress and innovation in the real world.

Cognitive Spiraling and Levels of Instruction

Cognitive Spiraling
By “Cognitive Spiraling” we refer to the coordinated and purposeful introduction of science concepts over a planned period of time. Each topic or concept builds logically from previous knowledge as suggested in the Information Processing Model (review Neuropedagogy if required). Keep in mind that both scientific content AND laboratory skills can and should spiral.

Levels of Instruction
By “Levels of Instruction” we refer to the cognitive level at which content is presented. The level of technical detail may be quite basic when a concept is first introduced to young students with a plan to go into specific details later as students progress in their cognitive development. For example, we may introduce students to the concept of density in early primary grades by simply presenting mass and weight using a pan balance. An attempt to discuss density at this point using the formula D=m/v (density is equal to mass over volume) would be confusing as it requires considering more than one parameter in working memory as well as the ability to do basic algebra. In later primary grades, we might address the concept of sinking and floating but without introduction of the formula:

Fb = Pf  aVs

where Fb is the buoyancy force, Pf  is the density of the fluid, ag is acceleration due to gravity and Vs is the volume of the object that is submerged. However, in later intermediate grades or middle school, the density and buoyancy formulas can be introduced as students become cognitively equipped to consider several variables at a time and are capable of algebraic manipulations. The point is this – when students encounter the mathematics of density and buoyancy, they will have already experienced the actual phenomena of density and floating/sinking so that their working memory can focus on the more quantitative aspects of the measurements and more abstract concepts.

It should be clear that cognitive spiraling and levels of instruction work together to develop deep understanding over long periods of time, years in many cases. The concepts of cognitive spiraling and levels of instruction are logical neuropedagogical ramifications of the Information Processing Model of learning and memory.

Starting with Science

Starting with Science
There are a number of reasons that one should begin designing a comprehensive and hands-on STEM program by focusing first on the science curriculum.

Students love science! With little or no encouragement, they will explore the world around them with all of their senses. From infancy, children touch and feel the world around them. They are attracted to lights and sounds. And what parent has not had to scramble to prevent their child from placing an inappropriate object in their mouth – children want to taste the world as well!

Concept Development Through the Science Curriculum
Science is like learning a language or learning math. It would make no sense whatsoever to begin math instruction by studying the quadratic equation or calculus and only later to learn basic operations like addition and division. Yet for many years, science education has suffered from a patchwork hodgepodge of seemingly unrelated topics. As a result, a deep understanding of science topics has been missed for the most part. In its place has been an intellectually painful and dull (for both students and teachers) accumulation of miscellaneous facts and figures. Perhaps at some point in the past it was necessary to memorize lists of animal and plant classifications or the Periodic Table of the Elements, but today such information is easily and immediately available on even the simplest of mobile devices.

The instant access to technical details online should be used to free teachers and students to concentrate their attention on understanding science concepts at a deeper level. This is particularly true when we wish to relate science concepts to math, engineering, and technology concepts in a STEM curriculum. Deeply understanding the importance of science concepts and their relationship to other areas of human technical activities (as in STEM education) is far superior to turning our science students into so many walking science dictionaries that can spit out details but explain very little.

Using the science curriculum as the starting point of a comprehensive STEM program has many advantages. For example, science generates data at every grade level that can be manipulated and analyzed at relevant points in the mathematics curriculum. And according to Scholastic Magazine, “Not only is vocabulary enriched, but research shows that children involved in hands-on science do better in measures of reading readiness, science processes, perception, logic, language development, science content learning, and mathematics.”

LabLearner Four-Year STEM System

Build Slowly and Methodically: Start with Science!
A successful STEM curriculum needs to be implemented over a period of time. Asking teachers and students to embrace a new hands-on science curriculum while simultaneously tying it into the math curriculum and introducing technology and engineering projects is a recipe for failure.

A planned, multiyear “phase in” or “roll out” program is more appropriate. Based on much of the discussion and neurocognitive arguments addressed earlier, the implementation of a full-scale STEM curriculum must begin with science. In the graph below, we suggest a four-year approach to implement a comprehensive STEM curriculum. LabLearner offers consultation services and professional development programs to make this four-year STEM plan come to life.


Carol Grugan, LabLearner Teacher

There are so many good things to say about LabLearner Science.  However, the “ahs”, the “ohs” and the other squeals of delight that come from the students during our labs, let us know that these student scientists have grasped another important science concept.  Hands-on learning has proved exciting and productive!

Geralyn Arcieri, LabLearner Teacher

The LabLearner curriculum is awesome; however, when I first experienced the LabLearner training sessions, I wasn’t too sure if this is what we were looking for at St. Bernadette Catholic Academy. With much trepidation, in September we launched this new program in a fully equipped lab. That first week totally blew my mind! Students who never used microscopes were jumping in and using them like pros. Everything I taught them was being retained! This was due in part to all the hands-on experiences they were gaining! 5th Grade learned terms such as wet mount, dry mount, etc. When it came time to do the performance assessment, the students in grades 3-5 sailed through them. All you could overhear was that this was the best test they had ever taken! 3rd grade learned so much about electricity and some of their parents who are electricians were so impressed with what their little ones were learning. My 4th graders were acting like true future doctors in the Human Body cell and my 5th graders were so proud to find out where they came from in their Genetics cell!

Dan, LabLearner Grade 8 Student

I enjoy going to lab because every Monday morning when I remember that it’s pre-lab day, I get excited to learn how and what we are going to discover in the next day’s lab class.  

Sheena Byrnes, LabLearner Teacher

LabLearner is an incredible program for the students in my school. We used it for the first time last year and it had a huge impact on both the students and myself. I was able to teach Science in a way that I was never able to before because I finally had equipment that allowed the students to reach their full potential. Students came in asking to go to the lab every day and loved being there. They enjoyed everything from wearing the lab coats to using equipment and materials most students don’t see until high school or college.

We had our annual Science fair in May and students came up with ideas that were more advanced than they were in the past. They were asking to borrow things from the lab to complete their projects. We had a very successful year in Science and the LabLearner program was the main reason why. I am excited to use it again this year and I would highly recommend it to other schools.

Gary, LabLearner Kindergarten Student

I like pouring stuff into beakers. 

Michelle Nitsche, LabLearner Principal

The LabLearner curriculum has helped our students develop critical thinking skills. The weekly labs build upon previous concepts learned in each investigation and challenge students to work collaboratively to “think outside the box”. The LabLearner curriculum also does a great job with providing students with hands on, real world STEM experiences.

Mike Ward, LabLearner Teacher

I have gotten a lot of positive feedback from Nativity students who are/were in high school and have/had a better foundation for the specialized science classes there. I really believe in the value of the program. Students who have gone through LabLearner here tend to do very well in high school. They tell me so.

Brian Palmer, LabLearner Principal

I have noticed in students writing and presentations outside of science the use of science vocabulary. For example, one student was sharing her story about marshmallows in her hot chocolate. She used the word buoyant to describe her marshmallows. She more than likely would not have used that word in her writing had it not been for the LabLearner curriculum.

Isabelle, LabLearner Kindergarten Student

I like pouring and holding. I like coloring in our lab books. 

Kathleen Kenney, LabLearner Teacher

My students enjoy using the LabLearner program because every child can be involved in the construction of the demonstration, recording information, and analyzing the results. I am happy to see that they are more focused on the science tasks than they had been in past years. My students ask thoughtful questions in response to what happens during the investigations. I can see them mentally putting 2 and 2 together while they try to connect each investigation to the last one. The fact that LabLearner investigations spiral and constantly reinforce concepts with each lesson is great! It’s like a built in review! The material is sometimes complicated and presents concepts on a higher level than my students are used to, but the program also lets the children learn the information step-by-step. They’re not just reading about the scientific principles; they’re witnessing them firsthand.

Devin, LabLearner Grade 7 Student

My older sister is taking freshman biology, and we are learning about some of the same things in seventh grade. LabLearner makes me feel smart.

Kathy Buscemi, LabLearner Principal

Saint Bernard Catholic Academy loves it’s LabLearner STEM Lab. From our 3 year old in Jr. PreK to our 8th graders, the students look forward to their time in the lab. The teachers love the layout of the workbooks. Material is presented in a very easy to follow, logical manner. The students are well prepared intellectually for the discovery part of the lesson in the lab.

Caterina Cuoco, LabLearner Teacher

Every LabLearner investigation gives the students a better understanding of what is focused on during the hands-on lab as the vocabulary words for each lesson beforehand are a great key in preparation. Each unit allows a good understanding of the main topics covered, which relate to daily life. Evidence has shown the students have scored high in each assessment for every lab lesson, which is based on the visuals, lab results and understanding of each investigation.

Paige, LabLearner Grade 5 Student

I like the science lab because we get to work with partners and we get to use a lot of cool science stuff. 

Mary Basile, LabLearner Principal

St. Clare Catholic Academy introduced Lablearner to both the students and the parents in September 2017.  It was very exciting for the students to be able to utilize the state-of-the-art science lab.  Students enjoyed learning science by “doing.” 

Many expressed that this program changes the way science is taught and learned. Students learn so much from one another. Our students worked together gathering information, experimenting and solving problems. It was evident that conversations were taking place, students began listening and respecting each others ideas and the feeling of accomplishment were had by all. Our students look at science in a whole different way. We look forward to another year with this program.

Ann DiNovis, LabLearner Teacher

Two of our 7th graders placed high in a competition called “You be the Chemist.” Most other schools in the area had been preparing for this contest since September, but OMPH only found out about it in January. I credit LabLearner with how well our two 7th grades did in the contest because they are in the lab every week and doing a lot of chemistry.  One student came in third and is eligible to go to the state competition at Penn State. The other came in fourth and is the alternate for states

My middle school students are using lab equipment that was only available to me in high school or college. They are making wet mount slides using cross-sectioning and latitudinal sectioning. They can focus a microscope, and even magnify 1000 times using the oil immersion lens on our compound light microscopes. Because of the program, my students know how to measure. They can use graduated cylinders, rulers, triple beam balances, spring scales. They have a lot of practice graphing, and understand the difference between the dependent and independent variables, and where they belong on a graph.

Sasha, LabLearner Grade 8 Student

LabLearner makes me feel like a real scientist. Rather than having answers given to me by a teacher or textbook, my lab partners and I run through experimental procedures using real equipment to collect data. After analyzing the data, we discover the answers to questions. It’s the best way to learn! 

Linda Milewski, LabLearner Principal

Blessed Trinity introduced LabLearner to their students in grades Pre-K to eight over four years ago. This research-based program has definitely changed the overall student opinion of Science. Just a few short years ago; the majority of students did not enjoy Science class. With this hands-on approach our students are interested in Science and eager to learn.  Standardized test scores have shown a positive increase in student scores. I strongly believe that this increase is due to the LabLearner program.

Jacqueline Edelmann, LabLearner Teacher

This is our fourth year using the LabLearner program at The Academy of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Our grades have steadily improved both during the school year and on standardized tests

This indicates to me that LabLearner not only delivers content knowledge, but it also delivers the skills to comprehend and analyze any scientific information presented in standardized tests.  Students know how to read data tables, interpret graphs, and analyze experimental procedures and results.  It is challenging, and they rise to the challenge.

Sarah Paquette, LabLearner Teacher

We are nurturing the next generation of scientists.  Students need to know how their learning is relevant; why it matters. For each LabLearner CELL students work through, they develop a list of possible STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) careers that use the concepts they are learning about in lab.

Sr. Mary Sue Carwile, LabLearner Principal

One of the greatest strengths of the LabLearner program is its emphasis on meta-cognitive skills. Saint James students do not just absorb content, but rather think about the process and reflect on their learning at every step of the scientific method. This is in keeping with the LabLearner’s Information Processing Model and spiral curriculum that sets out to continually address critical scientific themes across elementary and middle school grades. The depth of material that each unit reaches and the emphasis placed on critical thinking, active instruction, and prior learning, in keeping with the educational philosophy of Saint James and the IHM sisters, make the science curriculum authentic and enriching for all students.

Erin Jakowenko, LabLearner Teacher

LabLearner has been a real game-changer for our students and we couldn’t be happier or more pleased that we brought the program to our school. From day one of the program, it caught our students’ attention. They were focused and driven. They worked together towards a common goal. They became the scientists leading the class and discussions, smoothly performing the labs and continuing with the performance assessments. 

I have not seen such a genuine interest in exploring our world as I have with LabLearner. The students are engaged and on task and have begun to think deeper about core concepts and utilize those higher-order thinking skills we so desperately seek as educators. I can honestly say it’s because of the structure of the program and the thorough explanation of concepts that has brought such a depth of knowledge to our students. I am so grateful that I teach in a school that uses the LabLearner program!

Jackie Smith, LabLearner Teacher

I use the LabLearner program in grades 7 and 8. The students love going into the lab once a week to explore the concepts learned.  When we de-briefed at the end of the year, the students shared that they prefer the hands-on aspects of LabLearner much better than the science program used in the lower grades. When alumni return to visit our elementary school, they always share that they feel prepared in high school for all the science classes due to the rigor of the LabLearner program and the regular use of varied lab equipment.  Also, the math connection is strong and practical. I watch my science students use algebra skills that they never thought they would use and become proficient in graphing the data.

Stephanie Collins, LabLearner Teacher

I would like to express my many thanks and overwhelming awe with this program. I have thoroughly enjoyed every aspect, from implementation to daily lessons. You definitely have a winner.

I have been teaching for over 27 years and I was surprised how much my students didn’t know. LabLearner has opened my eyes as well as my students’ eyes. I don’t know how I ever got along teaching without LabLearner.  I LOVE this program!!!

Sheila Korynta, LabLearner Teacher

I have to let you know that our substitute teachers really enjoy coming into the lab to work with their students!! Amazing, huh? The substitute teachers appreciate that I set up the lab materials for them and they can proceed without any concerns. They know that our kids are SO LUCKY to have the LabLearner program here at Midway Public Schools in North Dakota!!!

Sarah Rae, LabLearner Teacher

One of my favorite aspects of LabLearner is the availability of the staff for any questions I have about the curriculum–whether it’s about the content, materials, procedure, or otherwise. Every time I’ve called, I’ve received prompt and thorough replies. It’s so wonderful to be able to depend on that kind of customer service!