Math, The STEAM Way

By Wendy Dubas, Lower School Math Teacher

The STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) way of teaching math develops critical thinking skills. In a traditional math lesson, teachers provide students with all the information they need to know and tell them what to do with it.  In a STEAM lesson, teachers pull back a little with information and allow students to question.  Students consider the problem to solve and decide what information they need.  If they need more, children develop relevant questions and make connections.  Students are more motivated to learn because they have asked the questions rather than the teacher telling them what they will learn that day.

With a STEAM approach to a math problem, students are applying math skills such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division to a real-world situation instead of reiterating skills.  When students apply a concept they know in different ways, it stimulates another part of the brain.  This helps children think outside the box.  Students are developing connections that will help with better retention of skills.

In the STEAM problem, students can engage in the following process when given a real-world math problem:

A.  Investigate:  Students should look at the information and materials and ask, “Is the information sufficient?  What do I need to know that hasn’t been provided?”  When students ask questions, and they see the real life application, they will be more engaged in learning.

B.  Brainstorming.  Student groups look for as many ways and ideas as possible to solve the problem.

C.  Plan.  Which strategy will the student group try?

D.  Find solution.   Younger children may use manipulatives to find the solution.  Students will apply learned concepts in different ways to solve.

E.  Test and Present.  Students should look at the problem in another way and come to the same answer.  Students should then present their thinking and how they approached the problem.  According to the Common Core Standards, students should explain their answers and elaborate on what they did, how they did it, and why it works.  By presenting their solutions to the class, students gain practice in explaining their answers, strengthen metacognition, and could reach other students to help them better understand the thought process.

An example of how I transformed a traditional math problem to a STEAM math lesson is shown below:

Traditional word problem:

A car made of Legos traveled down a ramp.  In 3 seconds, it moved 30 inches.  If it moved the same distance each second, how far did the car move in 1 second?

Real World problem introduced the STEM way:

Part A:   Build a Lego car to travel down a ramp.  The car must cost exactly $1.00 to build.  Please share your thinking with the class.

Criteria:for building the Lego car:

___Must be exactly 20 pieces

___Must have one red rectangle

___No more than 2 of one thing

___No more than 8 pieces can be blue

___Must cost exactly $1.00

Price List:

Yellow rectangle Lego  15¢

Blue rectangle Lego  10¢

Red rectangle Lego  20¢

Red square Lego  5¢

Blue square Lego  5¢

Yellow square Lego  15¢

Front wheels  10¢

Back wheels  5¢

Part B:  Roll the Lego car down the ramp.  How far did your Lego car travel in 3 seconds?  If the car moved the same distance each second, how far did the car travel in 1 second? 

In Part A, students are engaged while they relate math to a real world problem.  The open-ended problem has more than one correct answer.  It involves cause and effect since one decision effects the next.  For example, a decision to buy one Lego will effect what other Legos are used.  The problem involves manipulatives which helps the kinesthetic learner.  Students were involved in critical thinking, creative thinking, determining how to start the problem, evaluating, and explaining their answer.

In Part B, students practiced the skill of division using their own data.

I plan to use more of the STEAM approach in teaching math where students engage in problem solving and higher-level thinking when a solution is not immediately obvious.  Students must draw on their understanding of concepts and develop new ways of thinking as they work toward a solution.

About Westtown School

Westtown School is a Pre-K through 12th grade Quaker, coed, college preparatory day and boarding school in West Chester, PA.
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2 Responses to Math, The STEAM Way

  1. marion dear says:

    Very cool, Wendy! I wish I were in your math class.

  2. Tom Gilbert says:

    Older students might be given this challenge too, except without giving prices. Older students can figure out the pricing – even if they have to derive the prices from bags at wholesale. Prices probably would come out in fractions of a penny. There could be a fun discussion around what the optimal design would be, with total cost, weight, and coolness as the dimensions. I wonder what questions the students would ask when presented with this challenge? Can I register for your class?

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