The STEM agenda: Activities

Activities and reference material for considering and responding to the issues and challenges teachers face in the teaching and learning of STEM in schools.

Team-based engagement activities

Activity 1

M in STEM review

Many schools are already well down the track of considering how they will respond to the STEM challenge. Where a STEM program has been implemented, consider initiating a regular review (whole school staff in primary settings, STEM teaching staff in secondary settings) to determine the extent to which the program meets its intended objectives.

For example:

  • What evidence is there that the program generates transferable capabilities such as collaboration, communication, problem-solving and critical thinking?
  • Given that mathematics is often the least served by integrated STEM activities, what evidence is there that the program has had a positive impact on mathematics such as improved mathematics learning outcomes or increased engagement in and attitudes towards mathematics?

Activity 2

Critically examine an integrated STEM activity

As we have seen above, while integrated approaches can provide opportunities to apply and extend the mathematics that is already known, if the mathematics considered is only prompted on a ‘need to know’ basis, there is a real risk that mathematics will be ‘tacked on’ and/or reduced to a set of narrow, disconnected skills and procedures. To this end, it is worth dissecting and reflecting on integrated stem activities.

Primary teachers

Work in teaching teams to unpack and critically reflect on an integrated STEM activity that you have used in the past. Or you might consider using the resource below (made appropriate for your year level).

Next, examine the extent to which the activity offers opportunities to explicitly develop and/or exercise STEM recognised skills such as collaboration, problem-solving, creative and critical thinking, and communication. Document your findings to use as a guide when choosing other integrated STEM resources.

Secondary teachers

Either choose an existing integrated STEM activity or use the one below to explore the extent to which the activity provides an opportunity to develop a deep understanding of important mathematics and to exercise STEM recognised skills. Document your findings to use as a guide when choosing other integrated STEM resources.

Design and construct a school kitchen garden – a Year 7 STEM inquiry

In addition to providing opportunities to develop and/or exercise recognised STEM skills such as collaboration, problem-solving, creative and critical thinking, and communication, this project has the potential to explore a number of interdisciplinary connections, including

  • Science:
    • Biological sciences – plant types, beneficial animals or insects
    • Chemical sciences – soil pH, nutrients, fertilizer (ethics)
    • Physical sciences – light, energy, location, wind velocity or speed levels
    • Nature and development of science – cultural, historical agricultural practices
    • Science as a human endeavour – advances (and disasters) in agricultural science, sustainability (composting, water consumption)
    • Science inquiry skills – questioning and predicting, planning and conducting, recording and processing, analysing and evaluating, communicating.
  • Engineering and technology:
    • Optimal design given space, location, cost
    • Scale models, pilot experiments/trials
    • Choice of fit-for-purpose materials, considerations (e.g. cost, environmental impact)
    • Use of digital tools (e.g. computer drawing programs, calculators, spreadsheets)
  • Mathematics:
    • Solve problems involving all four operations and whole numbers (Year 6)
    • Add, subtract (Year 6), multiply and divide decimal fractions
    • Recognise and solve problems involving simple ratios
    • Investigate and calculate ‘best buys’
    • Establish the formulas of areas of rectangles, triangles and parallelograms
    • Calculate the volume of rectangular prisms
    • Draw different views of solids and prisms formed from a combination of prisms
    • Investigate conditions for two lines to be parallel
    • Construct and compare a range of data displays.

The potential kitchen garden problems:

  • The garden bed we designed is 1.2 metres wide, 2 metres long and 45 centimetres high
  • We found out that the soil comes in 25-litre bags that cost $12 each
  • So, what do we need to do to work out how much the soil will cost?

Activity 3

What will it take? Where might we start?

While improving mathematics is a long-term goal, understanding what makes a difference is an important place to start. Some suggested options:

  1. Read the Smith, Ladewig And Prinsley (2018) article on improving the mathematics performance of Australia’s students (Canberra: Office of the Chief Scientist).
    • Discuss in terms of how well the school measures up against the key characteristics of schools successful in mathematics, keeping in mind that these included schools from low SES areas and non-English speaking backgrounds.
    • Consider what the school could do as a starting point to improve school mathematics.
  2. While you may disagree with the metric used to determine successful schools, there is an independent evidence base for many of the characteristics of these schools, particularly the value of mastery over performance-oriented classrooms.
  3. Successful schools use data to inform their teaching.
    • Access the SNMY or Assessment for Common Misunderstanding (AfCM) material can be used to identify and respond to where students are at in relation to the big ideas of Numbers.
    • Administer one of the SNMY Assessment Options as per the instructions and/or trial a number of the individual performance-based tools from the AfCM.
    • Mark and moderate student responses as a team and use the relevant teaching advice to plan a targeted teaching response.

Activity 4

Establish a school or locally based STEM professional learning community

Involve interested teachers, school leadership, and community representative(s). Invite participants to download and read Challenges in STEM Learning in Australian Schools (Timms, Moyle, Weldon, & Mitchell (2018), then call a STEM Summit to discuss possibilities for community partnerships.

For secondary schools:

Inviting STEM leaders and teachers to download, read and then meet to discuss Studying STEM subjects will ruin my ATAR by Bryon Connolly of the Chief Information Officers (CIO) Australia.

Consider conducting a survey of Level 8 to 10 students on their views about studying a STEM subject in VCE, VET or VCAL and their reasons for and against.

Activity 5

Curriculum planning exercise

This approach to mathematics curriculum planning is designed to ensure that priority is given to important mathematics and the proficiencies by generating time and space in the ‘crowded curriculum’ for integrated activities that are explicitly based on mathematics.

The proficiencies are variously foregrounded and backgrounded to ensure that these are given the attention they deserve both explicitly and implicitly. For instance, when considering content listed in the shaded cells conceptual understanding and procedural fluency are foregrounded and problem-solving and reasoning are backgrounded. This situation is reversed when considering the content descriptors listed in the integrated unshaded cells (e.g. see (4) below).

The following activity is best undertaken in teaching teams using multiple copies of the curriculum planning matrix as it generates a significant amount of discussion about the meaning of the content descriptors and the relationships between them.

Step 1:

Use a word version of the Victorian Curriculum to cut and paste the content descriptions (text not codes) for each strand from a particular year level into the shaded cells to create a Curriculum Planning Matrix (a planning proforma is provided for this purpose – if using paper copies it is best to prepare this in A4 then enlarge to A3 on a photocopier before copying).

Step 2:

Work as a team to decide and highlight which aspects of Number and Algebra will be considered in Term 1. The reason for this is that this is the area most responsible for the range in student mathematics achievement.

Choosing a few of the most important descriptors (e.g. those that relate to the big ideas of place value or multiplicative thinking) provides an opportunity to find out where students are in their learning journey at the beginning of the year.

The number of content descriptors selected will vary by year level, but it should be somewhere between a third and a half of the number of content descriptors.

Step 3:

Decide and highlight which aspects of Geometry and Measurement and Statistics and Probability will be considered in Term 1. Where possible, prioritise those that have a connection to the content descriptors chosen for Number and Algebra (e.g. metric measurement system is connected to place value, the probability is connected to fractions).

Again, the number will vary by year level, but generally no more than a third to one half of the number of content descriptors.

Step 4:

Having highlighted all the descriptors in the shaded cells the next task is to populate the unshaded cells by copying and pasting descriptors that ‘go together mathematically’ (e.g. a Number and Algebra descriptor referring to locating fractions on a number line might be copied and pasted into the Number and Algebra x Statistics and Probability cell (bottom left) with a descriptor from the Statistics and Probability cell that refers to the ordering of chance events.

It is important at this stage NOT to think about contexts or possible tasks but how the mathematics is connected. Figure 5 shows what this might look like for the Number & Algebra x Geometry & Measurement cell.

Step 5:

When the unshaded fills have been populated, work in smaller groups to read and re-read the content descriptions in one of the unshaded cells until a context or problem becomes apparent – it is important NOT to let a particular context or problem determine the mathematics as this would end up with the mathematics being ‘tacked on’. Once a context or problem is decided, rewrite the content descriptors in terms that students will understand (e.g. by the end of this unit I/We will be able to…) – these become the learning goals or objectives.

The next step is to plan an integrated activity or unit of work that draws on other disciplines, provides an opportunity for students to learn explicitly about problem-solving and reasoning, and includes an indication of how the unit will be assessed.

Step 6:

Debrief and review before repeating this process over the course of the year to create a matrix for each term. Revisit the important mathematics (e.g. place value, fractions, etc) each term so that by the end of the year, students have had multiple opportunities to develop a deep understanding of important mathematical ideas and to apply that knowledge in a broad range of contexts.

graphical representation of a curriculum planning matrix, full image description in Figure 4: Long description
Figure 4. A curriculum planning
Figure 4: Long description

Is a curriculum planning matrix that helps teachers to visually map Content Descriptors for each strand of the Victorian Curriculum. 

The matrix consists of the three columns of Number and Algebra, Geometry and Measurement, and Statistics and Probability strands that intersect with three rows, containing Number and Algebra, Geometry and Measurement, and Statistics and Probability strand.  

The diagram forms an L shape, of six cells that have removed the double up of intersecting cells. The top cell is shaded, to indicate a space to write the Content Descriptors for each of the Strands.  

The process of planning is described in the body of the text.  

graphical representation of what a curriculum planning matrix might look like at this stage, full image description in Figure 5: Long description
Figure 5. An example of what a Curriculum Planning Matrix might look like at this stage 
Figure 5: Long description

Figure 5, follows with an example that populates Figure 4 with the Content Description for each of the strands.  

The top cell for each column is populated with the Content descriptors for each of the relevant strands. In this example, the middle cells are populated with the common descriptors that go together mathematically across Number and Algebra, and Geometry and Measurement stand.  

It includes, in this instance, ‘Solve problems involving the use of percentages, including percentage increases and decreases and percentage error, with and without digital technologies.  

Individual engagement activities

Teacher knowledge and confidence have been identified as the most important factor impacting the quality of mathematics teaching (Ball, Hill, & Bass, 2005; Sullivan, 2011) and the success of integrated STEM activities (Rosicka, 2016; Tytler et al, 2008).

The following activities are aimed at supporting key aspects of teacher knowledge, and while they can be done individually, it is best if the experience is shared with colleagues.

Activity 1

Teachers need to know their students and how they learn

One of the most powerful ways of doing this is to explore students’ thinking in relation to an important aspect of mathematics.

  1. Read the article, Targeting the Big Ideas in Mathematics
  2. Investigate the Assessment for Common Misunderstanding (AfCM) materials and the Scaffolding Numeracy in the Middle Years (SNMY) resources.
    • The AfCM materials address key ideas that need to be in place at key levels of schooling (Foundation to Level 10). They comprise short individual interviews that assess an aspect of a big idea in Number known to make a difference to student learning.
    • The SNMY materials offer class-based assessment options suitable for Levels 4 to 9 that profile where students are in relation to multiplicative thinking.
    • Both resources offer teaching advice that can be used to target students’ learning needs.
  3. Either choose and administer one or two of the AfCM tools with a small number of students OR use one of the SNMY options to identify where students are in relation to these important ideas. Following this, use the AfCM teaching advice or the Learning Assessment Framework to plan and implement a targeted teaching response aimed at a small group of students.

Activity 2

Teachers need to know the content and how to teach it

Many primary teachers and those teaching out-of-field in secondary schools have not necessarily had the opportunity to develop a deep, interconnected knowledge of mathematics they need for teaching.

  1. Download and read Helen Timperley’s article on Using assessment data for improving teaching practice
    • reflects what you need to know to help your students learn mathematics
    • Discuss with a colleague and then choose one or more of the following activities to extend your knowledge of the mathematics needed for teaching and/or expand your repertoire of pedagogical strategies.
  2. Understanding the mathematics for teaching:
    • there are a number of texts and online resources that teachers can use to deepen their knowledge of the mathematics needed for teaching
    • one that deals with big ideas and traces the development of those ideas from Foundation to Year 9 is Teaching Mathematics: Foundations to Middle Years (Siemon, Beswick, Brady, Clark, Faragher, & Warren, 2015)
    • Another option is to explore the videos and tasks on youcubed which also includes some valuable information on pedagogical strategies and the importance of growth mindsets.
  3. Reflecting on pedagogy:
    • Choose an activity from reSolve, maths300, or nrich or an open-ended question or challenging task (e.g. Lilburn & Sullivan, 2017; Sullivan, 2017) to trial in your classroom.
    • Prior to teaching the task, familiarise yourself with what is involved and read Section 5 of Teaching Mathematics: Using research-informed strategies (Sullivan, 2011). Then consider the activity in terms of the six key principles for effective teaching of mathematics.
      • What do you want to achieve as a result of using this activity?
      • How will you communicate these goals to the students?
      • What connections will you make to students’ own experience or prior learning to establish a rationale for learning?
      • How will you differentiate support to ensure all students participate in the activity and learn from the experience?
      • What sort of questions or prompts might you offer to encourage deeper learning?
      • What opportunities are there for developing fluency?

Consider making a video of the lesson and/or inviting a colleague in to participate and observe. Once you have trialled the activity, reflect on your experience in terms of the six key principles or in term of the relevant impact strategies (HITS).

Share your experience with colleagues to seek feedback and advice and where appropriate talk to students about their experience.


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