Readilearn: STEMtastic: making it easy – in every classroom, for every child and teacher

  • Published on November 10, 2017

STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) subjects are being rejuvenated in schools. Many of us remember them as uninteresting, unfathomable and seemingly unrelated to anything we needed to know in the real world of our daily lives. Fortunately for us, some “nerdy” types found them interesting enough to imagine, explore and create new possibilities that improve our lives in countless ways.

I’ve previously written about the importance of making space for STEM in early childhood classrooms. In this post I talk with early childhood educator Narinda Sandry who is spreading the word and showing even STEM-averse educators how they can “deliver STEM experiences to every student, every week, in class and easily in an overcrowded curriculum.”

Narinda is a teacher, curriculum writer and advisor. She spent many years teaching in early childhood classrooms, wrote educational materials for the Queensland Museum, and curriculum documents to support implementation of the Australian Curriculum. She now shares her combined love of learning, passion for early childhood education, and interest in STEM subjects, with teachers through her new STEMtastic project promoting “STEM education for every student, every week, easily.”

Hello, Narinda, and welcome to readilearn.

Absolute pleasure to talk with you and your readers Norah.

Narinda, tell us a little about why you feel STEM education is so important in early childhood and all classrooms.

The world we live in is changing, faster now than it ever has before. It is predicted that many of the jobs we know now will be either non-existent or at least disrupted in the near future. Think about the changes in the way we work now, even to just 20 years ago. On a weekly basis people are developing exciting technologies which save more lives, and creating new machines which do more amazing things.

But future generations are also facing the most globally ‘wicked’ problems they have ever had to deal with. Things like vastly longer life spans, high levels of world obesity, exploding populations, pollution on a mass scale and unprecedented amounts of waste products. Put this highly exciting, fast paced society together with the challenges of modern life and we are going to need an innovative and adaptable workforce to maintain our ‘lucky’ country.

Worldwide, it is recognised that sciences and technologies, in the broadest sense, improve living standards, make businesses more productive, drive economic growth, improve health outcomes and grow jobs in new fields. Governments and industry will increasingly look to scientific and technological knowledge and skills to meet our local needs.

STEM quote Narinda Sandry

We need to make the most of opportunities that present themselves and ensure that our children are the ones they employ. It is important to encourage our children to engage with science, technologies and maths, to be innovators, and to not lose their curiosity about the world. STEM provides us with a way of doing that.

Sadly, Australian students are turning away from science, technology and maths subjects. The National Scientific Statement, released last week, found “participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects in Australian high schools was declining, with enrolments in these subjects at the lowest level in 20 years”. It also reported that performance in these STEM subjects had slipped and if the decline continued, “Australia may be unable to supply the skills required for the future workforce” ( pg 11).

So how can STEM help?

We all know that so much of a child’s brain development occurs before they are 5, so STEM in the Early Years is about creating the richest experiences we can. Fortunately, children’s play, natural curiosity and wonderment are an easy launch pad for STEM experiences, but the interactions of adults are crucial. The educators must be tuned into the types of questions they ask and conversations they have.

STEM play

STEM provides new ways to think about the choices of materials offered, how experiences are set up to cause innovative use of materials, and how to pick up on those rich possibilities that come from children’s play and their questions. Like so many things, teachers (and parents) need the opportunities to learn and refine these skills and attitudes and we just need to keep this interest alive as they grow up.

In the primary school context, there are 2 key arguments for STEM and STEAM (includes the Arts). Firstly, is that these lessons explicitly teach learners how to combine the knowledge from the individual subject areas and apply it to real world contexts in innovative ways. It’s not about getting correct answers but about learning how to use knowledge and processes to design and evaluate possible solutions. This is what young people are going to need to be able to do in their highly dynamic future.

STEM correct answers

The second main reason for offering STEM experiences is that they are engaging and exciting and make brilliant springboards and contexts for other lessons being taught. Building a catapult to shoot a pom pom the farthest distance starts as a design challenge, brings in systems engineering, then leads to fair-testing in science and measurement in maths. So STEM puts some zing back into the often mechanical abstract curriculum which ‘silos’ subjects and appears unrelated to a young person’s life.

As a nation we really need to be getting as many students as possible excited about STEM so they keep positive attitudes about studying and working in these fields. This is where Australia’s workforce and economic growth will be the strongest and most exciting.

STEM quote

Narinda, although STEM education is being strongly promoted now, many teachers are still reluctant to get involved. Why do you think this is so?

The teaching of STEM excites many teachers, but it also gives rise to feelings of ‘where do I start?’, ‘there’s no money for the resources’, ‘how does it improve student performance?’ and ‘yet another thing for teachers to deliver!

Many schools offer some STEM experiences for some students, but not regularly for all students. Our mission is to make weekly STEM experiences valuable, easy and affordable for ALL students.

STEMtastic mission

You seem determined to convince teachers that STEM can be easily incorporated into their busy class programs with over-crowded curricula. How do you suggest they do this?

Time in a classroom is a very precious resource. Only 13% of a child’s total time each year is spent in class and this is without taking out time for illness, holidays in school term, fire drills, lock downs and the like. So the last thing teachers and students need is an additional demand taking just some kids out of the classroom.

Some schools have ‘maker spaces’ which are special rooms to take students to for STEM activities, but this then requires timetabling and more time lost as we walk to the room, plus they are expensive to set up and maintain. So STEMtastic keeps it simple and doable for all.

We offer reusable, individual student kits in a bag, and a booklet of challenges which align explicitly with the Australian curriculum for each year level and consequently what teachers are already teaching in their classrooms. Each challenge is designed to take only about 20 to 40 minutes, depending on the age and abilities of the students, and their familiarity with working this way.

Because of their brevity, the challenges can be used as an alternative to brain gym, silent reading, independent group activity, an exciting day starter or lesson introduction. They are designed to reignite student’s natural curiosity and sense of wonder whilst still working towards the common goal of improving student performance. Weekly STEM experiences can help to combat the stresses of data demands for teachers and students in which learning has become a dry mechanical wheel.

STEMtastic challenges quote

Our goal is to make STEM teaching easy to do with the whole class at the same time; EVERY week, for EVERY child, in an EASY way. We designed reusable individual student kits to help teachers bring STEM into their classroom

STEMtastic challenges

Tell us a bit about your kits, please, Narinda, and why you made them.

We were alarmed at the cost and perishability of materials currently commercially available for maker spaces and stem kits. Kits advertised as ‘class kits’ only really provide materials for a group of 8 students. This is why we developed the STEMtastic kits.

Our kits are ‘maker spaces in a bag’ and contain everything a student needs to create some amazing objects and systems. There are 35 different component types with a wide range of properties and purposes. No glue, scissors or sticky tape are required because students are taught to use a variety of other joining methods. The kit includes a tray too, that keeps the contents together.

The teacher notes suggest and explain many challenges linked directly to the Australian curriculum for Science, Technologies (design), Maths and where possible the Arts. Teachers choose the challenges that fit with their current teaching and student needs.

STEMtastic images

Could you explain how your STEM challenges work and perhaps share an idea of an activity, so we can get an idea of how easy it is.

Sure. The first 10 challenges are designed for first-time users of the reusable STEMtastic kits and support the staggered introduction of new components and techniques.

The remaining challenges are organised into year levels and a general sequence in terms of getting to know the materials and techniques, the difficulty of the challenges and the inquiry and thinking skills required. Once familiar with the kit and safe work practices however, the challenges can be conducted in any order.

Most challenges are designed to take between 20 and 40 minutes, though this varies with the complexity of the challenge and student skills. Not every part of the design and engineering process is possible in each session, so we have tried to focus on just one part per challenge; for example, the sequencing of steps, the drawing or a plan, the evaluation of its success.

What age group are the challenges most suitable for?

We have challenges for all primary year levels from Prep to Year Six.

Narinda, if you could share just one message with teachers about STEM education, what would it be?

Our main belief is that STEM is essential for EVERY child not just the selected or interested few and it should be happening EVERY week not just occasionally. STEM can be the vehicle to bring some integration back to a compartmentalised curriculum. But teachers are already pushed beyond their limits, so I wanted to make it easy for teachers to engage in STEM, in their classroom, without the need of a fancy ‘maker space’.

Narinda Sandry STEM essential

Narinda, I believe you worked with an award-winning science teacher to develop these materials.

That’s right. I worked with my sister Rebecca Johnson who is an award-winning science teacher and also an author of science based books. In 2015, she won the Prime Minister’s Prize for Teaching Science. Rebecca’s passion for inspiring children to take an interest in science is reflected in the wonderful collection of books she has written, many of which also have links to the Australian Curriculum.

thank you anybody

Thank you, Narinda Sandry, for talking with us about your new STEMtastic project. We support your desire to promote STEM education in schools. STEM makes school interesting for both teachers and children and educates our future generations of problem solvers and innovators. We wish you success with your project.

Thanks for having me.

You can contact Narinda via

Note: Narinda is a colleague and friend. I am promoting her work because I believe in its value. I receive no other reward than that of helping to inspire more teachers to include STEM into their class programs, as Narinda says, easily, weekly and affordably.

Rebecca Johnson - Rainforest Camp

I have previously interviewed her collaborator Rebecca Johnson. You can read those posts here: about her Insect Series and her award-winning book Rainforest Camp from the Juliet Nearly a Vet series. She has just released a wonderful STEM based series about Dinosaurs which also include a wide variety of scientific and math literacy types.

Don’t forget to check out the readilearn Mathematics and Science teaching resources.

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Trying to think of a way of saying “Thank you” to an early childhood educator? A readilearn subscription makes a special gift to let early childhood teachers know their work is appreciated. Contact me for details.

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    Thanks for sharing this interview — I’m also concerned about the shrinking of the curriculum to include literacy and math and often, little else. These kits sounds incredible and have got me thinking about ways to make the work of STEM more manageable for other teachers at our school.

    I’m pleased you enjoyed the interview with Narinda, Nicole, and that it has got you thinking about ways of managing STEM education in your school. It is great when we can learn from each other.

    Great post, Norah, and I will reblog it. It is surprising that STEM is declining in AU. I haven’t researched it here in the US, but history-social studies has been on the decline for years. With the advent of Common Core national standards adopted by most states, limited to English and math, testing has also been limited or integrated on a shallow level. Here what is tested is most often taught. We are also seeing a trend towards Project Based Learning here which integrates several subjects into a culmination project. Thanks for sharing!!!

    Thank you for reading, commenting and sharing, Marsha. I think the decline in STEM subjects is fairly widespread at the moment. The testing of the shallows, as if there was a fear of getting into deeper waters, also appears to be widespread. Sadly, it keeps our learners in the shallows too. I rather like the trend to Project Based Learning and inquiry learning. Though I read quite a lot about it, I think it’s not as common as more rigid programming, but the rate of its implementation is growing. Maybe the tide is turning. We can but hope.

    One of the problems with deeper learning is that teachers have to be competent in the subject area. For elementary and younger grades, teachers have so many topics they need to learn, it takes a lot of time to become expert in them. I remember my first science fair projects with the kids. I was panicked. They turned out pretty badly, too. We took some amazing classes called AIMS (something about integrating math & science) As a result, my fourth graders and I raised silkworms one year. I had no idea how big those eggs were going to become. We ended up having to move desks and clearing about half the room to make room for mulberry leaves and silkworms. It was a crazy ride! Have a great rest of the week, Norah. 🙂

    Hi again, Marsha, and thanks for adding further thoughts to the conversation. Fortunately, in the lower grades, we don’t have to be an “expert” in all the subjects, but we do have to have an interest in them and know how to encourage children’s learning. I’ve not had to organise for a science fair, I must admit, but I have had to learn about science and technology (like engineering) so that I could engage children in projects. I must admit that we did a lot of learning together. I watched a great TED talk about education the other day. The speaker talked about the importance of asking children “What do you think?”. He explained how asking a girl a series of these questions helped her solve the problem, and she thanked him for his help! There are times when it is great to be able to explore answers together. I do intend sharing the talk sometime soon, but here is a link to it for you, if you are interested.
    I hope you and your class enjoyed your work with silkworms. One of the highlights of my career was having caterpillars grow into butterflies in the classroom. I did it every year for ten years and experienced the magic of wonder every year again with a new group of children. I have just given my six-year-old granddaughter a live butterfly kit for her birthday. She and her big brother are fascinated, as are her parents. It’s not often we get to see all of a butterfly’s life stages in the “wild”.
    I hope you’ve had a great weekend, Marsha, and enjoy the week ahead.

    Watching butterflies go through their cycles is amazing, isn’t it? What miracles there are in the world of science. Keep writing those great educational posts. If you even want me to do a guest post for you, let me know. Education is my love. 🙂

    Yes, our world, our universe is amazing, with so much to marvel at. Thank you for your offer of a guest post. I’d be interested to know what you’re thinking. 🙂

    Well, we have many of the same interests. You are a teacher and a leader. That was my career. My blog can handle variety. We both are writers, thinkers. I’ve been doing a lot of research about journaling recently for my guest posts on Debby’s blog. That’s another topic in itself. Maybe what’s new in education in Australia. I could see that being a column. Actually I maintain a blog for social studies educators as well. Anything you could say about social studies?

    Thank you, Marsha. We do have similar interests, and I like that you described us both as writers and thinkers. Journaling is great for kids too. I used to have mine complete a “diary”, which was really communication with me, each day. They would tell me something about their life or interests and I’d respond. We would have a great conversation in writing. It provided an opportunity to tell me things they wouldn’t otherwise have. In my response I would model correct spelling of words they’d attempted (if possible) and also model correct grammar and punctuation (not correct as in mark their work).
    It was great to see them using my response as a reference for future writing. It was time consuming to write back to each child every day but it was very rewarding (I got to know them so much better), and very beneficial to their writing development: it gave them purposeful daily writing practice, and they were totally engaged in the process that was being modelled.
    I’ll think on some topics we could share. Thank you. 🙂

    Yes, I did that, too. I taught a bilingual fourth grade class. Some of the only wrote in Spanish. My older student helpers wrote back to them in Spanish, and I wrote to them in English. It was almost overwhelming at times, but so worth it.

    We can talk more about possible topics offline. I look forward to collaborating! 🙂

    What a wonderful writing activity for bilingual students, especially for the older ones writing back. I can just image how much they enjoyed it. What a great activity for buddy classes too. I have to admit that I never did that with my buddy class, but I wish now I had. It would have been wonderful for all the children.
    I look forward to discussing collaborative projects. Best wishes. 🙂

    Sounds wonderful, Marsha. I love teaching writing too. Children’s imaginations are amazing! 🙂

    Yes, if they are encouraged. Otherwise they have trouble writing more than “My dog has four legs.” That’s why I love interactive journaling with them. Great prompts help, too. For k- first graders I used to use incomplete old sayings and have them fill in the blanks. A stitch in time saves ——. The answers were hilarious. How to cook a Christmas turkey is another great prompt for kindergarten. We saved the illustrated stories in a book and gave them as presents to the parents.

    I love those ideas, Marsha. I wouldn’t have thought of asking k-first graders to fill in the blanks with old sayings. I’m sure they’d come up with some inventive endings. I think it’s great to give books written by the children to parents as gifts. They are priceless. I think we’ve got the topic for your guest post! 🙂 (And apologies for taking so long to get back to you. I’ve had a few distractions.)

    Me too. Sorry to take so long to respond to your comment. My site has been down – or at least aspects of it have been. I’m hoping it is fixed now. 🙂

    No worries about the timing, Marsha. My door is always open but holds no expectations, only delight when someone calls. I’m sorry your site has been down. Technology is frustrating when it doesn’t work. As if we need another complication in our lives. I hope it is fixed now too. 🙂

    Thanks Norah and Narinda- we have a similar ‘problem’ in South Africa where students are turning away from the maths and sciences. You state how this cannot be allowed to happen and your method of STEM sounds like a great way to engage students in a creative way to stem the tide of non-engagement. Thank you both. All success to you.

    Hi, Susan. I’m disappointed, but not surprised, to hear that the trend away from STEM is also evident in South Africa. “We” all seem to have jumped on the bandwagon of data collection. Sadly, as much as I love technology and its advancements and enhancements to our lives, data collection is one thing for which I am not grateful. Because we can, we do. Unfortunately, technology can only collect what is measurable by numbers, so those are things that are being promoted at the moment. Hopefully, it is a temporary glitch while the “powers” figure out ways of appreciating the real value of education. Sadly, it doesn’t help our children in school at the moment.

    Norah, I’m surprised to learn that STEM skills among students in Australia are declining. It makes me wonder how that translates to American statistics. The STEMkits would be great for students. And of course, I like STEAM. That’s the first I’ve seen the arts added to STEM.

    I think the trend is similar, unfortunately, Charli. I read reports from there and the UK also. The emphasis on data collection, particularly in literacy and numeracy, is detracting from learning in many areas, including real learning in literacy and numeracy. Interestingly, literacy and maths are best learned in real situations for real purposes. When they are integrated across curriculum areas the learning is more powerful. The other day I read an article about putting literacy in STEAM. Of course! It’s exactly where it belongs. Literacy belongs everywhere, but don’t exclude the STEM subjects, include literacy in them!

    I tried searching for an article I saw (but did not read) about the decline of doctors and scientists in the US. I couldn’t find it but I saw articles on this topic dating back to 2004. Seems we have not stemmed the ebbing STEM tide. I think of literacy in all of it, too.

    Hopefully the tide is about to turn with a new focus on STEM in schools. We are agreed on the importance of literacy in it all. If only the doctors had better handwriting! 🙂

    Great article! Starting kids at a very young age gets them excited in a way we never were taught. She makes learning sound fun. I love the hands-on approach and the idea of science kits. And kids today are so much more tech savvy than we are — for many it’s second nature. The key is keeping them interested as they study at an older age.

    I’m so pleased you enjoyed the post, Patricia. This is a great way to teach the children, building upon their natural curiosity and extending their interests through enjoyable and meaningful activities. I wish I’d been taught this way, too. Keeping children interested is definitely a challenge, and just what Narinda aspires to do with her Professional Development sessions and STEMtastic kits and suggestions. It’s a wonderful ambition. Thank you for you lovely comment.

    Thanks for your insightful comment, Patricia. Education today is such a ‘wicked’ problem…many competing views, stakeholders and obstacles. Even the number of wonderful choices of study paths and careers today is in itself a challenge to keeping kids in science and maths related subjects. We think today’s kids have such an exciting time at school with all the new technologies but often in Senior maths and science subjects it can be like the dry note taking and repetitive written tasks of the old days. And in primary schools the pressures of data and NAPLAN etc have greatly affected the enjoyment of teaching and learning too. I think a good STEM program can reinvigorate kids’ and teachers’ enthusiasm for learning maths and science in particular and still teach the important basics.

    What a great concept. Strange that entries in maths and sciences are declining considering we live in a technical world. I was wondering if no glue, tape or scissors are used, what hold things together as alternatives? 🙂

    It is strange, Debby. I agree. One would think maths and sciences would be of greater interest. I wonder if part of the reason is that often the way they are taught is more theoretical than hands-on. I think a more hands-on approach, as Narinda suggests, would encourage more students to stay engaged. I’ll have to get Narinda to answer your question about joining things together. I’m thinking of wires and strings and interlocking things. We’ll see! 🙂

    The kit uses twist ties, silicone tubing, toothpicks etc into foam joiners, rubber bands, pipe cleaners, axles, fold back clips etc so kid’s fine motor skills are really strengthened too. We also include a stick of blutac in each kit to get kids started until they master the more resilient methods. This means the kit can be reused the whole year.

    That’s fantastic Narinda! Such a clever concept. Thanks so much for getting back and replying to my question. 🙂

    Wow! What a lot of joining methods! Providing children with knowledge of so many ways of joining materials will provide them with alternatives when solving problems in the future. They might even understand how to assemble DIY furniture kits! 🙂

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