Thanks to more publicity of international tests such as PISA and TIMMS, most Americans are now keenly aware that the United States’ test scores lag behind many other countries, particularly in the key areas of Science and Math. If you want to see just where the United States stacked up against other countries this year in Science, Math, and Reading, this Pew Research article paints a clear picture. Suffice it to say, there’s significant room for improvement.

In response to the lagging scores in Science and Math, the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) movement was born. Parents and teachers began looking for programs and projects that would better develop these skills. And the search goes on. Google searches for the term, “STEM programs” have increased 400% over the last 5 years, and they don’t show signs of slowing down.

Publishers of all sizes have responded with kits, programs, and projects to increase STEM skills. Heartwarming photos of young children building rockets certainly look the part, but if you really want to develop STEM skills, you’ll need to look beyond the marketing photos.

How do you know a STEM program is actually developing STEM skills?

Many STEM programs consist of engaging activities that can be a lot of fun to do with your students. But if you want them to be fun AND provide meaningful development of STEM skills, you’ll want to make sure the STEM program you’re considering exhibits these characteristics.

All Materials and Instructions NOT Included.
Don’t get me wrong, teachers don’t have time (or budget) to shop for a ton of materials, and it’s a great convenience for a program to include all the materials needed and clear instructions for completing a project. But consider how the materials and instructions are offered. Are they setting the project up to be followed in a paint-by-numbers format? When programs lay out all the components of an experiment (sometimes even pre-cut or perforated to ensure “success”) and explain exactly how to put them together, the child is developing the skill of following instructions, but not actual STEM skills.

Rather, you want a program to provide materials and instructions that require children to think. Maybe an investigation requires the student to pick three items from around the room and use them in the investigation. Maybe it offers a material that is solely for exploration, and not explicitly part of the investigation. Materials and instructions should support your students, but they should leave room for independent thought.

Variety in Final Products.
A telltale sign that there may be no STEM in a “STEM” program is when there is a clear expectation of what the final product should look like. If the goal of the project is to create something that looks and acts just like everyone else with the project, chances are there is not sufficient development of creative and critical thinking skills that are integral to STEM.

Rather, you want a program that encourages creativity and individuality before, during, and/or after the project. Maybe children have a choice in which ingredients they use or a choice in how they represent their findings. Students should have clear understanding of what is required, but when there are multiple ways to complete a project “successfully,” students develop self-confidence and ingenuity.

Activities AND Learning.
It’s amazing to me how many science experiments you can find on the Internet. Many elementary students make a model of the lava flow from a volcano by combining vinegar and baking soda, for example, but how many of the students are encouraged to examine and explain WHY this model is both accurate and misleading? Or older students may do the egg drop construction challenge, but even if they design a solution that keeps their egg intact, do they UNDERSTAND the science and engineering principles that made their design successful. If your STEM program provides activities, but lack learning experiences that push students to dig into and apply science and engineering content, it may be fun, but it’s missing the opportunity to leverage that play for genuine, lasting learning.

Rather, look for programs that engage students with fun, messy activities, but also set the stage for students to engage in the content and practices of science and engineering. Once a child is fascinated by the challenge of modeling volcano characteristics and behaviors with materials available in class, for example, she is intrinsically motivated to learn, so a program that provides the language and learning experiences to convey the Science (or Technology, or Engineering, or Math) is what you want. (For example: After combining vinegar and baking soda to produce the “lava” for the model, students should dig deeper.  How does the student’s model volcano support an understanding of lava flow?  What aspects of the model’s lava flow are misleading? Exploring these questions provides opportunities for students to understand how models are used to approximate phenomena to better understand the world we live in.)

Real-world Application.
STEM projects can be exciting, but many are focused on the 10-15-minute experiment, and leave out the broader implications of the Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math. If, after the project, your student has no idea how what he did effects the world he lives in, he has engaged more in entertainment than STEM development.

Rather, expect a STEM program to take the learning beyond the investigation itself and share how the STEM concepts are used in life. (For example: Sometimes acids and bases are used together in cooking. The carbon-dioxide bubbles cause dough to rise!) These explanations don’t need to be exhaustive; you don’t want to overload students with too much information. But a program that provides some real-world connection, is a program that is truly preparing your student to think and act like a STEM professional.

Communication Encouraged.
It’s easy to think STEM is all about numbers and following a procedure, but it’s just as much about communication. Mathematicians, scientists, engineers, and technology coders—they all discuss their findings with others in their field and collaborate toward solutions. STEM projects that can be completed individually, without discussion and collaboration, may foster self-direction, but they aren’t allowing a child to develop the critical STEM skills of collaboration and communication.

Rather, you want a program that facilitates a conversation about the concepts being discovered. Maybe it gives talking points for students to address in collaborative groups. Or maybe it provides extensions for students to explore together. A program that engages students in active discourse sets them up for STEM success.

Above all, consider how closely a “STEM” project resembles the work of real STEM professionals. Scientists and Mathematicians work on problems that don’t yet have answers, so STEM programs that take students all the way from Question to Answer without the learning that comes from trial and error, data collection, and creative problem-solving are not actually STEM programs at all. Avoid programs that simply entertain in favor of programs that engage your students’ senses, curiosity, and desire to learn.