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14 STEAM Classroom Activities to Celebrate Black History Month

STEAM is based on the idea that all subjects connect as one. Students can’t learn engineering without embracing critical thinking, art, creativity, and reading. This same concept applies to other subjects: just because something is related to history doesn’t mean it’s not relevant to the arts, sciences, and technology.

February is a great time to celebrate the influence of African Americans in the STEAM fields in your classroom. These 14 activities can be applied to different grade levels and subjects depending on your needs. Together, they’re also a great idea board for integrating lessons about African American culture, milestones, and accomplishments into your year-round STEAM curriculum.  

Choose a Book or Theme for Your School to Concentrate On

Ephesus Elementary in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, centered Black History Month around one STEAM-based book. Chris Barton wrote the children’s book Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions, a story about the man who invented the Super Soaker accidentally when he was trying to create a cooling system for refrigerators. Ephesus Elementary chose this book to focus on because it focuses on an African American STEAM professional, and even came up with the slogan “STrEAM of Black History Month,” a play on Johnson’s water guns.  

Art teachers at the school asked students to design their own book covers, based on something they’d like to invent. Language teachers hosted a read in, focusing on books specifically with minority protagonists, and science students researched famous African American inventors and entered a poster competition to better share what they’d found.

By focusing the theme around one book, every instructor (regardless of the subject) could come up with STEAM ideas for Black History Month.    

Introduce Bioethics and the Story of Henrietta Lacks

Teachers of advanced students and older learners can use Black History Month to discuss bioethics and the role African Americans played (often without their consent) in advancing medical care. For example, Henrietta Lacks was a poor tobacco farmer whose cells were used to develop the polio vaccine, cloning, and in vitro fertilization, just to start. However, her cells (known as HeLa cells) were taken without her knowledge and have now been duplicated and sold by the billions. Meanwhile, her family members struggle to afford health insurance.  

A popular book that ties into this lesson is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. There is also a movie based on the book. Teachers can assign the book to students or simply discuss bioethics and patient consent for research. The topic lends itself to open discussion or debate and may lead to the exploration of other controversial scientific issues.  

Invite African American STEAM Professionals to Your Classroom

One of the best ways to motivate students to pursue STEAM careers is by showcasing role models in their community. Teachers of all grade levels can invite African American STEAM professionals to discuss their jobs, how they reached that point in their careers, and the steps students can take to succeed. These classroom visitors are living, breathing Black History Month role models.

The I Have a Dream Foundation in Los Angeles (IHADLA) invites Dream Speakers, people with similar backgrounds who are successful in the community, to share their stories with students. These speakers have been in the shoes of the students and understand what they’re struggling with. For example, IHADLA has had Judith Onyepunuka, a track star who studied science, attend their Saturday Sessions as a Dream Speaker. Connecting real people to students’ goals can help them see how their own dreams can become a reality.  

Host a Historic Science Fair

The WeAreTeachers staff has shared multiple activities for Black History Month, ranging from creating your own “Night at the Apollo,” to hosting a poetry slam. One option for science teachers is to have your own science fair featuring famous African American inventors. Students can present their ideas as the inventor to explain its use and effect on society.

Additionally, advanced STEAM classes might try to improve upon these inventions, or try to come up with alternative inventions if the original ones had never existed.  

Discuss Perceptions And Current Events Through Self-Portraits

No matter what subject you teach, Black History Month is a good time to discuss race issues and encourage your students to be curious, engaged citizens.

Robert Shetterly at Americans Who Tell The Truth asks his students to create self-portraits and write words or phrases on them related to their community and world issues that concern them.

“Each student then stands up and presents the portrait and sentiment to the class,” he says. “Inevitably serious and open conversations take place. Art makes education personal. When it’s personal, we learn.”

The current events students read about today will be taught in history classes tomorrow, which is why it’s so important to discuss them as they happen.

Learn About Light and the Inventor of the Motion Sensor

Science educators might not realize how much of their curriculum ties into African American inventors. For example, Clarence L. Elder invented the motion detector, which helps conserve energy by turning on lights when there’s movement. His technology is used in security systems around the world today.

Along with explaining Elder’s history, turn the lesson into a STEAM activity with “Beating the Motion Sensor,” by TeachEngineering. In this activity, students will use different materials and motion sensing lights to try and make it past a sensor without triggering it. Students will learn about light absorption and reflection, along with the differences between infrared lights and visible light. Educators can even make it into a competition to see who beats the sensor.

Calculate The Distance of the TransAtlantic Slave Trade

Millions of Africans were taken from their homes and sold into slavery in America after a perilous journey across the Atlantic. Educators can discuss this scar on America’s past and emphasize the conditions people experienced during their passage.

To introduce a math element, the concept of knot speed can be explained with students calculating the amount of time it would take to travel the distance across the Atlantic. Students can also map out the entire triangle trade route and calculate the distance.

The writers at Storyboard That curated a list of additional, Common Core-aligned activities surrounding the TransAtlantic slave trade. Many are visual and focus on the conditions the people endured, the geography of where they came from, and the timeline of the slave trade in America.

Review Eli Whitney and Intellectual Property 

Most of the lessons in this list can be modified for your grade level, and DocsTeach created a Cotton Gin discussion guide that can span discussion from late elementary school through high school.

Along with reviewing the purpose and function of the cotton gin (and maybe even creating your own model), discuss patents with students through the story of Eli Whitney. The cotton gin did the work of 1,000 men and grew so popular that many Southern planters took his idea and copied the design. Even though Whitney filed for a patent in 1793, a loophole meant people could copy his invention without paying him.

Students will learn about protecting ideas with patents and the concept of intellectual property. This lesson can also be moved to the modern era to review what counts as intellectual property in the Internet Age.   

Explore Poetic Voice with the Work of Langston Hughes

From a commemorative postage stamp to a former home turned New York City landmark, Langston Hughes is one of America’s most celebrated poets. EDSITEment has an activity for grades 6-8, which encourages students to explore the notion of voice through Hughes’ body of work.

Hughes cited the likes of Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman as influences, but he also struck a tone all his own, borrowing tricks and techniques from jazz and the blues in his thoughtful portrayals of black life from the 1920s through 1960s. Students develop their own voice in five journal entries, in which they respond to five questions:

  • What do you see?
  • Who are you?
  • Where do you come from?
  • What obstacles have you overcome in life?
  • What do you feel strongly about?

With each journal entry, students also read and discuss one poem by Hughes. Then, students write an original poem in their own voice or draft an essay on one aspect of Hughes’ poetic voice.

Highlight Key African American Aviators in History

Lessons on aviation tend to focus on white inventors and pilots, but there were many African Americans who contributed to modern-day flight. The Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum has a Black Wings guide with lessons related to Bessie Coleman, the Tuskegee Airmen, and modern astronauts.

STEAM teachers can easily tie this into lesson plans and activities around flight. Students can build aircraft and compete to fly successfully or learn about the physics of flight and air travel.  

Launch a Black History Scavenger Hunt

Teachers are increasingly turning to the Internet to teach students about historical figures who might not be covered in their textbooks. One way to make this fun and engaging is with a scavenger hunt.

Gary Hopkins at Education World shares an Internet Scavenger hunt broken into four grade levels ranging from 4th to 9th grades. Students use the web to answer questions and learn about famous African Americans, from Rosa Parks to Chuck Berry.

Teachers of younger students can use the scavenger hunt to teach their kids about the Internet while older students can learn about good research practices and identifying reliable sources.

Teach Math and Music Improvisation Through Jazz

Educators across the STEAM spectrum will enjoy TeacherVisions guide for combining math with music to teach improv in jazz. Students tap into the history of jazz to improvise music and create rhythmic patterns.

The lesson begins with a history of jazz music and its roots in blues and ragtime. Teachers can play music from some of the founders of jazz and discuss their history and struggles to break into a predominantly white music industry.

Students are asked to create music that completes a 12-bar song with different note types. Music teachers can introduce different notes or add rests to the music. Depending on the grade level, this lesson can be used to cover simple addition of the notes in the bars, or be used to identify patterns and solve algebraic problems by combining repeat notes.

Showcase and Play African Games

African slaves brought their traditions over to America, including popular games. They also developed new games after slavery was abolished, when many African Americans were too poor to afford toys for their families.

One popular game that teachers can use is Mancala. Stephanie Rodda at Birmingham Parent Magazine says playing Mancala is one of her favorite Black History Month activities. The board can be made with an egg carton and some beans, while promoting both strategic thinking and counting in younger students.

Consider asking students to create games or play traditional African games that are still popular today. This is a great way to have a relaxing classroom day around the middle of the month, when many students are otherwise distracted by Valentine’s Day.  

Create Adinkra Design Prints For Geometry and Art Class

World history teachers delve into the origin and meaning of Adinkra symbols during Black History Month and in general discussions about Africa. It’s a unique way to bring math and art into the history classroom for a comprehensive learning experience. Students will learn how some African cultures use meaningful geometric symbols and colors to communicate. When used in patterns, these symbols and colors convey important messages about the families that wore them.

In this activity, created by the Lesson Plan Page, students create their own Adinkra designs. This can be done as a group activity or individually with markers and paper. Teachers will discuss different geometric shapes and how they fit together, and how different shapes can take on various meanings and symbols. Then students will be able to create their own patterns and explain the symbolism behind them. Older students can explore how the African way of life was affected by European colonialists in the 1800s, and how the use of Adinkra prints played a part.

Educators, have Black History Month lessons and activities of your own to share? Let us know in the comments below!