Schools and educators are pressured to hit certain learning targets and reach specific test scores. It’s easy to get so focused on these goals that you tune out lessons in other subjects and topics that don’t concern you. However, more teachers are realizing the benefits of cross-curricular education and how collaborative learning can help students across multiple subjects.
A few educators are even changing the STEAM acronym to make sure every subject is incorporated. For example, the creators behind the blog Getting Nerdy with Mel and Gerdy shared their play on the STEAM acronym:
- Social Studies (history, current events, geography)
- Technology (computers, programming, and engineering)
- ELA (reading, comprehension, and writing)
- Arts (music, art, drama, and debate)
- Math (computation, analyzing problems, creating graphs/tables)
This acronym encompasses the entire learning spectrum, so some teachers (like those in social studies or language departments) don’t feel pressured into adding math or programming into their lessons. The fit feels more natural.
Check out these 10 great examples of collaborative learning with STEAM and how it benefits students in the long run.
1. Sharing Murder Mystery Plots with Ozobot
Some people think writing and coding require two different skill sets, but Gina Ligouri, 10th grade English literature teacher at Montour High School in Pittsburgh, proves them wrong.
She challenged her students to create Murder Mystery stories with clearly developed plotlines, characters, motives, and results. Once students had crafted their stories, they made visual storyboards, and used Ozobots to move around the board and share their tales with students.
This project earned Ms. Ligouri our Creator of the Month spot for March. She shows how coding is really storytelling, while teaching her students how to tell stories with detailed plots that keep readers engaged.
2. Collaborating to Create a Weather Balloon
Cross-curricular education starts with teachers. If teachers don’t have space to collaborate and come up with plans and connections together, how can they expect students to form these connections on their own?
“Often teachers have little understanding of what students are working on in other courses,” educator Jordan Catapano writes at TeachHUB. “[They] take little time to speak with colleagues from other disciplines.”
This has led some schools to focus on collaboration and make it a priority. Hood River Middle School in Oregon, for example, actively encourages collaboration and sets up weekly meetings to review collaboration opportunities.
One sixth-grade science, math, and language arts teacher, Adam Smith, shared his recent collaborative project: a high-altitude weather balloon. His strategy was to find one collaborative partner to start with, so he turned to the school’s sixth-grade engineering teacher. The two worked together, building on each others ideas and excitement.
3. Developing a Collective End-of-Year Project
When done well, cross-curricular efforts can really pay off and the experience can stick with students for years.
Free Technology for Teachers founder Richard Byrne said this happened with one project he developed 13 years ago in which students had to make recommendations on whether to increase or decrease spending on Mars exploration.
The project was done at the end of the year, with students using math, science, and writing principles they learned over the past several months. Students needed to come up with their own arguments, and present them clearly.
To this day, Byrne has some of his former students (now in their late 20s) tell him they remember the project. It helped many see that “even though they weren’t ‘math people’ or weren’t ‘science people,’ they could use math and science concepts in a way that wasn’t just ‘solving a problem.’”
4. Encouraging Creativity through Music and Art
On a smaller level, teachers can combine different learning elements within the same classroom. Music educator Amy Willis Burns says her Pre-K workshop encourages children to explore STEAM subjects through music. Students create, explore, and move while listening to live music. Some built structures with blocks, others painted and drew, then danced with scarves.
At times, Willis Burns would go over to a student and play what she felt based on the work they created. This showed how music can bring art to life, and how multiple learning elements work together as one. More importantly, the students were given free reign to be totally creative, as without the music, the educator would have been guiding students through the lesson and what she wanted them to do.
Joachim Horn, founder and CEO of edtech company SAM Labs, agrees that music both spurs creativity and connects students to STEAM. In his article Education Technology, he explains how music can become a platform for programming through music composition.
“They can create certain notes, edit the pitch and the sequence, essentially coding and writing their own songs,” Horn writes. “By doing so, children express themselves by crafting or following musical patterns, whilst also developing their coding skills.”
Even if students don’t realize what they’re doing, they are building out coding and composition skills they can use at an older age.
5. Improving Technical Writing Skills Related to Other Projects
Former high school literary specialist Amy Brown says one of her favorite STEAM lessons was letting students create a project and then asking them to write out instructions on how that project could be recreated.
“As a student — and even as an adult — it’s difficult to be very specific and detailed in an explanation of how to do something,” she writes. “When a student is able to recreate the initial project through an explanation from other students, success is achieved.”
This introduces them to the concept of technical writing, and teaches students to instruct others and think through the work that they do.
Cross-curricular education focuses on skills and long-term learning. While individual facts and topics are important, students will use the skills they develop throughout their whole life.
“The student of History who is taught research skills may well already have learned such skills in English, or Science, or Music,” David Roy, Ph.D. at Teacher Magazine writes. “However, for the student to make the connections between those subjects and shared skills, it must be made explicit.”
Research is just one example. This learning model can be applied to a variety of concepts, such as critical thinking, writing, and creativity.
6. Focusing on Language in Science and Math Lessons
You can’t embrace STEAM without collaboration.
“STEAM is not a curriculum, but rather an approach to teaching and learning rooted in authentic cross-curricular integration,” music educator and arts integration consultant Brianne Gidcumb writes at Education Closet. “STEAM should not be a collection of projects, but rather a mindset for learning based in process.”
She discourages teachers from following a “Stop and STEAM” mentality, but rather integrating the processes and contents of all subjects being taught throughout the learning experience.
Primary school teacher Chantelle Rich told The New Zealand Curriculum that she used this approach with vocabulary lessons. Students who come from disadvantaged areas can have poorer vocabularies, so she wanted to incorporate vocabulary learning across different subjects. She set up word walls in different classrooms and changed them along with the lessons. Students were also asked to work in groups where they could practice their new vocabularies together.
By the end of the year, students had a better understanding of the concepts, because reading and language elements were part of the science process. Vocabulary wasn’t siloed from other subjects, and STEAM learning wasn’t put in a box.
7. Turning PE Into a Learning Experience
STEAM concepts can be reinforced in pretty much any subject. Physical educator Chad Triolet says incorporating various subjects into his PE lessons can be as simple as basing team names on the different chemistry elements that students are learning about in science class, or assigning each team a different European country. This reinforces the learning aspects in a fun way.
That being said, this required collaboration. If Triolet in the PE department doesn’t know what students are learning in other classes, he can’t incorporate those lessons into his classroom. When the collaboration framework exists, students benefit by seeing the topic from a different angle.
“Students [learn] a variety of different approaches to the same topic,” English teacher Bailey Cavender writes at The Educator’s Room. “Some students do not connect to poetry but can connect with music or art.”
She uses the example of the Harlem Renaissance. When learning about this period, some students will be interested in the people and facts featured in history class, while others will want to read the poetry from that period or listen to the music. At the end of the year, all students will reach the end goal of having a better understanding of the cultural movement in its entirety.
8. Combining Ozobot with Oregon Trail
Even tech-based learning is getting a modern makeover with STEAM. Past generations might not have learned coding through Ozobot, but they likely braved the wilderness in the simulation game Oregon Trail. Teams in social studies solved problems as they virtually traveled across the country, caring for their oxen and hoping they didn’t catch a variety of diseases.
Some teachers are moving Oregon Trail to the modern era, by connecting the game to programming lessons. Elementary school technology teacher Cindy Gonzalez was one of our Creators of the Month in April. She and another teacher there developed The Ozzie Oregon Trail Project where students research historical events and locations and develop a map for the Ozobot wagons to follow as they encounter pioneer challenges. This makes historical topics more engaging while adding coding to the curriculum.
9. Connecting with STEAM Researchers
Cross-curricular learning connects students with other classes and subjects, but it can also link them with professionals in STEAM fields. These provide fantastic opportunities for deeper learning.
Lucy Madden, CEO of Letters to a Pre-Scientist, developed a pen pal program to encourage writing in traditionally STEAM subjects. Students write about what they’re learning or other non-fiction topics, but they also write letters with stories and creative elements. These letters are written during class time and then sent to pen pal scientists around the world.
The letters aren’t graded, and students receive feedback in the form of response letters. This makes writing a low-stakes, fun activity that still sharpens students’ writing skills. To date, there are pen pals in 46 states and 18 countries.
10. Designing Projects That Kids Care About
Teachers certainly care about making sure students learn what is expected of them, but they also want to tap into a love of learning and address student interests. Melissa Zeitz, Ozobot’s July Creator of the Month combined coding with art, science, and history by encouraging her fourth grade students to create representations of popular national parks.
Students learned about geography and history while expressing their artistic talent. They tied it all together with programming as part of the presentation process.
Teachers do so much to help their students learn. They don’t have to be experts on every single subject, but can collaborate with those who are to create exciting educational experiences that also drive results.
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