The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) supports the fact that inquiry should be the basis of curriculum in the elementary grades. Moreover, reports published by NSTA stresses that exposure to science can help students develop “problem solving skills that empower them to participate in an increasingly scientific and technological world” (NSTA, 2015, para.1). Nonetheless, interrelating knowledge can be difficult if students do not have a contextual understanding of science and math concepts in early elementary grades. One method to help students with the contextual knowledge needed in math and science is use STEM toolboxes. These “toolboxes” contain pictures of basic scientific and math tools, what units are used, and how each tool utilizes math. If students learn about basic scientific tools, teachers can scaffold the tools in higher grades. This can help students to think critically about what familiar and unfamiliar tools can be used in investigations or experiments. STEM toolboxes can be implemented with a variety of creative materials such as shoe boxes, a toolbox created from construction paper, old Maxwell house containers, or other containers that can be adapted to insert pictures of various science and math tools.
The key is to give students a variety of pictures of the same tool and to ask students to find tools they use in their everyday lives that relate to science and math measurement. Students can then share and invent games with their peers to reinforce the use of different tools and be exposed to a variety of different tools with similar functions. For example, a basic junior mechanical balance, electronic balances, spring scales, pan balances, and a triple beam balance measure substances with equivalent metric weights but function differently. Students can learn this through recognition of different pictures of the tools. Teachers can also extend the use of the STEM toolbox in order to categorize tools. For example, the toolboxes can be used to create concept maps of how they would categorize the tools based on similarities and differences using Venn diagrams, or hanging mobiles to display and differentiate the tools and their math functions.
In upper grades, students can classify tools using dichotomous keys to think about the similarities and differences between their functions. Once students have mastered the use of the tools for both scientific and mathematical thinking, they can then be challenged to create investigations that target how they would use these tools to solve problems in their own lives. If students are exposed to a variety of scientific tools and understand the connections between these tools and more familiar ones in early elementary grades, students can think critically about how problem solve are relate scientific and technical knowledge. Currently, there is a low percentage of students who are motivated by school and out-of-school experiences, and jobs will require these experiences. The purpose of STEM toolboxes is to motivate students to use scientific tools, to be confidant in their abilities, and more importantly to engage students in the “practices of science over multiple years of school” (National Research Council, 2012, R10).
National Research Council. (2012). A framework for K-12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts and core ideas. Committee on a Conceptual Framework for New K-12 Science Education Standards. Board on Science Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
National Science Teachers Association. (2015). NSTA Position Statement: Elementary Science. Retrieved from http://www.nsta.org/about/positions/elementary.aspx