STEM Through Play: Facilitating Classroom Engagement


Speedometry is a fourth grade curriculum unit designed to promote knowledge, interest and engagement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Research shows not all elementary teachers feel comfortable teaching science. For those who do feel prepared, lack of resources pose a continuing challenge. Many classrooms are supplied with science textbooks, which teachers use for content and assignments, but students miss out on the exciting experiential components of STEM learning. Speedometry was designed to create opportunities in the classroom for group work, problem solving, and hands-on learning to make science learning fun and engaging. The two-week curriculum is based on the 5E instructional model:

  • Engage
  • Explore
  • Explain
  • Extend
  • Evaluate

Utilizing an inquiry-based approach to learning, the 5E model allows teachers to step back and let students actively direct many parts of the lesson. Teachers interact with students by observing them in small groups, asking guided questions, and prompting students to develop their own questions and facilitate discussion. Each element of the 5E model coupled with the lessons and materials related to Speedometry helps students engage in the inquiry process.

At the core of Speedometry is the idea that it is possible to get students excited about science early on.

The Five Es

  1. Engage
    The 5E learning cycle begins with engagement. In this phase, we see that the value of engagement is most apparent during the core part of lessons. This may consist of an event, an observation or a set of questions that serves as a hook or point of entry to draw in student interest. In this phase, students view a video of a life-size Hot Wheels car going down a ramp. Based on classroom observation data, it was evident that this phase created a lot of interest and excitement and students could not wait to jump into the activities. Data from a pilot study in 18 classrooms showed that the Speedometry group showed significant interest in the curriculum.
  2. Explore
    In the next phase, students explore the cars and tracks in small groups and begin to figure how to build ramps and utilize all their materials. This is the part of the lesson that most resembles what many teachers in their interviews describe as play time, but it’s not just about fun. Teachers are often surprised by how much the students learn during this phase. Several teachers noted the energy of excitement in their class as they walked around the room and participated in each group. Pilot data showed that 100 percent of teachers reported that their students seemed engaged and motivated during Speedometry lessons.
  3. Explain
    In this phase, students use concepts they started to probe during the explore phase, formulating questions and constructing explanations about what they observed in the previous phases. Teachers help students clarify their ideas and concepts. This phase is key to engagement because students have to think through what they have done as a team and put their ideas together into explanations.
  4. Elaborate
    This particular phase is meant to extend engagement and reconnect STEM learning to more applied contexts. For example, as part of elaboration, students learn about seat belt safety during collisions. By applying what they have learned to real-world contexts, students engage deeper with the subject matter by connecting to the relevance and meaning of abstract scientific concepts, such as the transfer of energy.
  5. Evaluate
    In the final phase, which is intended to be recursive throughout the entire curriculum, students evaluate their own learning. Students engage in dialogue with each other and their teachers to discuss what they have learned and how they arrived at their conclusions. Teachers are able to formatively evaluate students by reading student science notebook entries, daily discussions and group presentations. By evaluating themselves, students engage in critical thinking, and re-establish what they have correctly learned.

The most important aspect of the curriculum is to promote student engagement throughout the entire learning experience. The 5E learning cycle is a model for not only STEM curriculums, but also for student-centered approaches to instruction and classroom environment. Students begin to engage more as they realize that they are guiding their own learning and they are responsible for their own learning outcomes.

Dr. Gale Sinatra is a Professor of Psychology and Education at USC Rossier School of Education. Her areas of expertise include climate science education, evolution education, learning theory, knowledge construction, conceptual change learning, literacy acquisition, assessment, and the public understanding of science.

Ananya Mukhopadhyay is a PhD student at USC Rossier School of Education in Urban Education Policy, specializing in Teacher Learning.