Defining Effective STEM Instruction

Here at KnowAtom, our focus is on helping districts align to the Next Generation Science Standards with authentic inquiry. In order to do this, we are focused on the three dimensions of the Next Generation Science Standards and the National Research Council's definition of effective STEM instruction. 



This is admittedly a complex topic, one that we’ve been working on for the last 10 years. A number of reports in the last decade have unfolded parallel to our own efforts and helped inform our thinking.

Most notable among these resources are:

  • The Opportunity Equation: Transforming Mathematics and Science Education for Citizenship
  • Successful K-12 STEM Education: Identifying Effective Approaches in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics

If you are just learning about designing effective K-12 STEM curriculum and the reasons behind this shift in science education, these are good places to start. Briefly, reports like these have spurred changes in how the National Research Council defines effective STEM instruction, which now reads:

“Effective STEM instruction capitalizes on students’ early interest and experiences, identifies and builds on what they know, and provides them with experiences to engage them in the practices of science and sustain their interest.”



This definition dates back to 2011 and provides a new approach for how educators need to look at effective STEM instruction. There are a few notable aspects of this definition. For one, we can see that effective STEM instruction starts early, engaging students in science from the time they’re young (kindergarten) and nurturing these skills and thought processes all the way through the completion of public education.

This includes both a horizontal articulation of the material – from September to June – and a vertical one – from kindergarten through high school. Effective STEM instruction should, moreover, provide students with the experiences to engage them in the practices of science and engineering, which are specific skills aligned with NGSS, and have scope and sequence that sustain student interest in both the horizontal and vertical directions.

The movement from an “I Do/You Do” model – the traditional one most of us were taught as children – to a truly inquiry-based model in which students engage directly with the practices of science and engineering, is how the Next Generation Science Standards are able to really become performance expectations because students who are proficient are able to demonstrate those performance expectations.

That in turn means that they can demonstrate the ability to develop and use the content, use these skills to solve problems and answer questions, and describe and understand the content, crosscutting concepts and the dynamic system.

Reordering Bloom’s Taxonomy to Emphasize Higher Order Thinking Skills








While Bloom’s Taxonomy traditionally arranges remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating and creating in a pyramid, with each skill on its own level, we believe that analyzing, evaluating and creating happen simultaneously at the top.

The three higher order thinking skills work in tandem when students are being scientists and engineers.

In the classroom, using these skills together, at the same time, comprises authentic learning. It is students being scientists and engineers, using the higher order thinking skills of creating, evaluating, and analyzing to solve problems.

At its core, that’s what effective STEM learning looks like, and the STEM classroom provides one of the best opportunities to teach students these higher order thinking skills that are transferable to all subjects. Even more significantly, these skills will serve students far beyond their time in the classroom because at their foundation, they are thinking skills that will allow students to answer questions and solve problems regardless of their career path.

“Growing up, I wanted to be an inventor, solving problems that would help people have better lives. Every day at KnowAtom is an opportunity to invent solutions that give thousands of students and teachers a better experience doing science, engineering, technology, and math (STEM). Providing educators with professional satisfaction and students with the opportunity to understand the world we live in is my way of helping people have better lives.”