Curriculum design

STREAMlining Curriculum: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Teaching & Learning

Not all STEAM is Created Equal

Last month I attended STEAM training at NASA’s Goddard Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. There is no denying I left feeling inspired by the innovation and seemingly endless possibilities a partnership with NASA could provide, but the greatest takeaway from the experience was the insight I received on how schools in my state were integrating STEAM and STEM into their curriculum. There seemed to be drastic differences between the systems approach to viewing STEAM I was used to, and the reality of how many schools were implementing it. I was alarmed to hear that in some schools STEAM and STEM activities were solely for those deemed “gifted”, while in other schools it meant draining the school budget to have the necessary “tools”.

I couldn’t help but wonder what caused such models of instruction and programming to arise? Shouldn’t the goal of STEM, STEAM, and perhaps education itself be the cultivation of students who understand the inherent complexity of nature and society and have the desire to explore problems and questions that are not confined to a single discipline? If so, why has STEAM integration become such a convoluted process?  Are school leaders checking off the boxes of innovative practices for the sole purpose of doing so, or is there a conceptual misunderstanding of what is needed in 21st century classrooms? From those questions, a journey to STREAMline teaching and learning began.

Please…no more acronyms!

For those who just transitioned from STEM to STEAM, the thought of adding another letter to this ever evolving buzzword might just push you over the edge. However, before you throw in the towel, I want you to think about STEM, STEAM, and newest version STREAM, not as “something” added to your already overcrowded plate, but as a framework for all instructional practices. This interdisciplinary approach to education can fit anywhere within a curriculum, take innumerable shapes, and, if used purposefully, can be a powerful tool for creating a more personalized learning environment.

Whether schools call it STEM, STEAM, or STREAM, the implementation of frameworks must not be done within isolated programs and units, but integrated as adaptable, fluid, and personalized learning structures designed to mimic the ever-changing and unpredictable global environment.

What is STREAM?

STREAM: science and technology, interpreted through engineering and the arts, conveyed through reading and writing within the research process, all based in elements of mathematics and real-world learning and problem solving.

The GOAL of STREAMlining

The goal of STREAMlining curriculum and instructional practices is the intentional integration of the individual disciplines of science, technology, research (literacy), engineering, the arts, and math. Through this process you can seamlessly integrate information, data techniques, tools, perspectives, concepts, and/or theories from multiple disciplines to advance fundamental understanding and learning. In a culture that increasingly embraces STEAM concepts in schools, literacy in these disciplines and how they relate is imperative to prepare students for the 21st century workplace. Instead of approaching STEAM and literacy as separate parts of the curriculum, STREAMlining allows for literacy instruction to be interwoven within the various disciplines of STEAM and are taught simultaneously which mimic the experience of our increasingly complex world.

While the term “integrated curriculum” has many, sometimes conflicting meanings to educators; STREAMlining curriculum is simply the process of creating a framework that allows students to experience learning of different disciplines in a contextual manner rather than learning bits and pieces. Think of it as dissolving the boundaries between disciplines, while exploring and addressing problems and research questions which cover all designated grace-level standards. 

This does not require creating an entirely new set of academic courses, units, or curriculum documents. Rather, it is a collaborative process where stakeholders work together to enhance their curriculum and instructional practices though intentional integration of STEAM and literacy. For the most efficient curriculum, LESS is MORE!

Simple Steps for Curriculum STREAMlining

#1 Engage Stakeholders in STREAMlining Curriculum   

One of the best ways to STREAMline the curriculum is to form interdisciplinary/multi-grade-level teams.  Teams can look at the characteristics and needs of their learners—academic, social/emotional, and physical—and then design specific units with clear objectives and appropriate activities tailored to meet the identified needs. By building in similar learning objectives, starting from different driving questions, and working in flexible learning spaces, STREAMlined units can foster collaboration between different grade levels and related arts.

# 2 Assessing the Student Population & Setting

Teams must gather data about students in as many ways as possible. The goal is a data-informed curriculum. Data sources should be both authentic and quantitative/statistical to gain insight into the personal and developmental histories and needs of students, as well as past and present performance data. In addition, teams should consider environmental factors and their impact on classroom instruction. The programmatic realities of schedules and classroom design must be considered. 

# 3 Choose a Format

Teams should ask themselves: what curricular format will best serve this audience in this setting?

STREAMlining Curriculum Planning Guide & Template

Power Standards

While researching effective models of integrated curriculum design, I came across the concept of power standards as a means of starting the process. Educators and authors Larry Ainsworth and Douglas Reeves “propose three criteria for selecting power standards:

  • Endurance: Standards that focus on knowledge and skills that will be relevant throughout a student’s lifetime (such as learning how to read or how to interpret a map).
  • Leverage: Standards that focus on knowledge and skills used in multiple academic disciplines (such as writing grammatically and persuasively or interpreting and analyzing data).
  • Essentiality: Standards that focus on the knowledge and skills necessary for students to succeed in the next grade level or the next sequential course in an academic subject (such as understanding algebraic functions before taking geometry or calculus, which require the use of algebra).

Curriculum teams should form integrated units around what they consider the power standards. 

# 4 Brainstorm – Make Connections Among Standards & Disciplines

# 5 Develop Essential Questions

For an interdisciplinary unit, you are looking for essential questions that will help students discover the natural connections among multiple disciplines, so that they can ask the same question repeated times from different perspectives to enrich their understanding of the world around them.

# 6 Integrate Student Objectives

It is at this critical moment in the design process that you deliberately integrate the intent of the standards into the integrated curriculum. Consider the skills and objectives for each of the essential questions.

# 7 Outline Activities & Lessons

In this step, the goal is to develop a schedule that directly links each activity to a specific essential question. This planning process should give the team a clear picture of how the essential questions relate to the content; how the inquiry process serves the skills and standards to be developed; and how the process leads to the assessments themselves, which ultimately feed back into the loop.

# 8 Review, Communicate, Implement, & Evaluate

Testing a new curriculum design in a real-world learning context is a key stage in the cycle of curriculum design and redesign. Part of this process is communicating the vision and benefits of the curriculum redesign to stakeholders. Curriculum planning, especially interdisciplinary, will always remain a work in progress, because you will always be building and moving forward.


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