9 Problems to be solved are situated within realistic/authentic contexts

In this chapter you will learn about:

  • How the teacher can ensure that the learning content within STEAM is not an isolated, context-free fact?
  • Which possibilities the physical world has for creating realistic/authentic contexts?
  • How choosing the right context can lead to understanding STEAM concepts?
  • How materials and media can stimulate STEAM education?
  • How a teacher can stimulate conceptual change for the students?

As described previously, an integrated approach seeks connections between different subjects and provides relevant context for learning the content. The essence of STEAM lies in the search for meaningful contexts which can trigger students in order to gain valuable competences. As a teacher, it is therefore important to see opportunities in the immediate environment of the students. From there you will support them to get started in a rich process of inquiry and design. STEM literacy for students is essentially about developing competences such as observing, exploring, reasoning, predicting, formulating hypotheses, problem-solving, critical and creative thinking, reflecting, making, fixing, communicating, working together … (Tallir, et al., 2018). Implementing Arts within STEM education, can help in creating meaningful and attractive learning contexts for pupils in which they can work on the competences mentioned above. Nowadays, STEM subjects often are taught disconnected from arts, creativity and design (Kelly & Knowles, 2016) while these disciplines can bring in very interesting contexts. Examples of this can be found further below.

Introducing STEAM in education therefore requires an open view of one’s own classroom practice. The most powerful way to achieve sustainable implementation in the day-to-day life of a classroom is to build from inspiration provided by the students. Searching together with the teacher and building on clues that are already present, carries the strength to achieve realistic and well thought STEAM education.


Drinking water is very important for humans. Drinking bottles are often no longer on school desks because they can tumble off the table.

From a social need, the idea arose to efficiently attach drinking bottles to school desks so that they no longer tumble off the table, but are still accessible to the children.


Possibilities in the physical world

The richness of STEAM activities also lies in the variety of possibilities within the physical world to create learning contexts. Contexts such as the street, the farm, the nearby lake, the park, a container park, a company, the swimming pool, a broken lamp in the classroom, a ball on the roof of the school, a broken door at school, … many possibilities to find connections for STEAM education.

How to build on these “everyday” situations in the environment, is where a teacher can make a difference by making well-considered and goal-oriented choices.

So a STEAM activity starts with determining a meaningful context. This can be: a story, a demonstration, an eye-catching test, a result, a newspaper article, an event, a question from the child himself, and so on. It is important that the context is continued throughout the lesson activity and is not just seen as a “warm-up”.


Contexts make connections between ideas / principles / thoughts and reality. A context that is meaningful to the child is often a trigger for excitement and interest in what is going on around him or her. A context makes the learning content less abstract and offers guarantees to build mental images and to stimulate or facilitate a transfer to other learning domains. (Dejonckheere, et al., 2016)

Example: By train

In order to make tables and calculations about “duration” concrete, the teacher takes her old toy train track from the attic. The train chugged happily around in the middle of the classroom. Cities were located along the route. If someone has to be in Antwerp at 9 am, at what time does he have to leave Ghent? And how long does it take?

This may not really be an example where STEAM is abundantly integrated, but it is at least a meaningful context.

Research has shown that when teachers use a meaningful context in their lessons or activities, this more often leads to increased student involvement and motivation (European Commission – Eurydice, 2012). But finding an appropriate context is not always easy. In general, we can say that the more difficult and abstract the learning content, the more difficult it is to find a good context (Lester, et al., 2006). We all know the tasks in Maths Education that sound a bit artificial. “Jean has bought a piece of cake, and during his way home he ate 1/4 of it, …. and the question goes on. When one strives for integrated STEAM education, this problem arises less because these concepts are integrated within meaningful contexts (e.g. while calculating the surface of a room or by making a plan in order to construct a cupboard these MATH concepts arise in a more ‘natural’ way…). In any case, STEAM integration has a strong context-oriented character (Van Houtte, et al., 2013).



Shadow Art – a pop-up museum in the classroom with images of shadow artworks can create a context for a STEAM activity. Students investigate how shadows are formed, how you can make them larger or smaller, and then use these insights to design and optimise their own shadow artwork.

Based upon www.stem4math.eu


Light Graffiti – Students discover how to create art by using light graffiti. In the first phase, the students explore the possibilities and point of attention when creating a light graffiti work by doing small tasks in which they discover concepts such as shutter speed, diafragma and light sensitivity and which effect they have on a picture. They discover how these variables interact with each other. In the next step they make their Light Graffiti piece of art by using these concepts.

Based upon www.stemcomputer.be

However, the context is not the start and end point of a STEAM activity. The context, which is creating a shadow artwork or Light Graffiti, lives throughout the research and design process. In this way it makes learners receptive to achieve learning goals such as gaining an understanding of scientific concepts (e.g. shadow). But also the learners are developing inquiry and design skills (e.g. formulating conclusions, controlling variables) .

Engineering design

“When considering integrated STEM content, engineering design can become the situated context and platform for STEM learning” (Kelley & Knowles, 2016).

So, using engineering design can be a catalyst to STEM learning and is vital to bring the different STEM disciplines on an equal platform. The characteristics of engineering design provides students with a systematic approach to solve authentic and realistic problems in which inquiry, design and optimization are naturally interwoven with each other.

An example:  You lost a nail in the grass while carpentering. Since this is not so nice for the bike tires (and car tires), you want to find that nail.. But how do you do that? Or a piece of money or a necklace, can also be the case.

The students may come up with a solution: search with a magnet.

Then you can have them investigate which substances are magnetic and which are not…

Then comes a piece of theory that you will have to explain: the electromagnet.

If you wind a copper wire around a nail, and connect it to a battery, this becomes a magnet that you can turn on and off. How to build a strong electromagnet. Students have to find out for themselves by scientific reasoning…

The design challenge then can be that the students have to design a device with an electromagnet (a bit like gold diggers or beachcombers searching the surface with such a disc and headphones).

Don’t get too technical: you don’t need the headphones.. The design will probably be a stick with a handle that holds a battery and the electromagnet.

In engineering practice, the design and scientific inquiry are interwoven through a process of design behaviours and scientific reasoning. Though there is a difference between engineering design and scientific inquiry, they have 2 elements in common such as analogical reasoning as a device to bridge the gap between problem and solution and secondly, the uncertainty as a starting condition that demands expenditure of cognitive resources (Purzer et al., 2015).

Contexts can reveal concepts

A “concept” is defined as an idea, insight, principle or thought, often linked to science, engineering or mathematics. Concepts are basically abstract. Examples are: weight, acceleration, division, density, thought process, growth. When concepts are not linked to or discovered from concrete experiences, conceptual insight is often lacking (Van Houtte, et al., 2013).

A distinction is made between concepts and pre concepts. Pre concepts are precursors to concepts. These are the images that the child (or sometimes the adult) builds up from intuition or acquired experiences, but which are in conflict with current scientific beliefs or findings. Pre conceptions are sometimes also misconceptions. Young children, for example, often draw the earth as a flat disk or as a sphere in which people and animals live. The idea that coupled gears always turn in the same direction is also a common preconcept.

It is normal for children (and adults) to develop misconceptions about phenomena that cannot be clearly observed. A consequence of this is that misconceptions about the functioning of the body arise less quickly in comparison with knowledge about physical laws, social laws, mathematical insights and technological principles. As previously indicated, STEAM can also be used to reveal these misconceptions and stimulate conceptual change, when activities are embedded within authentic contexts.

Floating and sinking is a difficult concepts and often children think it is depending upon the materials an object is made of. But how come a simple needle made of steel sinks and a big ocean ship made of steel can float? … Can children build a boat which can carry a certain amount of load without sinking… Quite a challenge!

Suppose a group of 11-year-old children wants to build a floating boat with all kinds of materials that are available. At some point, the students find that the weight of an object and the size of an object together determine whether something floats or sinks. In fact, they come to the conclusion that it is the ratio that determines whether something floats or sinks.

“Density” is the label we give for this experience. The concept is meaningful at that moment, because of the context in which it was revealed. A context in which children got a lot of opportunities to get to action and experience.

So finding a good context is important for tackling concepts that are difficult to explain. Now take “the average”, a mathematical concept. The average is a ratio of the sum of the scores to the number of scores recorded. This ratio gives “the average” a degree of abstraction and it is therefore difficult to explain to a child of, for example, 10 years old. We often see that students learn to calculate “the average” independently of a context: they apply a formula, an algorithm, without knowing its precise meaning. A transfer to other learning areas is then very difficult to make. But when the calculation of “the average” is used to solve a real problem, in a real context, then the context gives meaning to this concept.


An example: soap car race

In the “Soap Car Race” activity, students are challenged to create a soap car that descends a ramp as quickly as possible. To find out which soap car goes down the fastest, it will take several tries for a soap car.


Based upon www.stem4math.eu

To be sure (e.g. there was a strong wind), you can calculate the average of the different attempts. In order to optimise and create materials in companies, the same tests are performed many times. In this way one has relative certainty about the reliability of the material (e.g. testing adhesive tape, which must always meet the customer’s expectations).


An example: The slingshot

A group of students wants to design toys. It is suggested to make a slingshot with the intention of shooting paper as far as possible. When testing the design, you can see that the slingshot does not always shoot the same distance. We are looking for a way to still determine the shooting distance. Therefore, the average shooting distance is calculated for five tries, just like in the soap car race. That “shooting distance” can then be used, for example, to give an indication on the packaging of a toy slingshot.

Materials and media

When it comes to materials and media, STEAM education can be carried out with discounted products and free resources to help learners innovate. Materials such as paper, cardboard, fabric scraps, plastic bottles, foam, food packaging, rubber bands, and plastic utensils are often enough to start with STEAM education in elementary education. An example of this is the Shadow Art activity, which was already mentioned before. One can also put together a list of crafting tools like scissors, glue, tape, markers, and crayons and students should be encouraged to take advantage of unstructured learning time to explore and innovate with things they can find around. In addition to bringing STEAM concepts to life, hands-on learning will help keep them creative and engaged while ‘fighting’ feelings of boredom and isolation. But it is also important to be aware of the fact that materials in itself can also trigger children. A computer app with which one can program, a robot, technical tools and natural materials such as wood can trigger children to start with an extraordinary process of exploring, inquiry and design.



Dejonckheere, P., Vervaet, S., & Van de Keere, K. (2016). STEM-didactiek in het kleuter- en het lager onderwijs: Het PK-model. Geraadpleegd Op Retrieved September 16, 2017. viawww.onderzoekendleren.be

European Commission. (2012). Science education in Europe: National policies, practices and research (Eurydice). Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency.

Kelley, T. R., & Knowles, J. G. (2016). A conceptual framework for integrated STEM education. International Journal of STEM Education, 3(1), 11. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40594-016-0046-z

Lester, B. T., Ma, L., Lee, O., & Lambert, J. (2006). Social Activism in Elementary Science Education: A science, technology, and society approach to teach global warming. International Journal of Science Education, 28(4), 315339. https://doi.org/10.1080/09500690500240100

Purzer, S., Goldstein, M., Adams, R., Xie, C., & Nourian, S. (2015). An exploratory study of informed engineering design behaviours associated with scientific explanations. International Journal of STEM Education, 2(9), 112.

Van Houtte, H., Merckx, B., & De Bruyker, M. (2013). Zin in wetenschappen, wiskunde en techniek. Leerlingen motiveren voor STEM. Acco.

Tallir, I., Devlieger, K., Remerie, T., Vandorpe, B., & Gentier, I. (2018). School in beweging. Borgerhoff and Lamberigts.