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fostering creativity and curiosity: developing safer elementary STEM learning spaces: Elementary teachers are often hesitant to incorporate PBL due to the fear of their students getting hurt while using tools.


Recent education initiatives have created a spotlight for STEM programs within schools with an eye to not only improve students' overall performance in mathematics and science, but also increase the pipeline of students pursuing STEM-focused careers. While current STEM initiatives focus on all levels of education, Dejarnette (2012) identifies elementary grades as a key target to foster curiosity in STEM subject areas, allowing for continued interest and learning among students. Unfortunately, the majority of STEM programs in K-12 schools are designed for--and delivered to--secondary students. This means elementary schools that understand the need for STEM learning are building their STEM programs without guidance or access to proven templates.

Importance of STEM Learning Space

When considering the development of a new STEM lab or space conducive for project-based learning (PBL), many elementary school leaders throughout the nation seem to be looking for assistance and guidance (Kelso, 2010). Despite the benefits of PBL and integrated STEM, it is common for elementary teachers to feel apprehensive about teaching STEM lessons, often making them reluctant to initiate or lead a STEM initiative within their classroom. This reluctance typically involves concerns about classroom management, control over learning activities, and their perceived inability to answer students' questions. These fears may be mitigated or eliminated should the school develop a designated STEM lab or space for all teachers to use within the school. The authors have found that a STEM lab is most successful when school leaders are able to designate a team of appropriately trained teacher/leaders to support other novice teachers in the building with developing safer student-focused integrated STEM lessons. The authors suggest that, before buying materials and transforming an unused space, classroom, or school library into a STEM lab, schools should create a STEM leadership team to address various issues such as safety, lab usage, and procedures. In order to achieve success, the teachers in the building will need to reach consensus and share a common understanding of how the space will be utilized after development. This common understanding includes safety training for all teachers who will be overseeing the space, reinforced with annual safety updates or trainings before new tools or hazards are introduced into the STEM lab.

The lab or classroom environment will need to be structured in a way that is conducive to exploration and PBL. DeFraine, Williams, and Ceci (2014) noted that students have a direct preference for environments that are characterized by real work/life environments. It is important, therefore, that elementary education environments connect with students' learning throughout each STEM project. While most elementary classrooms do not have the adequate space, storage, materials, and safety features that PBL learning requires, such laboratories can be developed successfully through thoughtful planning and organization.

Designing your STEM Space

Before a school clears out a space or spends funds on materials, the STEM leadership team should outline the essentials and nonessentials for the space. Since integrated STEM learning requires cooperative learning, an adequate and flexible space for students to work in small teams will be required. In addition, appropriate engineering controls will need to be installed (e.g., eye wash, fire extinguisher, master power switch, etc.) and personal protective equipment (PPE) (e.g., ANSI Z87.1 rated safety goggles, latex-free gloves, aprons, etc.) will need to be readily available for the activities to be performed in this space. Creating more working space can often be achieved by rearranging the room in small table groups rather than rows of desks. This allows students to communicate easily and work together on assigned projects in cooperative groups. There will also need to be a designated work station area with clearly labeled work zones where students can safely manipulate materials and use the required tools under direct teacher supervision. The supervising teacher should be trained on the safe use of these tools and appropriate classroom management strategies for this type of environment. This station area will need to be close to electrical outlets (these must be GFCI outlets if they are close to a water source), and ideally it would also be close to a locked tool storage area and be easily monitored by the teacher to ensure safety and security. A functioning STEM lab will have numerous supplies and consumables, so securable storage and display shelves will need to be a consideration.

Focusing on Safety in Elementary STEM Spaces

Safety should be addressed at the beginning of each lesson, and it is recommended that teachers keep on file a safety acknowledgment form signed by the parent/guardian and student. Students need to be aware of how to safely use each tool, and the rules for when and where they can safely use them while supervised. The teacher should always model safe usage of tools and check to make certain that each student understands how to properly use the required tools/materials. This could be achieved through a documented quiz and safety demonstration. The authors suggest having each class develop its own poster for safety rules and have it displayed in the lab (pending teacher approval of the accuracy of the rules). When the students are responsible for agreeing on the rules and their importance, it allows them to take ownership of the safety of their peers and themselves.

The lab or classroom should also contain a designated area for a first-aid kit, eyewash station (there are approved portable models available), and fire extinguisher. The students should be taught about the contents of each and when and how they should be used. It should also be stressed to students that anyone who is injured or hurt should notify their teacher immediately.

When reviewing the safety rules, it is important to have students discuss how real-world workers remain safe. This helps them to deepen the connection of their learning to the real world. For example--if your design challenge is to construct a bridge, you may talk about the different safety aspects of real construction workers and engineers (e.g., hard hats, goggles, safety boots, tucked in shirts, etc.).

Larger tools (hand crank drills, hacksaws, etc.) should be at a station in the room where there is enough space for students to work without crowding others. These workstations can easily be identified by using black and yellow tape on the floor. There should be signs with the steps for using each tool in the room. It is the teacher's responsibility to maintain an inventory of all tools in the STEM laboratory. All tools need to have their safety features attached and appropriate safety signage where the tool will be utilized. It is important to make sure that any secondhand tools work properly and are safe for students to use. In addition to demonstrating how to properly use the tools, the teacher will also need to show how to properly clean up after the activity. Students need to understand the importance of properly cleaning up and storing the tools for future use. This skill is critical to maintain a safe environment.

Teachers should make the students, parents, and school administration aware of the safety concerns of the STEM lab. They should explain the different equipment in the lab and the importance of safety via the safety acknowledgement form. STEM teachers should follow all school, local, state, and federal rules regarding lab design and safety. Submitting a copy of the signed acknowledgement forms to administration is recommended before beginning any lab activities. Additionally, teachers should work with the school nurse to consider any student allergies or health issues that could be impacted by STEM lab activities. A copy of safety data sheets (SDS) for any hazardous chemicals or materials should be kept in the lab, and a copy should also be provided to the school nurse.

Elementary teachers are often hesitant to incorporate PBL due to the fear of their students getting hurt while using tools. It is critical that students learn how to create rather than have everything already completed beforehand. The learning in design and creating is critical for our students. Safety is important, and if you follow guidelines (see resources below), you can have a successful STEM lab or classroom where students can flourish in a safe and stimulating environment.

Additional Resources

DeFraine, W, C., Williams, W. M., & Ceci, S. J. (2014). Attracting STEM talent: Do STEM students prefer traditional or work/ life-interaction labs? Plos One, 9(2), 1-7.

DeJarnette, N. K. (2012), America's children: Providing early exposure to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) initiatives. Education, 733(1), 77-84.

* This website provides access to literacy-based, technical and procedural, and informal STEM lessons developed by preservice teacher candidates as well as engineering design briefs, worksheets, and poster ideas. Additional web resources are also listed.

Kelso, K. (2010). Transforming STEM learning through technology in elementary school. Retrieved from content/public/solutions/k12/en/Documents/stem-learninqcde-10-strateay-elementary.pdf

Roy, K. R., & Love, T. S. (2017). Safer makerspaces, fab labs, and STEM labs: A collaborative guide! Vernon, CT: National Safety Consultants, LLC.

* Safer hands-on STEM is essential for every instructor and student. Read the latest information about how to design and maintain safer makerspaces, Fab Labs, and STEM labs in both formal and informal educational and community settings. This book features information about liability/legal standards, better professional practices, safety controls, addressing biological/chemical/physical hazards, first aid procedures, the facilities planning process, recommended designs and existing examples, and frequently asked safety questions. This book is strongly recommended for instructors, administrators, and media specialists looking to design or modify a facility to engage students in safer hands-on STEM activities.

Whiting, G. & Hickey, M. (2009). Children's engineering: A handbook for elementary educators. Richmond, VA: Children's Engineering Educators, LLC.

* Written by elementary teachers, this guide helps you include basic engineering concepts in the elementary classroom. It describes the benefits of teaching engineering, suggests how to implement engineering for younger students, and details the design process. Includes detailed teacher procedures, reproducible student pages, and national standards.

Lindsey M. Swagerty is the Director of the Education Renewal Zone and Doctoral Candidate in the STEM Education program at the University of Arkansas. She can be reached at lmswaaer&

Tara Hodge is a graduate of the STEM Education program at the University of Arkansas and currently teaches fifth grade STEM at Monitor Elementary in Springdale AR. She can be reached at tarahodae&

Caption: The photos at left and above show how a classroom was set up as an "operating room" for a digestive system lesson. This environment allowed for a deeper connection and understanding of how the information students are learning directly correlates to the real world. Photo Credit: Mrs. Vaught at Willowbrook Elementary.

Caption: The photo at right is an example of how organization and planning are achieved for this classroom. Each supply bin is clearly labeled, and classroom tools are stored on the top shelf of this locking classroom supply closet. Photo Credit: Mrs. Hodge at Monitor Elementary.

Caption: A 2-D overview of the authors' STEM classroom. Immediately to the right of the doorway (as you enter) is a desk and chair for the STEM teacher. Against the west wall are two cabinets with doors and locks to secure tools. Between the cabinets is a workbench with a hanging pegboard to hold tools that stay out and are supervised all of the time. There is a large carpet in front of this area where students can gather when presenting their projects to their peers. On the South wall are the secured storage bins for materials and consumables. These run the entire length of the wall and hold materials to be used for projects. Additionally, the tops may be used to display student work. The East wall contains one large table that houses six computers for research and design. There are also four tables to be used by students during class. The North wall contains open shelving to display student work and store works in progress.

Caption: How one classroom setup labeled safety and supply bins. Photo Credit: Mrs. Hodge at Monitor Elementary.
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Title Annotation:safety spotlight; science, technology, engineering and mathematics; project-based learning
Author:Swagerty, Lindsey M.; Hodge, Tara
Publication:Technology and Engineering Teacher
Date:May 1, 2019
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