Strengthen Your STEM Program with These 4 Elements of Entrepreneurship
By Shifting from STEM to ESTEAM, Teachers Can Cultivate 21st Century Skills and Mindsets
Over the past two decades, there has been an increased interest in K–12 science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs to meet the rising demand for talent in these growing sectors of the economy. So, it’s not surprising that STEM classrooms provide fertile ground for integrating 21st-century workforce skills like collaboration, communication, and critical thinking into the classroom.
The evolution to STEAM education (the “A” is for art) further reinforced this connection by giving students hands-on opportunities to develop valuable workforce skills like creativity and curiosity. As former STEAM teachers, we valued helping students develop the mindset and skills of engineers while engaging in innovative problem solving through the engineering design process.
But as great as those lessons were, they didn’t challenge students to get ready for the increasingly uncertain future of work — which means not only creating solutions, but identifying problems as well. STEAM programs also haven’t developed the skills students need to take ideas to scale in sustainable ways.
Enter entrepreneurship education and ESTEAM.
ESTEAM (the “E” is for entrepreneurship) is a great way to supercharge STEAM programs by challenging students to use their new-found knowledge and skills to solve real-world problems. In the process, ESTEAM programs can lead to higher levels of student engagement while also helping students develop critical real-world skills like “failing forward” and perhaps most importantly, a sense of purpose. And these programs are a lot of fun for students and teachers.
As a teacher looking to prepare your students for success in today’s (and tomorrow’s) workforce, how can you infuse entrepreneurial skills into your already packed curriculum? Following are some ideas broken down into the four dimensions of the entrepreneurial process:
Discovery is all about creativity and looking for problems to solve. In your STEAM classroom, this can be as simple as having students start a Bug Me List. Entrepreneurs are constantly on the lookout for problems to solve. Your students could start a list in their writer’s notebook or on a blog — whatever format makes sense to you. Have them share a Bug Me List entry during a morning meeting or on a discussion board for your class.
This is a critical first step in the entrepreneurship process, and a key difference between most engineering design lessons where students are given a problem to solve. Solving their own problems frees students to be creative and identify real-world challenges that matter to them.
Like engineers, entrepreneurs must look at a problem from multiple perspectives, go through multiple iterations of their solution, then test their solutions for viability. The difference between the processes lies in how the viability of a solution is tested. Engineers need to know if the solution works, and entrepreneurs need to know if it solves a problem and can succeed in the marketplace.
There are ways to integrate entrepreneurial thinking and purposeful learning in engineering design challenges. Take the example of asking students to create a boat that can float with pennies inside. In an engineering lesson, they would test their solutions and improve their designs. To infuse entrepreneurship, we need to level up the human element and challenge students to design the boats for a specific problem — like one they could use to rescue animals after a flood.
In the development stage of the work, students need to test their design and gather feedback from end-users. Unlike the engineering process, entrepreneurs must not only ask, “Does this design work?” but also “Does this add value for users?” In short: Would a customer pay for this solution? Ask students to develop a business model for their solutions, something they can use the feedback process to test the assumptions in their model.
This process takes time. We’ve noticed that students often missed the mark here because of time constraints. Big mistake! The build-measure-learn process is an important component of design and development for both engineers and entrepreneurs, so make sure you carve out sufficient time for this work.
During the feedback and development processes, students will inevitably experience failure. This is perhaps the most important step: teach students to see this as an opportunity for growth. For example, ask reflective questions to help them see their errors and what failed in the spirit of “test, learn, iterate.”
Entrepreneurs are constantly pitching and promoting their ideas, and must be able to engage audiences clearly and succinctly. This is where the entrepreneurship process truly shines by helping students develop the communication and presentation skills that are so highly valued by universities and employers.
Asking students to pitch their solutions is an easy way to add an entrepreneurship flavor to the engineering process. How did their problems evolve based on stakeholder feedback? How do their solutions solve this problem? What challenges did they face and how did they change their designs to meet them? Find opportunities for students to share with their peers, informally and formally. They’ll build skills by clearly articulating their ideas and engaging an audience while speaking or writing.
The evolution from STEM to STEAM to ESTEAM (entrepreneurship!) is exciting and has the potential to harness the excitement and energy of the next generation to meet the challenges of our ever-changing world.
Jerri LaMirand and Kelly Van Meter are Uncharted Learning educators who are passionate about purposeful learning and infusing STEAM/engineering design and entrepreneurship into K–12 curriculum. LaMirand, a former director of STEM, and Van Meter, a former instructional coach, co-developed a district-wide STEAM model for schools in Texas.