Wednesday, January 4, 2017

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How to Design a STEM Homeschool Curriculum

Whether you are planning a preschool homeschool curriculum or a homeschool curriculum for any other age, this method (and free printables!) will help you organize your needs and design a STEM homeschool curriculum for any theme or unit you want to study! I will also share an alternative way to plan a STEM homeschool curriculum that actually requires very little planning!

This post is a little longer than my usual posts because it is going to include detailed instructions in educational goals, planning curriculum, and creating a well-rounded STEM curriculum (as well as why you would want a STEM curriculum in the first place). I am going to organize this post with an emphasis on STEM homeschool curriculum, though the method I share works well for classroom teachers (and any focus). In fact, I developed this method as a classroom teacher years ago, and I know many other teachers use a similar approach. 

The beautiful thing about this method is one of my favorite aspects about is flexible enough to allow your children to learn essential information that you want them to learn while studying whatever topic they love! As an example throughout this post I will be sharing our current unit/theme: Ancient Egypt. During the holiday break, I asked my kids what they wanted to study this year, and they said Ancient Egypt (well, my oldest - 9 year old - convinced everyone they wanted to!).  You can use this approach to plan one theme for all your kiddos or you can use it to plan a different unit for each of them. 

There are obviously a million different ways to approach how to design a homeschool curriculum. I happen to have a background in education and a love for curriculum development, and am sharing one way that works great for me.

Here is what you will find in this post (feel free to scroll down to whatever heading you are most interested in!):

1- A brief overview of how our homeschool is designed.
2- Why I love a STEM Homeschool Curriculum!
3- What is a STEM Homeschool Curriculum?
4- STEM Homeschool Curriculum Design: Start With Goals
5- STEM Homeschool Curriculum Design: Fill in a Theme or Unit You Love
6- STEM Homeschool Curriculum Design: Lesson Plans
7- The Super Easy Alternative Plan
8- A Few Final Thoughts
9- More Resources

1- A brief overview of how our homeschool is designed:

We use an eclectic, child-led approach to homeschool. The children choose the topic, theme, or unit that they want to study. They can choose any particular activities or projects they want to do. I fill in the unit or theme with activities that meet the learning goals I have for each child at that particular time.

Each day includes at least one group activity. This is usually a science, history, geography, or STEM project that crosses all age boundaries. It lets the children learn together, learn from each other, and teach each other. It also creates shared experiences that improve the kids' relationships with each other.

Each day also includes individual work for each child and one-on-one time with me. This can sometimes be tricky to schedule (since we have four children), but is usually accomplished with a set or two of rotations where the kids take turns working with me, working by themselves, and playing.

2- Why I love a STEM Homeschool Curriculum:

I was creating a "STEM Homeschool Curriculum" for my children long before it was a popular thing. Studies have shown (for many years!) that children learn best when subjects are integrated. Our minds were never created to store individual nuggets of information! Our brains naturally connect new information to previously learned knowledge. (Click here to learn more about how children's brains learn.) 

Using a STEM approach to education deliberately integrates four subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) whenever possible. The most important aspect to tie in is problem solving through the scientific method and/or engineering processes.  I also try to tie in art, history, geography, and any other subject I can. I did this when I was teaching public school (my first science lesson always included a story from history!), but I love, love, love how homeschooling gives me the flexibility to do so even more. I rarely teach an isolated subject...ever! In real life everything is connected, so I do my best to connect it in school too. That is why I love STEM education: it introduces knowledge and allows children to experiment in a way that connects information and skills. STEM for kids is delightful, and I think they enjoy it as much as I do!  :) 

3- What is a STEM Homeschool Curriculum:

So what exactly is a "STEM Homeschool Curriculum?"  The term "STEM" stands for "Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics," and is usually used to refer to programs that encourage studies in those areas, as well as degrees and jobs that come from those subjects. It seems to have been coined around 1998, but really became popular after 2007 because of legislation that emphasized those subjects, especially for "at-risk" and minority children. Historically STEM fields have been dominated by white men, and the last ten years have seen a big emphasis in making them more available to minorities and women.

When I talk about a "STEM Homeschool Curriculum" I am referring to a curriculum that is specifically designed to include both STEM topics and integrated STEM learning. It encourages problem-solving and engineering. It is a simple concept, but it seems to scare many parents and educators. My goal with this post is to make planning and designing a STEM Homeschool Curriculum (or any homeschool curriculum, for that matter) feel less intimidating and even exciting! I know this is a little nerdy, but I'm really hoping some of my love for curriculum planning will rub off on you as you read this! Consider it a free class in curriculum design, and feel free to take as many breaks as you need or repeat any sections that require a lot of work! (I'll be honest...sections 4, 5, and 6 are a little demanding. But they are SO FUN when you realize you are planning activities for your kids that will help them learn the information and skills they need while studying subjects they love!!)

So let's get started!!

4- STEM Homeschool Curriculum Design: Start With Goals

Goals are easy! What do you want your children to learn?  Maybe you want your 3-year old to learn to count to 20 or your 9-year old to memorize multiplication facts. These goals should be specific skills and knowledge that can be applied across more than one subject (like counting or multiplication). Not sure where to start? The NAEYC has a wonderful collection of preschool standards here. If you have older children, I like to look at the Texas State Standards here. Just keep in mind that your goal in homeschooling is not to duplicate what is supposed to happen at public schools. Feel free to look at the standards if you want ideas, but also feel free to create goals (or "standards," if you will) for your own children that are most appropriate for their abilities. 

I like to create two lists of goals for each child: one long-term list and one short-term list

Thegoals on the long-term list are often more broad and sweeping, and include everything I want to have done by the end of the school year. A writing example for my 3-year old may be writing the first letter of her name and recognizing her entire name. For my 6-year old, a long-term writing goal may be writing sentences I can decipher. For my 9-year old, a long-term writing goal may be writing expository, persuasive, and personal writing projects in legible writing with correct grammar and spelling.

I write the long-term goals down and keep them handy as I write the short-term goals. Sometimes I edit them...nothing ever has to be concrete!

DO THIS (Activity 1):  Print this page and write one long-term goal for math, reading, writing, art, and STEM. Feel free to add in more than one long-term goal for each subject and to choose goals in other subjects of your choice (for example, history, geography, religion, etc.).

The short-term goals are very specific and are meant to be accomplished during a 2-week period. A writing goal example for a 3-year old could be cutting a paper strip into straight-edged pieces (finger strengthening). For my 6-year old, a short-term writing goal could be spelling words in the -it family. For my 9-year old, a short-term writing goal could be formatting a letter correctly.

Here is an example of all the short-term goals I had for my 9-year old during our 2-week Ancient Egypt Unit:

It is perfectly okay to focus more on one subject than another during any unit, but because we are working on creating a STEM Homeschool Curriculum, we always want to have at least one goal in a "STEM" box (just write it in). 

DO THIS (Activity 2):  Print this page and fill in your short-term goals! If this is your first time doing this, only put one goal in each category. It will get easier as you do it more often! Again if you need ideas, you can visit these links, but don't feel obligated to cover everything they list: NAEYC's Preschool Standards and Texas State Standards.

Now comes the really fun part:

5- STEM Homeschool Curriculum Design: Fill in a Theme or Unit You Love

Now that you know what you want your kiddos to learn, choose a unit or theme...I usually let the kids choose one -- it might surprise you what they want to do! We're obviously working on Ancient Egypt. The big picture here is choosing two weeks' worth of activities inside an Ancient Egypt theme that will meet the goals you listed on your last activity. So, keep your goals sheet out and handy! Now print a planning calendar...I have a free one for you!

DO THIS (Activity 3):  Print this planning page and fill it in with one project on every day. The best projects will integrate more than one subject. I have a couple examples for you to look at. 

This is what I did for my 9-year old's Ancient Egypt Unit:

You can see that we did not do every subject every day, and that's totally okay! You may also notice that there is nothing in the unit about the Sphinx or mummifying apples or hieroglyphics or a couple other "classic" ancient Egypt topics. This is okay too! In our case, we've done a lot of the traditional ancient Egypt activities before (this is our third ancient Egypt unit in three years), but even if we hadn't it would be okay. You cannot possibly cover everything in any theme in two weeks. If your kids love that topic, come back to it in a year. If they don't love that topic, they won't mind missing a few things.  ;)

You might also have noticed that I am leaving 3 days open for a research project of my daughter's choice. I will give her a list of about 10 - 12 different ancient Egypt topics and invite her to choose her own project. She may have a different idea than what is on my list, and that is okay too--she already knows quite a bit about ancient Egypt! I want her to either create a tri-fold poster display board or a written report and present it to me, her dad, her siblings, and anyone else we happen to grab! We'll probably record it and share it with her grandparents too. A research project of this magnitude almost always encompasses all subjects listed, so I don't bother to write out each step. I'll help her as needed.  :)

I have one more example for you: my preschooler's ancient Egypt theme:

You should notice right away that it is more simple. I am a firm believer that preschoolers should not spend more than an hour a day in "school" time. I also believe that written work for 3-year olds is completely optional, though we do a lot of finger-strengthening activities. However, my 3-year old loves school time and loves to join in STEM projects with her siblings. Her models and artwork are always her own work and, even though they won't look like her siblings, she loves them. 

I also approach her "projects" slightly differently than the older kids. She always begins with a book and then we follow with the related project. This means that she usually starts the day out with her personal attention, though the other kids are welcome to join us. This makes the day move much more smoothly, and she is much happier to play while the other kids get attention later on if she already has had her fill.

Once you've chosen your activities and projects, you need to organize your thoughts and grab your supplies. It helps to put this down on paper too, so I'm including the following section:

6- STEM Homeschool Curriculum Design: Lesson Plans:

I will admit that I do not actually write these down personally. I work off the 2-week plan in the previous section. But if you are just beginning, it can be extremely helpful to have organized lesson plans.

Each lesson plan should include the following sections: goals for the day, supplies needed, procedure/order of lesson.

Here is an example for the first day of our ancient Egypt unit for my 4th grader:

You can see how the rose activity combines five different subjects:

Science: science reasoning, hypothesizing, testing, predicting
Technology: Using a digital scale (also the flash mummifying activity online)
Engineering: Creating a "natron" recipe with salt and sand
Math: Measuring in grams
History: History of ancient Egypt and mummifying

One way to design your own STEM projects is to start with a science activity and think of a way to add technology. Usually, in the process, you will also add engineering and math, but if you don't you can brainstorm ways to include those as well. Remember the more subjects you integrate, the better your children will remember what they are learning!

DO THIS (Activity 4--optional):  Print this lesson plan page and fill it out! If you find it helpful, print out 10 of them and fill one out for each day in your 2-week unit!

Ta da! You've just finished designing your first unit in a STEM Homeschool Curriculum! We usually have "school" for nine months, so now you just repeat the process 17 more times for an entire year!

7- The Super Easy Alternative Plan

If this much planning has you more than slightly terrified, I have a super easy-to-plan way to make a STEM Homeschool Curriculum: Just designate one day a week where you will do a STEM project in place of your any normal science or math lessons. You could call it STEM Fridays (or STEM Tuesdays...any day is fine!). Let your kids all work together on a STEM Project and present it to you or each other when they finish! Take pictures or make a video and share it online! You can use this free Weekly STEM Curriculum!

Some of our favorite STEM activities and STEM projects have been real-life bridge challenge, Eiffel Towers, paintbrush bridge challenge, ancient Greek architecture, and the turtle shell STEM challenge. The kids were happy to experiment and repeat these for more than an hour! They are great starting projects too! You can also check out our BIG STEM Activities for Kids Collection -- you may find lots of inspiration there!

8- A Few Final Thoughts

Creating your own homeschool curriculum can sound like a daunting process, but I love it because it gives you and your family the chance to pursue  your own goals and passions. If STEM is something you care about, plan it in! If your kiddo loves her sewing machine, write that into your lessons! This is a time when possibilities truly are endless!!

I hope I've made the process a little more accessible for you! If you have any questions or if there is anything I can help you with, please send me a note...I love to connect with other homeschoolers and teachers!

9- More Resources

Here are a few more things that might be helpful to you as you get going!
1- Homeschool Share: Lots of free unit studies! You can use them for ideas or adapt them to suit you needs!

2- Preschool Themes: Coming Soon! (Now available!) Hundreds of activities organized by theme! Pick your favorites, and call it a unit study!

3- Preschool STEM Activities: Coming Soon! (Now available!) TONS of unique, fun ideas for STEM projects for kids in preschool and older! 

3- Science & STEM Activities: Over 150 science and STEM activities!

4- Ultimate List of FREE Unit Plans: I made this collection years ago, but it still has links to LOADS of great resources!

5- A-Z Guide for STEM: I am super grateful to Sarah from Little Bins for Little Hands for giving me the extra motivation to write this post as part of her newest A-Z Guide for Understanding STEM. You will find dozens of STEM ideas, resources, and inspirational posts in this series!

Thanks so much for joining me today! If you managed to read all the way through this post you deserve ten gold stars! And if you did the four activities along the way, you've already designed your own STEM Homeschool Curriculum...I'd LOVE to hear about it!! Truly, I would! Feel free to send me a note, leave a comment, or drop by my Facebook page (Preschool Powol Packets).

As always,
Happy Educating,

Have you seen HEEP? It is a preschool homeschool curriculum! Learn more here!

I may share at any of these parties!

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