By Jessica Born / June 18, 2019

Stories and algorithms? The 4 Rs of 21st-century STEM education

The three Rs of education – reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic – were the foundation for much of 20th-century learning. Even as we advance well into the 21st century, those foundational skills still carry significant importance for today’s learners. Students absolutely need solid literacy skills – print and digital – as well as the ability to write well and complete basic to complex mathematic tasks.

As a company that has spent our nearly 50 years of work championing STEM education, we know that the three Rs go hand in hand with STEM. The need to understand and break down problems, hypothesize, draft plans, read and calculate results, analyze and report findings, and more all require reading, writing, and math. STEM education organically supports the development and practice of these skills.

The Fourth R – ‘rithms (Algorithmic Thinking)

We noted it previously, but literacy is no longer solely printed books or publications. Digital literacy is increasingly necessary. We consume media in new ways now and at a more rapid pace. Students must understand and be able to manipulate devices – smartphones, tablets, and laptops – as well as complete web searches for basic information to advanced research. Further, and possibly even more importantly, building better understanding of how the devices work or what’s happening when they execute a search enables students to not only consume data and digital information, but also to be participatory in it, creating/making their own contributions of information and data.

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As such, beyond the three Rs, we advocate for an expansion of the Rs, adding in ‘rithms, or algorithms, as suggested by Duke University professor Cathy N. Davidson. (Washington Post) Helping students develop algorithmic thinking, or computational thinking, means they are able to process information and execute and/or problem-solve in a logical, orderly fashion. Building confidence in breaking down complexities, applying knowledge, and troubleshooting failures are incredible by-products of building computational thinking skills. “Students who learn computational thinking across the curriculum can begin to see a relationship between subjects as well as between school and life outside of the classroom.” (Google Education) This is what it’s all about, #ThisIsSTEM.

So, Full STREAM (Science, Technology, Reading, Engineering, Arts, Math) Ahead?

“It helps to end the false ‘two cultures’ binary of the arts, humanities and social sciences on the one side, and technology and science on the other. Algorithmic thinking is scientific but also operational and instrumental — it does stuff, makes stuff, allows for creativity, multimedia and narrative expression — all worked out within code that has been generated by these larger human and social and aesthetic priorities.” (Washingtonpost.com)

Well, what’s next? How do we bring the four Rs to your classroom? Intentional integration in a hands-on, minds-on way. Here are a few ways you can get started.

Build your library up. There are so many organizations that rank and review the latest and classic STEM books. Vivify STEM defines a STEM book as the following:

“A STEM book doesn’t need to be a textbook (although they obviously can be!) or even touch on all or any technical STEM content. At least one of the following statements must be true for a book to be a STEM book.

  1. Contains and discusses concepts from science, technology, engineering and/or math
  2. Describes the story of a fictitious character who is a STEM professional or STEM enthusiast and details the career or interest in STEM
  3. Offers biographical details of a present or historical STEM professional or enthusiast
  4. Teaches foundational Stage 1 or 2 STEM concepts such as critical thinking and perseverance through failure (See this post for more on Stage 1 STEM)
  5. Describes STEM careers in a nonfiction or fiction text”

Here are a few of our favorite sources for the must-read classroom hits!

You’ll notice there’s some repetition among the lists, so work with your school library or local library to check these books out, purchase them at your favorite retailer, or download an audio copy if available.

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And, remember, no need to discount non-STEM books. If your class or kiddos have a favorite book, find the STEM connections and processes to enhance the reading. Encourage them to explain how something in the book works, help them identify examples of engineering in something a main character is using in the story (like a bicycle!), or discuss what kind of education the character would have to obtain to do the job they work. Non-STEM books are still rich in opportunities for hands-on activities, critical thinking conversation starters, vocabulary practice, and discussions to reinforce concepts.

We try to keep atop this topic and regularly pin to our Hands On | STEM – STEAM – STREAM Pinterest board. Follow it to help maintain your reading list!

Get hands on! We love these sources for their excellent STEM + literacy ideas and activities. These classroom teachers are creative and inspiring! Use them to get your classroom moving full STREAM ahead. We’ve linked to specific searches or posts on their sites:

And, remember, this can be an open-ended, student-led learning opportunity. Create a mini-makerspace of materials and encourage students to free build something inspired by what they’ve read or heard in the book. Alternatively, ask them to sketch and color a plan or idea for how they’d solve the main character’s problem in the story.

Go beyond the book or device. Back to that fourth R of computational thinking – it isn’t always taught with a device. Skills can be learned and practiced through hands-on experiences like those KUBO Robotics offers. KUBO has a great, free Story Time pack that will have students bringing a story to life in no time. They also have many other inspirational activities such as Algorithm Ants or Story Elements to keep the learning fun and impactful.

We also found these articles and sites to have some great information for unplugged skill development.

While this isn’t specifically a resource, we found this video inspirational. We love how they’ve used storytelling as part of their computer science efforts in Montana, and we appreciate the real-world application and investigative storylines these educators use as highlighted in this article.

Bookworms, librarians, science teachers, and hands-on learning advocates, unite!  Whether story time is low-tech or high-tech, it can be an integral and meaningful way to engage students in the four Rs and your STEM/STREAM education efforts. Find what works for your classroom. The possibilities are as varied as your students and as numerous as the books on your library’s shelves.

Have other ideas or book recommendations? Have a STEM and literacy success story? Please share by commenting.

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TOPICS: IN THE CLASSROOM, Science, Technology, STEM, Trends, Resources, Engineering, Coding, Future Ready, 21st Century Skills, Math

Jessica Born

Written by Jessica Born

Well, hey there! I’m the digital marketing manager for Pitsco Education. Marketing and special events have been my jam for about the last decade. I’m an alumna of Kansas State University and the University of Arkansas. I fill my Pitsco days with social media management and supporting video and web projects. My weekends are for time in the kitchen, real estate and home projects, and adventuring with my husband and two pups. The best part of my role here is getting to bring creativity and organization to our efforts to connect with YOU!