Literature review

This literature review has been organised around three themes, namely:

The need for STEM
Curriculum integration
The spiral curriculum

The need for STEM

In Australia the Education Council published a National STEM School Education Strategy 2016-2026 in 2015. In 2023 we are nearing the end of this strategy so it is worth restating the five key areas for national action:
  1. Increasing student STEM ability, engagement, participation and aspiration
  2. Increasing teacher capacity and STEM teaching quality
  3. Supporting STEM education opportunities within school systems
  4. Facilitating effective partnerships with tertiary education providers, business and industry
  5. Building a strong evidence base (2015, p. 6).

A report commissioned by the Australian Council of Educational Research in 2018 titled Challenges in STEM learning in Australian schools: Literature and policy review found that The Australian curriculum is packaged in discrete disciplines and is not future facing.  It concluded that “the goal is to see students working in an integrative way” (Timms, Moyle, Weldon, & Mitchell, 2018, p. 2). Accordingly, this paper reports on the early stages of a design-based research project which focuses on 28 specific learning outcomes from the existing Australian primary school curriculum. By integrating the curriculum around a specific learning outcome in each of the four terms throughout the seven primary school years, students can build a deep understanding of design-based thinking in a logical and systematic way to enhance their engagement in STEM. The hypothesis presented is that students and teachers will expand their knowledge and skills in STEM by having a daily STEM focus built into each day. The proposed solution is to implement a logical scope and sequence to achieve sustained immersion in design-based thinking.

Primary schools have an inherent flexibility due to the localised nature of each classroom, but the timetable is generally still structured around clearly delineated blocks of learning such as literacy groups (2 hours), numeracy (1 hour), science once or twice a week and various specialist subjects. As the existing focus on literacy and numeracy is widely considered to be indispensable, any attempt to increase participation in STEM needs to enhance literacy and numeracy too. 

There has been an international movement to increase student engagement and expertise in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics since administrators at the National Science Foundation (NSF) introduced the STEM acronym in 2001 (Hallinen, n.d.). Most attempts to boost the profile of STEM seek to integrate STEM into the curriculum. The acronym STEM is not in the Australian curriculum as STEM content is spread throughout the component areas. The Technologies learning area covers Design and Technologies (i.e. engineering) and Digital Technologies (i.e. Information and Communication Technologies or ICT). “Engineering often provides a context for STEM learning” (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority [ACARA], 2016, p. 6).

The STEM Connections Project (ACARA, 2016) sought to integrate STEM learning in an Australian context.  The origins of the project preceded the publication of the National STEM School Education Strategy 2016–2026 (Education Council, 2015) but “it did address all the areas for action identified in the strategy, either directly or indirectly” (ACARA, 2016, p. 5). Perhaps the most significant findings from the STEM Connections Project related to helping to understand the challenges faced by both teachers and students. Students were reported to have often felt like they were lost in the new freedom afforded to them by project-based learning. For staff, the most significant challenge related to the open-ended nature of the various projects and “the need to surrender their role as leader of learning and subject expert to allow greater autonomy for students” (ACARA, 2016, p. 19). These issues are significant and not easily solved as they represent a fundamental shift away from how teaching and learning often occurs in schools. 

Curriculum integration

Ironically, the biggest obstacle of all was [and continues to be] the mundane but critical issue of timetabling and how to make room for innovative STEM projects “as timetabling structures do not necessarily have the flexibility to accommodate such projects” (ACARA, 2016, p. 20). The implementation plan for the current study addresses this concern directly by integrating other content areas into each project for one hour each day. Careful cross-referencing has been done for all the learning areas for which a generalist primary school teacher is responsible to justify this use of time. It also presents a logistical framework to change how STEM education is implemented in primary schools by working within existing school structures and curriculum constraints. 

A visual for integration can help bring clarity to the various approaches as shown in Figure 1:

Figure 1


(© Alex Jensenius 2012. This work is openly licensed via CC BY 4.0)

Jensenius (2012) defined these categories as follows:

Intradisciplinary: working within a single discipline.
people from different disciplines working together, each drawing on their disciplinary knowledge.
Crossdisciplinary: viewing one discipline from the perspective of another.
Interdisciplinary: integrating knowledge and methods from different disciplines, using a real synthesis of approaches.
Transdisciplinary: creating a unity of intellectual frameworks beyond the disciplinary perspectives.

According to Mandi Dimitriadis from Maker's Empire, "STEM is an interdisciplinary, or ideally a transdisciplinary approach.  It’s about structuring learning opportunities where students draw on their knowledge, skills and ways of working from multiple disciplines and apply them in integrated, authentic and meaningful contexts to solve problems, meet real-world challenges and develop deep connections to the world around them" (

The SILO project is about finding these authentic connections.

The spiral curriculum

Bruner (1960) argued that concepts need to be revisited at increasingly higher levels of complexity which is why this approach is known as the ‘spiral curriculum’. This approach has become widely influential based on his hypothesis that any subject “can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development” (p. 33). Within the very same paragraph Bruner stated that, “No evidence exists to contradict it; considerable evidence is being amassed which supports it” (p. 33). Over 60 years later this is still largely the case. Webb et al. (2017), have summarised the enduring benefits of Bruner’s spiral curriculum as follows:

  1. reinforcement of key concepts and techniques each time the subject matter is revisited;
  2. progression from simple concepts to more complex ones; 
  3. students can be encouraged to recap their previous knowledge and apply their knowledge to new problems and situation” (p. 416).

Figure 2 is an example of the spiral curriculum applied to the design cycle, which is first introduced in SILO 1.4 'Design' but then extended in SILO 2.3 'Construction zone' and further expanded in SILO 4.3 'Ideation'.

Figure 2

The Expanded Design Cycle

There are several variations of the design cycle but the one adopted here is Think Make Improve (TMI) first proposed by Martinez and Stager in 2013. “Reducing the process to three steps minimises talking and maximises doing” (Martinez & Stager, 2019, p. 54). TMI is an example of the maxim to “make everything as simple as possible but not simpler” which is widely attributed to Albert Einstein. Children are unlikely to forget the three steps in TMI in contrast to existing design models which “may be too wordy or abstract for young learners” (Martinez & Stager, 2019, p. 54). The expanded language in Year 2 of ‘Investigating and defining’, ‘Generating and designing’, ‘Producing and implementing’, and ‘Evaluating’ is from the Australian Curriculum (Technology). The Year 4 version retains the previous versions but with the additional dynamics introduced in the Stanford Design Cycle (Shanks, 2010) which adults use to identify commercial opportunities and develop new products, namely: empathise, define, ideate, prototype, and test.

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