STREAM in the Classroom: Landslides, Floods, and Haikus

By Christina Bandaragoda, with Julia Hart

Emphasis on STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) has been a cornerstone of school curricula for over a decade.  But recently, a couple of extra letters have been creeping into this well-known acronym. Namely, an “A” for Art and an “R” for…well, we’ve got options.

No one denies the benefits of a strong STEM education, but many scientific educators concede that to be successful in any one STEM field, students also require strong foundation in the arts.  Thus, STEM became STEAM. For example, engineers require the ability to think outside the box, to imagine the world as you’d like it to be. Creativity is a job requirement.

Others argue that a student’s ability to Read and wRite are essential to their STEM training.  Advocates of STREAM understand that literacy is an essential part of being a scientist.  Critical thinking and communication are also job requirements in STEM.

I think that one might also argue that the R could stand for Relationships.  Science increasingly trends towards being a “team sport.” Research projects are strengthened by interdisciplinary collaboration, and published papers rarely feature a single author.  The relationships you cultivate as a scientist may help you understand your data with a different perspective, might teach you how to run a model, or even literally pull you out of the mud when you get stuck in a pond.


I recently had the opportunity to develop a STREAM lesson plan about Landslides for a 5th grade classroom, with support from NSF PREEVENTS: Landslides and Floods.  Conceptual understanding of the water cycle, landslide, or estuary flow was built with colorful art work and solidified in memory using poetry, especially Haiku for building cognitive links and positive emotional connections with learning math.  Visualization of spatio-temporal processes across wide geographic ranges, can be understood with small-scale hands on experiments. Once the student can visualize a physical process occurring in front of them and connect to their own experience and skills, the curiosity and inspiration is generally in place to invite them to learn the math and coding languages needed to build a deeper understanding.

Four students proudly display their math equations
Mukilteo School District students Rose, Aphraisja, Abbey, and Morgan hold slides used in the 4th and 5th grade sessions to teach students how scientists use math, engineering, technology, and art to study earth processes like landslides (Photos taken with permission by Christina Bandaragoda, University of Washington).

In one 20 minute session, I was able to convince the students that they understood a complex equation used in landslide prediction – the Factor of Safety Equation (see student photos below, taken with parent permission).

Student's haiku about the origin of landslides
Students wrote haiku following a short, long, short format using key words and concepts introduced during the hands-on activities. (Photo by Christina Bandaragoda, University of Washington).

We wrote Haikus about landslides, requiring the students to synthesize the information they’d absorbed that afternoon into a punch, artistic form of expression.  Genevieve’s haiku gets at the heart of why landslides occur:

Finally, we watched a mini-landslide demonstration on the playground, recreated using a watering can and a Lego house.

Video caption: Experimental models like this demonstration of earth subsidence under a house due to excess saturated soils help students visualize how mathematical concepts such as cohesion, friction, and gravity relate to safety and risk.

At the end of the day, I was so impressed with the ability of each student to retain their newfound information about flooding and landslides.  Finding new and innovative ways to present STEM material, using Art and Relationship building, gives students the best opportunity to become well-rounded scientists.

More information about the STREAM curriculum is available on the UW Program for Climate Change website.

This work was made possible by the National Science Foundation, CBET-1336725 and ICER-1663859, the University of Washington Mountain to Sea Initiative and the University of Washington Freshwater Initiative.