March 14


10 Ways KidLit + STEM Thinking Stimulates Inclusion by Patricia Newman

When I taught remedial math in a rural high school, I knew my students read below grade level. I introduced word problems to help them practice reading comprehension. One freshman named Mark said, “Ms. Newman. What is all this reading $%#@. This is math class.” Mark unwittingly emphasized the boundaries between subject areas that always troubled me. Years later, I’m still pushing the integration of STEM with language arts through my writing, but I’m going one step further. I want educators to discover the benefits of STEM thinking in combination with children’s books as a viable way to create an inclusive classroom environment for children of diverse cultures, socio-economic strata, and physical abilities.

Prior to my Sibert Honor acceptance speech for Sea Otter Heroes, I read an article in Scientific American which essentially proposed teaching college students in Liberal Arts disciplines to think like scientists. It sounded like a great idea to me, but I wondered why only college students? I believe we should teach students of all ages to think like scientists. In science we ask questions, build models, develop investigations, interpret data, exchange ideas, and ask more questions to either confirm our thinking or change our minds.

While my brain processed the SciAm article, a school visit provided the next piece of the puzzle. The librarian asked me to spend a short time on Neema’s Reason to Smile before transitioning to Plastic, Ahoy! Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Neema is a fiction picture book about the real-life students at Jambo Jipya School in Mtwapa, Kenya. With themes of equal access to education, global citizenship and perseverance, it demonstrates a familiar approach to cultural inclusion. On the other hand, Plastic, Ahoy! is a photo-illustrated nonfiction middle-grade book about our ocean plastic problem.

These two books couldn’t be more different. I asked the students for help. They identified the differences with no trouble, so we moved on to the similarities.

One third-grader blew me away. She said, “They both want us to DO something.”

A light bulb went on in my head. The DO-ing is the key. Hands-on inquiry is a natural fit with STEM thinking. Research shows that inquiry-based learning increases student achievement and self-confidence,[1] [2] [3] [4] but there may be another advantage. In the DO-ing, students find inclusion.

Let me give you three examples:

  1. After reading Zoo Scientists to the Rescue, a fifth-grade class in Citrus Heights, California created endangered species projects with a twist. Working in pairs, the students first researched a number of facts about their chosen animals. Next, using MakeyMakey coding kits, they added audio narration and questions to challenge their audience. The classroom was alive with shared answers, and excitement. Collaboration in its purest form was tangible.
  2. In Berkeley, California Plastic, Ahoy! challenged fourth grade students to become a zero-waste classroom. They asked, “Could we use less plastic and generate less trash?” They reused, recycled, and refused single-use plastic by making substitutions in their lunch boxes, art projects, and nearly everything else in their school lives. The tiny trash can in the photo represents the students’ landfill waste for the entire school year.
  3. A sixth-grade teacher in Long Island, New York created an Acts of Kindness Campaign after reading Neema’s Reason to Smile. Although Neema is not a STEM book, any book can challenge students to become STEM thinkers. They assembled bracelets strung with rolled recycled-paper beads and sold them. Their sale involved goal-setting, planning, making a commitment, calculating a price point, and determining how many bracelets to make and sell. The students raised $300 to sponsor one student at Jambo Jipya School for a year.

In each of these examples, students experienced the ten ways STEM thinking stimulates inclusion. STEM-thinking students:

  1. Get involved. STEM thinking requires collaboration, a process that celebrates the differences of everyone in a classroom and allows students to find their niche.
  2. Develop communication skills. Students learn to listen to one another and articulate their own thoughts. The Long Island students brainstormed and discussed a variety of ideas before agreeing to make and sell bracelets.
  3. Build social skills. As students share ideas, they also learn about each other’s similarities and differences, building a foundation for future interactions.
  4. Play to their strengths. Students with diverse skills, viewpoints, and talents are essential to solve any STEM problem. STEM thinkers are writers, artists, and deep thinkers of all colors, cultures, ability levels, and personalities.
  5. Develop their creativity. STEM solutions often require out-of-the-box thinking. STEM kidlit provides a number of inspiring examples. (Visit STEMTuesday or LitLinks for suggestions.)
  6. Develop critical thinking skills. STEM thinkers learn to make plans and practice making predictions to inform their decisions. The Citrus Heights students had to figure their way around a number of obstacles in the coding component of their endangered species assignment.
  7. Build motivation, self-confidence. Hands-on inquiry comes with failure, so even little successes taste sweet. And that sweetness is addicting.
  8. Apply learning to daily life. STEM problems are real-world problems. Students in all three schools found that STEM thinking requires analysis of the world around them.
  9. Increase awareness. Many real-world STEM problems also include a social justice component. The Berkeley and Long Island students discovered how hands-on inquiry can lead to school and community activism.
  10. Build GRIT. The nine items listed above require perseverance. For that matter, so do STEM careers. And reading. And life.


Patricia Newman’s books inspire young readers to seek connections to the real world. Titles such as Eavesdropping on Elephants and the upcoming Planet Ocean (Oct. 2020) encourage readers to use their imaginations to solve real-world problems and act on behalf of their communities. A Robert F. Sibert Honor recipient for Sea Otter Heroes, Patricia’s books have received starred reviews, Green Earth Book Awards, a Parents’ Choice Award; been honored as Junior Library Guild selections; and been included on Bank Street College’s Best Books lists. Patricia frequently speaks at schools and conferences to share how children of any age can affect change. Visit her at



[2] Gormally, Cara; Brickman, Peggy; Hallar, Brittan; and Armstrong, Norris (2009) “Effects of Inquiry-based Learning on Students’ Science Literacy Skills and Confidence,” International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Vol. 3: No. 2, Article 16. Available at:

[3] CINDY E. HMELO-SILVER, RAVIT GOLAN DUNCAN & CLARK A. CHINN (2007) Scaffolding and Achievement in Problem-Based and Inquiry Learning: A Response to Kirschner, Sweller, and, Educational Psychologist, 42:2, 99-107, DOI: 10.1080/00461520701263368

[4] Nuangchalerm, Prasart; Thammasena, Benjaporn (2009) “Cognitive Development, Analytical Thinking and Learning Satisfaction of Second Grade Students Learned through Inquiry-based Learning,” Asian Social Science: Vol. 5: No. 10. Available at