Planning a thoughtful STEM learning approach

By Adrian Bertolini

Dr Adrian Bertolini on how teachers and library staff can work together in the interest of enhancing STEM learning.

You can’t develop great STEM learners in a piecemeal approach, and it doesn’t have to cost too much either. As research into excellence shows, high performance in any field arises from ‘a confluence of dozens of small skills or activities, each one learned or stumbled upon, which have been carefully drilled into habit and then are fitted together in a synthesized whole’ (Chambliss, 1989).


There is so much that is free online you can achieve quite a lot on a shoestring budget.

I grew up in a working-class immigrant family and it seemed we never had enough money to do things I wanted to do. This led me to entertain myself with activities such as tadpoling, riding my bike to see friends, playing sport, delivering the local paper to earn some money, and even finding and attempting to repair stuff tossed out in hard rubbish. I often couldn’t repair what I brought home, but it taught me something special – the importance of being curious and having a desire to know how things worked.

This curiosity and desire for knowledge led me to do well at school, get degrees in science and engineering, teach Aerospace Engineering and eventually start my own educational consultancy to empower students and teachers around STEM learning. 

In the past two years I have been working on a book called Igniting STEM learning: A guide to designing an authentic primary school STEM program about developing an authentic primary school STEM program. What I have realised during the writing process is that my ability to be a great STEM learner and educator is due to the repetition of small skills and thinking via seemingly inconsequential activities in and out of school. 

In this article, I am going to share one structure from my book that makes a big difference in planning, resourcing and leading STEM learning in school. It will enable your school to create a whole-school plan to develop great STEM learners. While I will be using primary school examples here, the approach is equally applicable to secondary and specialist schools.

Developing a STEM learning ladder

Resourcing STEM learning is a persistent challenge for library staff and schools. Questions constantly arise about whether the school should buy product X or software Y, and how much it would cost. Do we buy robotic system Z or purchase this science equipment? Also, what if teacher so-and-so leaves - will the equipment end up gathering dust in the cupboard?

Before purchasing anything, teachers and library staff should work together to create a learning ladder. A learning ladder maps the progression of core skills, materials, equipment and resources that will support students as they become highly capable STEM learners. This could include practical skills, digital and design technologies’ knowledge and skills, as well as any other STEM-based skills. It is useful to have this map because it ensures there is a plan to provide students with the necessary habitual exposure, practice and skills to tackle more complex STEM tasks and projects as they progress through their schooling.

Digital and design learning ladders can be developed using the requirements of the Australian Curriculum: Technologies as their guide. This will enable schools to think of the technology and physical resourcing requirements for embedding the
digital and design technologies curriculums in an effective and progressive manner through students’ years of schooling. It will also support coherent future planning for when new technologies and approaches become available (for example, augmented and virtual reality, 3D printing, laser cutting and so on).

Table 1 shows an extract from a draft digital literacies learning ladder. The teacher examined the Australian Curriculum: Technologies documents to get a sense of what was required at each year level and categorised the possible software, hardware and concepts that could be applied at each point. She explored what free and paid software could be most valuable, what technology the school already owned and what software or technology the school may need to buy.

One of the key features of the learning ladder shown in the table is the Stage of development row. This row outlines the expected progression of development students will go through as they learn to drive their own learning. By using the ladder to plan for repeated coverage and interwoven practice, teachers will be able to move students from acquisition to consolidation to application. 

Learning ladders can be designed to capture a progression of milestones for other key STEM skills, such as practical skills (e.g. sewing, drawing, cutting, using tools), research skills, ICT skills, and the ability to use general software programs such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Once designed, year-level teaching teams can use the learning ladders to ensure their planning, pedagogy and assessments develop the students in the identified knowledge, skills and thinking. 

Year level: Focus Foundation: Language and movement Years 1 and 2: Language and movement Years 3 and 4: Software Years 5 and 6: Software
Stage of development Acquire Acquire Acquire and consolidate Consolidate and apply

Programming a person using step cards.

Lightbot Jr (Term 4).

Unplugged coding.

Programming a person using step cards.

Scratch Jr.

Unplugged coding.

Scratch (creating games and animations).

Minecraft Education.

GameStar Mechanic.

Hopscotch (block code).


Code Combat (Python).

Scratch (creating games
and animations).

Minecraft Education.

Python (written code).

Code Academy (written code).

Grok Learning.


Program BeeBots to move to a particular destination and write down simple coding using pictures /arrows /directional language (tie in with procedural texts)

Lego® WeDo.

BeeBots - program a dance, link to counting and number lines, addition, subtraction.

Dash & Dot

Lego® WeDo.

Probot (buy?).

Dash & Dot.

Blue Bots.

Lego® WeDo2.0.

Lego SPIKE™ Prime.

Probot (buy?).

Sphero machines.

Lego® WeDo2.0.

Lego SPIKE™ Prime.


Breaker space – students use tools to pull apart different household items and even computers. (Need to ask parents to donate appropriate items they would normally throw away in hard rubbish.)

Labelling a paper computer.

What is a website or the internet?

Breaker space – as in Foundation

Make a computer (out of materials).

What is the internet? Browsers, search engines, login and navigation.

Folders – what does this look like? (organisation).

Maker space – could use Lego blocks, blocks or planks. – gets students to pull items apart and then put it back together to develop simple creation (need items donated for students to put back together).

micro:bit, LittleBits, Arduino (buy?), 3D printers.

Organising files into folders.

Maker space – as in Year 3/4 but more complex making. – as in Year 3/4 but have students fix more complex items.

micro:bit, LittleBits, Arduino (buy?), 3D printers.

Network routers etc – map the home network.

Table 1: Extract of a draft digital literacies learning ladder

What to focus on

There is so much that is free online you can achieve quite a lot on a shoestring budget, which is why I wrote Igniting STEM learning: A guide to designing an authentic primary school STEM program. It takes schools through the thinking and planning to come up with their own solutions to their circumstances while meeting Australian Curriculum requirements. Whatever programs you design, just make sure students are left curious and wanting to know how things work!

Adrian Bertolini

Learning Director

Intuyu Consulting

Adrian has taught Aerospace Engineering, run the ruMAD? (aRe yoU Making A Difference) program, and led leadership programs in Australia and the US. He now leads his own educational consultancy coaching teachers and school leaders while organising unique STEM conferences across Australia for students and teachers. His book Igniting STEM learning: A guide to designing an authentic primary school STEM program will be available from Hawker-Brownlow Education in August.