STEM Challenges: Basics and Beliefs

Today, I have a special guest post by my friend Kerry of the blog Plans for a Better Tomorrow. She is writing about STEM, as I read many people want to know more about it in my survey. She is very knowledgeable, and I just love all of her challenges! I hope that when you are done reading her guest post, you will feel informed and excited about STEM!

STEM challenges intimidating you? Don't let them! STEM challenges are an excellent way to teach and foster a wealth of authentic, hands-on learning, as well as skills such as critical thinking, creative thinking, perseverance, cross-curricular connections, and more. This guest post goes over the basics of STEM challenges--materials, iterations, and more--as well as the benefits of facilitating them.

You’ve probably already heard about STEM challenges, but maybe a few things are unclear. STEM challenges are activities where students design and build solutions to problems using a combination of science, technology, engineering, and math skills.

STEAM challenges are the same thing, with “Art” included. Personally, I prefer to keep it simple and just use the term “STEM” for two reasons: 1) Though art is implicit in any design challenge, I don’t often actively relate arts standards to my challenges, and 2) My challenges frequently pull from subject areas outside of STEM, and the acronym is going to get out of control if we add letters to the acronym when we incorporate P.E., reading, social studies, etc.!

Common Attributes of STEM Challenges

STEM challenges intimidating you? Don't let them! STEM challenges are an excellent way to teach and foster a wealth of authentic, hands-on learning, as well as skills such as critical thinking, creative thinking, perseverance, cross-curricular connections, and more. This guest post goes over the basics of STEM challenges--materials, iterations, and more--as well as the benefits of facilitating them.

Simple/Cheap Materials
Think: pipe cleaners, straws, foil, cardboard, masking tape, paperclips, craft sticks, etc.

Hands-on Problem Solving
Students are presented with a problem they must solve through the design process by building some sort of device. Most challenges are 3-D, but 2-D challenges are possible!

Collaborative
Students typically work in groups of 2-4; occasionally, students might design individually.

Criteria & Constraints
With a writing assignment, students might be told to write an essay about xyz, cite their sources, and keep it between 2-4 pages. In STEM challenges the guiding framework is the criteria and constraints list. Students reference the list while they build to ensure all requirements are met and limitations are not violated in their designs.

Benefits of STEM Challenges

This was a tough list to narrow down. On a different day, I easily might have chosen to focus on other areas. Honestly, I could go on and on, but here are my top picks:

STEM challenges intimidating you? Don't let them! STEM challenges are an excellent way to teach and foster a wealth of authentic, hands-on learning, as well as skills such as critical thinking, creative thinking, perseverance, cross-curricular connections, and more. This guest post goes over the basics of STEM challenges--materials, iterations, and more--as well as the benefits of facilitating them.

Getting Started

Sounds amazing, no? Ready to dive in? There’s a lot to know, but it’s all pretty simple once you get into the swing of things!

STEM Challenge Cycle

Engineering/design is a process, not unlike writing. Thus, you’ll need to understand and apply the steps of the process. The amount of time you spend in each step will vary based on your students and the complexity of the challenge. If you click on the image below, it will take you to a short video clip (~1 min.) describing the steps. (Note: The clip is taken from a longer video, so you’ll want to stop it after the last step is explained.)

STEM challenges intimidating you? Don't let them! STEM challenges are an excellent way to teach and foster a wealth of authentic, hands-on learning, as well as skills such as critical thinking, creative thinking, perseverance, cross-curricular connections, and more. This guest post goes over the basics of STEM challenges--materials, iterations, and more--as well as the benefits of facilitating them.

Keys to STEM Challenge Success

1) Criteria and Constraints
Set up guidelines to help students understand the requirements and limitations of the challenge. Err on the side of too challenging; you’ll be surprised what your students can do!

2) Materials and Group Size
Choose simple, cheap, malleable materials, and ask for donations for materials you’ll use frequently (pipe cleaners, masking tape, foil, etc.). Recommended group size: 2-4 students. Anything higher, and there are always students who are left out in the group.

3) Time Management
Give yourself 90 minutes for your first challenges. Once you and the students have experience, you’ll be able to get that down to 45-60 minutes, depending on the complexity of the challenge.

4) Multiple Iterations
I just can’t stress this enough: Multiple iterations are where the magic happens! Just as students must revise their writing — not just tell you what they could do to improve their writing — students must revise their designs! This is where they apply new learning from content lessons, research, and experience.

5) Facilitate, Don’t Lead!
Make sure you know your goals before you start the challenge. My primary goal is to develop independent, resilient problem solvers who don’t fear failure. Thinking about this before starting a challenge reminds me that I need to back off; helping students doesn’t always help students! So, I don’t solve their problems or tell them how to fix their designs. Ask questions, engage in conversation about the designs, but remember that the designs belong to the students!

Each of these steps is further described in the video below:

Where to Find Challenges

There are many options floating around the web for free and for sale. Some classics include building a bridge, a tower, or a boat. The truth is, you can find inspiration for STEM challenges most anywhere! If you’ve got a problem, then you probably have a STEM challenge. I bet you could come up with a challenge related to the problem of The Three Little Pigs!

FREEBIE: Getting Started with STEM Challenges

STEM challenges intimidating you? Don't let them! STEM challenges are an excellent way to teach and foster a wealth of authentic, hands-on learning, as well as skills such as critical thinking, creative thinking, perseverance, cross-curricular connections, and more. This guest post goes over the basics of STEM challenges--materials, iterations, and more--as well as the benefits of facilitating them.

This freebie includes links to STEM challenge “How-to” videos, an editable materials donation request letter, and links to my STEM challenge resource library. You can also find new videos with tips and tricks and challenge walk-throughs posted weekly to my YouTube channel: Plans for a Better Tomorrow.

Please reach out if you have questions or topics you’d like to see addressed on my blog or channel.

Credits:
Fonts
Clip Art: Swirly Arrow
Clip Art: Magnifying Glass

Kerry taught for 10 years in grades 2-7 and holds a master’s degree in Design-Based Learning. Her teaching “loves” are science and writing. You can find out more by clicking below.

Plans for a Better Tomorrow

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Anna

    Thank you! I love the information you present here. I’m incorporating more STEM into my classroom but I don’t want to do it just because it is a trend. I want to do thoughtful activities that help push my students into more problem-solving and productive teamwork. I do have to disagree with you on the use of STEM vs. STEAM. I have done numerous Math and Science activities that incorporated Art and I just can’t leave out the A. I just value Art too much to leave it out of of the acronym.

    1. Tammy

      Hi Anna. Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m glad that my guest blogger was able to provide you with lots of information regarding stem. ๐Ÿ™‚ I don’t know how familiar you are with my blog, but I am a HUGE fan of the arts and am all about trying to incorporate things such as drama, drawing, painting, singing, etc into our activities because I feel kids really need it. So I completely agree with you. I think, if I understood my friend Kerry (the guest blogger) I think she was stating that we could get hung up on acronyms all day, and that was what she was talking about. I don’t think she was saying to remove art, but that there could be so many acronyms if we continued. I hope that makes sense. ๐Ÿ™‚ Have a great day and stop by again some time!

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