Have you been considering trying STEM Challenges with your class, but you’re not sure where to start? You want to be sure you’re using your limited instructional minutes well, but maybe you’re not convinced STEM Challenges fit the bill.
There’s really no reason to be intimidated, but you’re right to seek out some information! Like so many things in teaching, the educational value you can get out of these activities varies widely based on a few factors! Your students having fun is pretty much a given, but a little bit of preparation goes a long way to making sure your students are engaged in active problem-solving and deep critical thinking, too!
1) Is the activity you selected truly a STEM Challenge or closer to a “craftivity”?
Let me first say, I’m not throwing shade at craftivities; they have their place, but the goals of a STEM Challenge and craftivity are worlds apart. With STEM Challenges, we aim to provoke and engage students’ problem-solving skills with open-ended (read: not prescriptive) challenges. Student designs should aim to solve the same problem, but their solutions will vary from those of their peers.
A quality STEM Challenge should go beyond asking students, “Can you build a bridge?” The best way I’ve found to give just the right amount of structure, without being too directive, is through a criteria & constraints list.
Using bridge-building as an example, you want to give students a specific goal through the challenge criteria; have them build bridges for maximum capacity, length, strength, height, etc.
In addition, you’ll want to throw in some constraints to fire up their problem-solving skills. I always start by constraining the materials & time for the challenge. Then, depending on the age group and the follow-up lessons I have planned, I’ll throw in additional constraints specific to the challenge at hand. Sometimes that means constraining for size, certain 3D solids, angles, etc.
2) What are you doing during the challenge?
The hardest part of a STEM Challenge for the teacher is learning how to step back. Letting students struggle and work through problems without your “help” can be difficult to witness, especially if they’re asking for it. Your role here is to facilitate, not to direct or give solutions to their problems. If you want students to develop self reliance and resilience — two worthy goals quality STEM Challenges help fortify — understand that you aren’t helping by helping. The hardest part is stepping back, but the best part of a STEM Challenge is watching your students experience joy, pride, and develop confidence when they succeed without your help.
So if students ask, “What are the coffee filters for?” tell them, “Whatever you want them to be for, or nothing at all; it’s up to you what you use, how much you use, and how you use it.” And if students ask you how to fix a design problem, ask them questions in return to help them help themselves like: What is the problem? What are you trying to do? What have you tried? What haven’t you tried?
3) What is your follow-up / follow-through after the challenge is over?
If all you do is build something and move on, you’re missing out on all that beautiful thinking that goes on at the upper levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy! Don’t miss out! Be sure you schedule time for students to discuss, reflect, and analyze on the day of the building, whenever possible. Be warned, it can be hard to tear yourself away from these meaningful conversations and proceed with your regularly scheduled day, but it’s a first-class problem to have.
On subsequent days, try extending with cross-curricular lessons. You’ll also want to give students a chance to apply new learnings in a second iteration. I know that’s not always possible due to time constraints, but trust me on this; if you’ve never tried doing a second iteration of a challenge, you’ve got to make time for it on your next challenge! Students see their progress as they work to improve their original designs — much as they do between drafts of writing — and it goes a long way toward building those character traits we love: growth mindset, perseverance, resilience, and confidence!
Don’t take my word for it. A teacher recently left this feedback (that totally made my day) for my Halloween STEM Challenge Bundle:
“I ABSOLUTELY LOVED THIS!!! MY KIDS ABSOLUTELY LOVED THIS!! I love that it challenged kids in a fun way and allowed kids that may not be “worksheet smart” the opportunity to shine with their tactile design skills! My kids begged me to do it again each week – that same activity because they thought of a new way to improve their design. It was a fun teaching moment where I didn’t feel like the teacher on the Charlie Brown cartoons – lecturing all day. Thanks for creating these – on to find next month’s!”
Don’t wait to become an expert to try it out! My master’s degree is in design-based learning, and I still learn something new every time I run a challenge! Practice is the best way for you to become a better facilitator and your students better engineers!
For students, STEM Challenges are almost always lots of fun, but sometimes designs will fail and students can become frustrated. Embrace the teachable moments if/when this happens! What seems like bad news truly isn’t, because it gives you the opportunity to explore finding and fixing design flaws and thinking scientifically in general! Welcome the discomfort that comes with an initial failure, for you and your students can’t grow without it!
Getting Started Freebie
Now that you have an idea of what you’re looking for, you might want to dive a little deeper. The freebie linked below comes with links to my STEM Challenge how-to video series, an editable request-for-materials parent letter, and links to my STEM Challenge Year-Round library (including the Floating Flowers STEM Challenge freebie). Please feel free to reach out to me with any questions. I can talk about this stuff all day long! 🙂