STEM Challenges can be absolute MAGIC in our classrooms when done well, but we sometimes inadvertently undermine some of the best benefits!
Teaching is tough. We’re responsible for so many things! Just one of those is helping students develop grit to help them be successful in their adult lives. STEM Challenges can help you help students work on this little-by-little, day-by-day. Here’s the catch: if you aren’t deliberate in your planning and approach, you run the risk of missing out on all there is for students to gain: collaboration, problem-solving, scientific analysis, persistence, determination, self-reliance, and resilience.
I know you’re busy: so let’s get right to the point! I’ve summarized the main points below. If you prefer to watch the video, or just want more details, scroll past the summary and you’ll find the video and its transcription.
Top Three STEM Challenge Mistakes
Giving Too Few or Too Many Directions
Too Few Directions
Students need a framework to bump up against to unleash their creativity. Simply asking, “Can you build a ______?” isn’t going to produce the same level of critical thinking as a challenge with a proper Criteria & Constraints List.
Too Many Directions
On the other hand, too many directions can be worse! You run the risk of turning a challenge into nothing more than a craft! Avoid showing students completed designs, giving them obvious materials (e.g., boxes for a shelter challenge), or helping them solve design problems. You aren’t helping by “helping”!
We have become obsessed with assessments. I don’t believe in grading the design itself. Where would be if the first attempt at a light bulb had received a grade? For me, the emphasis should be on process over product. When students show an honest attempt at addressing the criteria & constraints and have taken the time to reflect, discuss, and analyze, I am happy. Not everything needs a grade, and sometimes assigning grades has unintended consequences like inhibiting the creativity and risk-taking students exhibit in their designs.
Your Fear of Failure
I’d like to should this one from the mountain tops! By far, this is the most insidious problem, and it leads to two issues: assigning challenges with criteria & constraints that are too easy and giving up on challenges too early.
Teachers resist failure, but so much good can come of embracing its possibilities! Remember that it’s called a STEM CHALLENGE; if you assign a true challenge, you must accept there will be struggle and possible (temporary) defeat. Success sure is fun! Everyone loves success, but embrace the reflection and scientific analysis that comes from failure when you take the opportunity to explore and rebound!
Lab scientists still haven’t found cures for all the diseases. Aren’t we all glad they didn’t throw their arms up in the air and assume that since the first attempt failed, it must not be possible to cure cancer? I like to suggest that 99% of science is failure. We need to stop getting upset when challenges aren’t across-the-board successful in the first round. In getting agitated or annoyed, we suggest to students that success should come easily and when it doesn’t, it must be too hard!
Instead, we should try to control the emotion of things not going as-planned. Be analytical and curious. What worked well? What didn’t? What did we expect to happen? What did happen? Adopt an attitude of expecting first attempts to not succeed — or at least that it isn’t surprising when they don’t.
Note: If you watch only one section of the video, let it be this one! It starts at: 2 minutes 53 seconds.
Hi. I’m Kerry, from Feel Good Teaching, and today I want to talk about three, common mistakes teachers are making during STEM challenges. Let’s get right into it.
Mistake 1: Too Much or Too Little Direction
The first mistake teachers are making is giving too much or too little direction. Let’s start with too little. If you’re asking students, “Can you build a bridge?”, or, “Can you build a tower?”, you’re missing out on a lot of potential opportunities. Think about the kind of writing your students might produce if you simply asked, “Can you write an essay?”, or, “Can you write a story?” What we want to do is give students an idea of what the parameters for success entail.
One simple thing you can add, of course, is just an overall goal. The highest tower, or the longest bridge, or the bridge that can hold the most weight, but we can build in layers from there, thinking about what types of content standards we might want to start building in.
For example, if we know after the fact, we’re going to be reading Three Billy Goats Gruff, and we want there to be enough room for there to be trolls underneath the bridge, we can add a height requirement that that bridge needs to be above ground by a certain number of inches or centimeters. Or, maybe you know you have a unit on earthquakes coming up, so you can add a criterion about the stability of that bridge, so then you can relate it to those content lessons that are coming in the future.
On the flip side, if you give too much direction, you run the risk of turning this into a craft, rather than a challenge. Now, crafts have their place, but they do not provide students with the types of problem solving and critical thinking skills a proper STEM challenge should.
You always want to avoid showing students examples of completed designs, using obvious or directed materials, or helping them too much when they get stuck on a design problem. Remember, you’re not helping your students, by helping your students during STEM challenges.
Mistake 2: The Assessment Trap
The next mistake teachers are making, is in how they assess STEM challenges. I do have another video on assessments during STEM challenges, but I need to cover a few points here, because it is a very common mistake.
First, I would recommend considering whether it’s even necessary to assess your STEM challenges. For me, what I look for, is the student groups have made an honest attempt to meet all the criteria and constraints set forth in the challenge. I also require each individual student, to complete a record and reflection handout. I personally don’t believe in grading the actual design itself, but if you’re going to do so, I would say never on the first iteration. To me, that feels a little bit like grading a quick-write as though it’s a final draft of writing.
The reason I don’t grade the designs themselves, is that, to me the designs are actually incidental or secondary. To me the emphasis should be far less on the end result, and far more on the thinking, analysis, and reworking of designs. To sum it up, process over product.
Another reason I don’t like to grade the actual designs, is because of the way that impacts how my high-achievers approach some challenges. What I want to see, is creativity and innovation, but what happens when my over-achievers know the end result is going to be graded, is they try to play the game. Instead of taking risks and doing something creative, they try to figure out, what do I want to see, and then produce that so they get the grade they’re looking for. I don’t want them playing that game. I want to see what they create, when they aren’t worried about the grade they’re going to receive.
Mistake 3: Teachers’ Fear of Failure
The absolute worst mistake teachers are making with STEM challenges, has everything to do with their mindset about failure. A teacher’s fear of failure can impact a challenge in two ways. One, it can make her create a challenge that’s actually too easy for her students, and thus, not challenging. Two, it can influence her to give up on a challenge too quickly.
I always recommend that you set up a criteria and constraints list, that you think is just pushing your students a step too far from what they can actually do. You’ll be surprised. A lot of times you are wrong, and they can do far more than you ever imagined. It sure is nice when they succeed.
Of course, I love when that happens, and the students love when that happens, but there’s so much to be gained when they fail, and you don’t have to shy away from that, or be scared of it. We want to embrace the challenge. It’s a challenge, not a craft.
In each STEM challenge you should go into it knowing full well, your students might fail, and you can do so without being nervous, because you know, if they do fail, you’ll be able to follow up with some of the most powerful lessons on scientific reasoning and analysis. You also know, that when students meet with struggle, that helps them develop their persistence and resilience. Failure is not just okay, it can be great. It can provide for some of the most teachable moments you have all year.
Sometimes I flippantly say that science is 99% failure. That’s obviously a dubious stat. I don’t have anything behind that. Think about that famous quote from Edison about the light bulb … “I haven’t failed, I found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” This is where I mean that sometimes, teachers’ fear of failure makes them give up too soon.
If a challenge doesn’t go well the first time, sometimes teachers say, “Oh, that was too hard for my students. Oh, we can’t do it.” I encourage you to think about lab scientists … have they found all the cures for all the diseases we have, yet? No, but did they say, “Oh, I guess it’s too hard and it can’t be done. People are just going to die now”? I, for one, am so glad our scientists are still looking for cures for all the different kinds of cancers and other diseases. That’s what’s so exciting about STEM challenges … is, we have the ability to help students build up that persistent, resilient spirit.
In order to do that, we have to give students opportunities for multiple iterations, and we also have to approach these challenges, not with the mindset of, “It should be successful on the first time”, but that it’s completely normal, and probably expected, that many times our first attempt will fail. Trust in your students ability to problem-solve and bounce back, and give them the opportunities to do so.
When you’re preparing for your next STEM challenge, ask yourself, “Am I giving too much, or too little direction? Am I assessing in the right places, if I’m assessing at all?” And, “Have I let my mindset about failure, negatively impact my students’ experience, as they’re working through the engineering process?”
Hope that helped you out. If you have any questions at all, please feel free to reach out. Make sure you’re following, or subscribe, so you don’t miss anything.
Have a fabulous week. I’ll see you next time.