Many teachers have done the spaghetti and marshmallow challenge in the classroom and called it a STEM project. It’s a great activity, but is it really a STEM activity? Sure there’s an engineering aspect to it, but what about the other components? Looking back, these types of activities are what we refer to as surface-level STEM activities.
WHAT IS STEM?
STEM is the idea that science, technology, engineering, and math are taught as an integrated subject rather than four distinct areas. STEM also incorporates real-world problems into the learning. Students are able to practice problem-solving, teamwork, and design thinking.
Looking back at the spaghetti and marshmallow tower, it’s pretty clear that it doesn’t stand up the test of what STEM truly is. Again, it’s a great activity, but let’s call a duck a duck.
The STEM Ed Coalition has some fantastic guidelines when thinking about STEM in the science classroom.
STEM education must be elevated as a national priority as reflected through education reforms, policies to drive innovation, and federal and state spending priorities.
STEM education is closely linked with our nation’s economic prosperity in the modern global economy; strong STEM skills are a central element of a well-rounded education and essential to effective citizenship.
Our nation must expand the capacity and diversity of the STEM workforce pipeline to prepare more students for the best jobs of the future that will keep the U.S. innovative, secure and competitive.
STEM CHALLENGES THAT MAKE THE GRADE
Over the last 4 months, I have collaborated with Chris Kesler and John Spencer to develop STEM projects with higher standards in mind than your traditional surface-level activities. The framework of each project uses the Launch Cycle, which embraces design thinking as the process to bring out the maker in every student.
The key guidelines we used when developing the STEM projects are:
- Comprehensive student projects that focus on all aspects of STEM
- Fix the brainstorming process
- Structure project-based learning to unleash creativity
- Build creative confidence in the classroom
- Lead a STEM movement without spending a lot of money
- Hold students accountable for their learning
LET’S WALK THROUGH A STEM CHALLENGE TOGETHER
The first component of the challenge is to build excitement about the project using a real-world problem. The anticipation for the project can even begin before you start the activity with your class. I always liked to build some buzz around a project, because students begin to build a relationship with the idea that something fun is coming their way.
THE VIDEO STEM CHALLENGE
A video STEM challenge is introduced and the adventure begins. Students are used to consuming video on a daily basis. This gives us teachers a great opportunity to meet them where they’re at. Each of the videos is hand-drawn, includes music, and has voice-over (yours truly) describing the challenge.
BRAINSTORMING QUESTIONS AND OBSERVATIONS
Students are going to want to get to work right away and start building. This is an opportunity to talk about the design process and how it takes brainstorming, critiquing, failing, and learning to end up with a great product.
Student teams will have a STEM notebook that will guide them through the process with leading questions and activities. Teachers will have an accompanying PowerPoint and lesson plan that will allow them to facilitate the pacing.
One of my favorite parts of the LAUNCE Cycle is having teams share and critique each other along the way. For example, once some initial questions and observations are written down by each team, the teacher will facilitate sharing session amongst all teams. This allows teams to learn from each other and grow stronger as a team.
RESEARCH NEW LEARNING
There are going to be questions that students are going to have to research to find answers to. This is where technology and science play a vital role in the STEM process. In the Birdman STEM challenge, students are asked to research Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. This newly learned information is deeply integrated into the overall problem solution.
BUDGET CONSTRAINTS AND PURCHASE ORDERS
Many of the projects will introduce budget constraints just like any real-world scenario. Students will have to prioritize their goals and fill out a purchase order for the supplies they need. They will also need to understand how their solution will be scored. Some of the scenarios require an understanding of a scoring rubric before beginning any part of the process. Other activities are going to have to meet specific requirements in order to complete the challenge.
TEST TEST TEST
Before any construction on the project happens, the students will sketch out their ideas. They will present those ideas for others to critique. This process will allow the students to go into the build with a well-formulated idea of what the final project will look like. Critiquing the output prior to the actual building will cut down on unnecessary supply usage.
Although the testing day is likely going to be the highlight of the activity, one of the most important aspects of the Launch Cycle is that students will get to share their learning with others. Encourage students to take pictures and video throughout the project. When it comes time to reflect on their learning the media will add a lot of value to their “launched” product.
We just recently created a new blog at STEMstudents.net where students can share their work with the world!
We also have a FREE STEM Challenge below that you can download by signing up. If you like this FREE project, you’ll love our bundle of 12 Stem Projects currently on sale.
STEM Challenge Projects
20% Bundle Discount
FREE Roller Coaster Project
Sign-up to get your free STEM Project!