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
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!
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
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.)
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
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.
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.