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3 Kid-Tested Ways to Conquer the STEM Planning Step

It’s Back to School time and you know what that means…. brand new, never-used crayons, new clothes, and lots of new sneakers.

One year I watched all my new students filing in and noticed the array of new shoes. Later, in the day I had them all stand in a circle and I stood on a desk to take a photo of just their shoes (and legs). It was a great picture to add to my newsletter!

Now, I am just like you in knowing that the beginning of the year is a time for planning, planning, planning……. and my goal with a few blog posts this month is to help you get going with STEM.

Today’s post is about planning- but not your planning. It’s the planning procedure we use in STEM class.

BTS STEM Series #2- It's all about a planning procedure for your STEM Groups!

Let me be totally honest…

When I started as a STEM teacher I had no clue. None. The first time I told kids to get together and plan for their structure was… interesting.

They all grabbed materials and started to build something. They didn’t talk to each other. They didn’t sketch ideas. They didn’t share duties. They argued. Some sat and did nothing and later complained because they had no job.

Clearly, I needed a procedure for PLANNING TIME!

And, that is what I am sharing with you today. It’s a much-tested procedure that WORKS! Here’s what we will cover:

  • Sketching and Sharing
  • Deciding what to do
  • Assigning Jobs
I promise, this works, and it will completely take care of the left out kids, the bossy kids, and the kids that are just caught in the middle. I will tell you more about this later, so stick with this long post! #bonusattheend


The very first thing we do is sketch an idea. (Now, that’s not really the very first thing because we will have talked about the rules of the task and what we are building and stuff like that first. But, you get it!)
So, what is sketching? What does it look like?

Planning Procedure for STEM Groups! It works!
Every student sketches his or her idea. Everyone!
This means draw what you think should be built. Follow the task rules. Label your sketch.
So, I know what you are thinking. And here are some answers to those questions!
  • What about kids that can’t draw? You know what, this happens, but not as often as you think! Most of the time everyone draws something. I do hear kids say their drawings are terrible, but they do try. I assure them as we are learning this procedure that it is not the artistic ability we are looking for in the sketch. It’s a representation of the idea. 
  • What if someone would rather write? Then do it! I do tell kids they can write about their idea and some do this. But,  honestly, drawing a picture is easier!
  • Why label it? We use different materials for structures all the time. Labeling just lets the team know what materials will be included in the structure and how they will be used. You will forget what the items are in the drawing if you don’t label it – and we don’t always finish structures the first day.
  • What if a student says he or she does not have an idea? I insist on sketching anyway. I usually will stop and talk with that student just long enough to get some thinking started. Almost always the student will discover they do have an idea. One of my favorite quotes from the lab is this one, “My idea stinks, but I am going to draw it anyway!” Refreshingly honest!


When each member of a team has a sketch (or written) idea it is time to share.

We actually practice this at the beginning of the year. I use one team as the demonstration group.

One student gets up and faces the others and shows a sketch. The student sharing the sketch points out the materials being used and tells about how the structure will be made. And tells why the idea is a good one.

Each team member does the same thing. Students may ask questions of each other as they share. But, everybody shares. With the demo group I have the rest of the class watch as the first two students in the group show how to do this, and then the whole class does it. I float around the room listening and helping and encouraging.

Some questions:

  • What if a student doesn’t want to share? My rule is this: If you do not want to speak to your team come and talk to me! When a student does this, I have them tell me about the sketch. And, you know where this is going, right? After telling me, I say the right encouraging words to get that student turned around to go and share with the team.
  • What if someone is painfully introverted and just won’t do it? Y’all I was that kid as a little girl, so I totally can relate! I do ask that student to speak these words to the team, “I do not want to share my sketch, but I will help decide what to build and I will do my job to help get it done.” Or something similar to this!

Decision Time 

After all the sketching and sharing, the team decides how to proceed.

Again, I have the demonstration group show how to do this. I coach them through the beginning with some leading questions, like these:

  • To each student, “Which of the ideas do you think is best and why?” 
  • “If your idea is the best, what makes it the best?”
  • “Is there a way to combine any of the ideas?”
  • “Could you use one idea and then have a Plan B in case something goes wrong?”
  • “Are the ideas similar? Could you use something from everyone?”

After this quick demo, the whole class has the same kind of discussion. What am I doing then? Floating around, listening, and encouraging, and helping to make the decisions.

And the last step of the decision process is the best! This is something we do only at the beginning as we are learning this process, by the way.

Every team tells the rest of the class what the team decision is! One student (or more) from each team tells the rest of the class how they arrived at the final idea. In telling about this final idea the team can see that it was a mutual decision with everyone having a voice. Later in the year, we don’t do this group sharing. It’s only the first couple of times until the procedure becomes automatic.

On to Jobs

This is the part that is so fun to watch after kids learn how to do it!

BTS STEM Series post about the STEM Planning and Job Assigning Procedure that works!

After the team has chosen an idea or combination of ideas, they must make a list of possible jobs that will need to be done as they work. They must list enough for every team member.

This will differ from one challenge to the next based on the rules of the task. Some commonly used jobs for us include:

  • Tape manager
  • Data collector/ writer (This is what you see in the photo above.)
  • Main builder
  • #2 Builder
  • Garbage patrol
  • Retriever (the one that goes to get things!)
When the list is ready, the team decides who will do each job. Some kids will automatically volunteer for a job. I find that those shy little engineers will choose to be the tape manager/cutter. Kids that do have artistic ability will volunteer to do any of the decorating of the structure. In the end, everyone has a job or two.
Another thing you can try with assigning jobs is to use job badges and we occasionally do this:

Job Badges for STEM groups- kids use these to help determine what their specific job is within a team!

When I do use these I hand them out completely randomly. It’s a good way to switch up the procedure we follow and kids do enjoy being called the Project Supervisor! I have these sets in my Teachers Pay Teachers store in many colors. Each set also includes posters describing the jobs.

One really good thing about the job badges is the random selection of kids to do things. It brings out some leadership qualities that otherwise might stay hidden with our shy ones.

Now, to answer the biggest question: 

What is the benefit of following a planning procedure?

  • A planning procedure is like any other procedure you teach in your classroom. Lining up, morning work, bathroom passes, using your library, etc. Those things work smoothly when kids understand the proper procedure!
  • For your kids that are usually left out of things, this procedure is perfect! I mean the kids that are quiet, don’t speak up, or have a quirky personality. These are the ones most likely to not be part of the decision and then not have a job. Later, when you talk to that kid he or she will say they were not given a job or the others would not listen. This procedure eliminates that.
  • For your little bossy engineers, this procedure maintains an even keel. It makes it much harder for the bossy ones to take over the group and do everything. The bossy ones have to listen while others share and state reasons their own idea is the best- just like everyone else.
  • For those kids stuck in the middle between the two extremes, this procedure also helps them be part of the group.
Is this perfect? Goodness, no! We still have occasional drama, but I step in and we work through a fair procedure to get the group back on track. Generally, this just means talking through what everyone is thinking and I make sure everyone listens. 
Ok, STEM Friends, I hope this gives you some things to think about as you dive into the new school year. Go back to last Wednesday’s post to read about Team Building Events that will get STEM started up. On Friday, I will have a post telling about some perfect and EASY STEM Challenges that will get you started. Simple is always better at the beginning!
Thanks for sticking with this long post! Want a cheat sheet (and a bonus poster) with this planning procedure?

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