Grab your Free Guide - 3 sTEps to stem success

Tips for Back to School

Are you excited to think about school starting back? I always wish there were a few more days of summer until I actually go to school and start working in my classroom!  

I love putting up fresh bulletin board paper and new borders and I love working on all the ideas I have thought about during the summer.  

Let’s face it- part of teaching is the anticipation of the new year and getting ready to greet those new students. For me, I will have brand new third graders in my lab that will need to work on team building and learning the steps of the Engineering Design Process. My older students will need some team activities and some easy STEM challenges to get back into the routine!

If you are looking for a few tips to get your STEM classroom ready I have some great ideas for you!

It's Back to School time and we all can use some fabulous tips to ease into the year! This post coves teamwork and includes some activities. Teaching your classroom rules can be so much fun using the Rules challenge.  And, suggestions for easy challenges and a Back to School Escape Room are included! #STEM #Escaperoom #backtoschool

Let’s Break This Down into Some Easy Steps 

  • Teamwork is such a big part of STEM.
  • Teach the Engineering Design Process.
  • Learn your classroom rules.
  • We need some easy challenges.
  • Maybe it’s time to try an Escape Room.
  • Are you ready for a sub?

I love making lists, don’t you! It is an organizational trick for me to help me stay on topic! #truth   *(Links to blog posts are included throughout this Back to School extravaganza!)

This is one of the most unique STEM Challenges ever! It’s a group tower build for the entire class.  Each team begins with a bin of materials and a set of task cards. Every team completes task 1 with a 5 minute time limit. Then they rotate! That’s right, they all move to the next table. This continues through 6 rotations. In the end, six towers have been built and every team was part of each! It's a fabulous beginning of the year challenge to encourage teamwork!


I have so many posts right here on this blog that are about teamwork and how important it is.   STEM challenges can completely fall apart if a group cannot get along with one another and stay focused on the task. But, the ideal teamwork plan never gets off the ground by just telling kids to “work as a team”. Trust me. I have tried that!

So, we work on being a team! I have several game style activities that force the entire class to work together to create success. Kids love these and we start every year trying a few in each class.

TIP: I have multiple classes in each grade level. I would love to keep every class on the same weekly plan, but it doesn’t work! Some classes can complete teamwork activities and they are ready to move on to STEM challenges. Other classes need another week or two of procedures and team building activities. My tip is to treat each class individually. If they need more work on being a “team” then we do the work!  

I also have the perfect STEM Challenge for encouraging whole group teamwork. It’s called the Platform Tower. The photo above shows the challenge.

In this tower challenge, each group begins with the same materials and a task card to build the base of the tower. The team can choose whichever materials they think will be needed. After five minutes, every group rotates to the next table. The second task card explains how to build the next part of the tower.   The twist to this challenge is that the second part of the building task is built on a tower started by a different team. If the first team has misused the materials the second team has a tough job. And, after five minutes we rotate again.   This is one awesome way to get a discussion going about teamwork! It sounds like it might be a great way to start a disagreement, but the opposite is what I have seen. I actually see teams stopping and going back to the team that started the tower to ask them about what they did so they can move forward with the second part of the tower.  

LINKS to Teamwork Posts:  

This is a great booklet to create for Back to School with your students. This flipper book set is about STEM, STEAM, and the Engineering Design Process! Create five, six, or seven-page booklets with colorful covers or color your own covers. And, a full-size poster set is included to display as students work! #STEM #Backtoschool

Engineering Design Process

One of the things I start my third graders with – after teamwork –  is learning our classroom procedures. This includes learning about the design process.

My favorite way to do this is to talk about each step and why we do it. We also talk about some of the parts of each step and what we might be doing as we complete a challenge.

And because I know third graders love new markers and crayons we make a Little Flipper booklet about the EDP and STEM!

These little booklets stay in the pockets of their lab folders and we can refer to them all year if we need to!   LINK to an Engineering Design Process post!  

Posters for your rules in the STEM Lab with cute dot people showing each rule!

Classroom Rules

Oh, how we love to go over the classroom rules. #notreally   I do think kids start to tune us out when we go through so many rules in the first days of school.  

I tend to focus on only a few a day and we practice and practice and learn new ones and practice more. Those first two weeks are the training ground for the entire year! I know you already know this!

And then, last year I had this wild brain-pop and wondered if we could learn our rules by completing a STEM Challenge.

Using some very simple materials students earn them by completing a scavenger hunt. Then they use the earned materials to build a model that demonstrates one of your classroom rules! Oh. My. Goodness! This is so fun!

The photo is showing the little dot people (from the posters) storing lab materials safely on a shelf.

I used it last year with every single class and had some fabulous models of our rules. And, here is the best news: the kids remembered this all year. Many, many times a student would remind us about a rule- as someone was potentially not following it! Perfection indeed!   


Students will follow the steps of the Engineering Design Process in this challenge in which they have only 12 cards to build a tower.  It is amazing to watch them create a tower and use the supplies in the best way possible. They will improve the design constantly and will creatively get their towers to stand up and be measured. It's a perfect challenge, using a minimum of materials, to launch STEM in your classroom. #STEM #backtoschool

Easy Challenges

This is a tower building event that uses only 12 index cards. It sounds so simple, but it is challenging. The best part is that you only need about 100 index cards of any size. You can change the rules of the task to make it harder- like adding something with weight to the top of the tower. Have your kids name the towers based on a back to school topic. Add one more material to the tower- like a single pipe cleaner- that must be at the top. It’s very versatile!


Here's an Escape Room experience for your elementary students. An Escape room is a puzzle game in which students solve riddles and puzzles and find clues to finish tasks. In this Quest, students solve puzzles to open locked boxes. This challenge was designed for third, fourth, and fifth graders. This Escape Room is all about starting back to school and kids will really love working with their team to solve these puzzles and open the locked boxes! #STEM #Escaperoom #backtoschool

Escape Rooms

We launched this type of challenge last fall and the kids absolutely loved the activities.    Teams begin with a task and discover clues as the task is completed. The clues lead to numbers and they determine which is the correct lock code to open a box. When the box is opened the team receives the next task.   After completing three tasks, students receive materials to complete a STEM challenge.

I cannot tell you how often kids ask me when we will complete another Escape Room! I cannot invent them quickly enough.

This Escape Room pairs perfectly with the Classroom Rules STEM Challenge. As students unlock the last box, they will receive materials or the scavenger hunt paper that starts that STEM challenge.   (The challenge is free separately and included in this escape room resource.)

LINKS to blog posts about Escape Rooms:  

Back to School Math Practice sheets ready to print and use in just a few minutes!  This is perfect for review of skills for the beginning of the school year in your upper elementary classroom!  This set features fourth and fifth-grade skills of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and logic puzzles. Sheets have space for solving and some have an answer column for ease in grading. The resource also includes a doodle sheet and two gameboards! #Mathworksheets #backtoschool


Have you ever been absent in the first two weeks of school?   It is so hard to prepare for a substitute that early in the school year! You don’t know your students very well and putting together lesson plans for a day or two is even more difficult than normal! I have a solution for that!

This Back to School math resource is perfect! It has skill sheets focusing on the standards that are part of the first month of school, a doodle sheet that kids love, and two game boards. (Just add dice!)

TIP: Copy these pages and place them in your sub binder so an emergency sub can make copies as needed.

Let’s Recap!

The beginning of the year can be (or almost always is) overwhelming! So, let’s put all these tips in order.    

  1. Try some teambuilding activities. This is perfect for STEM, but it’s something a regular classroom will benefit from, too!
  2. Rules and procedures- teach and practice. Use a booklet to teach the Engineering Design Process and use the Free Rules Challenge to introduce your rules and STEM.
  3. Try an easy STEM challenge to keep building on teamwork and your procedures.
  4. Dive right into an engaging Escape Room!
  5. HAVE FUN!
Tips and resources for Back to School Time! Check this post for details and ideas.
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