New year, new thoughts, new ideas, and new resources! I love the feeling of the freshness of a new year, don’t you? Are you ready to try a few new things? How about 21 new ideas in STEM?
This list features some ideas for changing your STEM class, adding some new things to class, and tackling things you have never tried!
Really, 21 new ideas to try?
Yes, really! Some are ideas and some are resources. Some are different ways to use resources in your STEM class. There might even be some unusual ideas! But, here is the truth- I have tried all of these ideas. They work. So, let’s get going on this list of 21 ideas! (This is a long post- but so worth it!)
# 1 – 2 – 3
#1 – Get students involved. Let them choose what to build. After talking about something in the news or something students are studying, ask for student input.
“What can be built to represent this event?”
This happened in my STEM Lab one day…
We were building shark traps. I had constraints posted and then students started planning. Very quickly a group said, “Wait, are we supposed to be killing the sharks?” NO! That was not my intent. But, it was unclear.
A lively discussion ensued and the talk centered around the protection of the sharks. I finally said, “Ok, it looks like we are taking a different approach, so tell me the rules of the task.” We listed the rules and they got to work. These little engineers invented a new way to do the project that worked great!
IDEA: Set up the challenge and let students help make the task rules.
#2 – Try rotations with the materials. This is something we tried whenever I had a class that was ahead of the others in a grade level. They needed something to do for just one week. I used STEM Bins for this. I put the bins on my lab tables and gave out a different task card to each group. They had 5 minutes to build something that was shown on the card. At the end of the time, the teams shared their structures and then every group rotated to the next table. Each team had new bins and I passed out new cards. Kids love this!
Idea – If you do not have STEM bins (yet) you can just give every table a different bin of materials you do have – cotton balls, craft sticks, straws, interlocking cubes, Lego, Jenga blocks.
#3 – Use a picture book to inspire your challenge. This is a method I use with first and second graders often. We read a picture book and then I ask students what they would like to build from the book. I choose 3-4 of their ideas and let them vote and then we build the models. Everyone builds the same thing. I have blog posts about these events and I will post them at the end.
#4 Repeat a Challenge
The Index Card Challenge is a perfect example.
So, the first time you try this challenge use the traditional cards-only building event.
The next time – add a rule. The tower must hold something at the top. It must be a certain width. It must have a square base. You get it- just add a rule that will challenge them to use what they already know about using the cards as a building tool. The new rule you add will make them re-think every thing. Kids love this!
# 5 – 6 – 7
#5 – It’s invention time.
We tried this as part of training for a STEM competition. Our teams were given a bin of materials and told to create something that could reach a length of 2 feet and pick up an item to bring back. The focus was on using the materials well and not on creating a specific item.
Every team built something that was different! Another way to look at this is to think of a STEM Challenge you have tried- say Building Boats or Catapults. Students have the same materials but they are all building a boat or a catapult. The invention idea is to build something for a functional reason. So, in the example above one team might build a fishing pole while another builds a claw hand.
#6 – Geometry Scavenger Hunt – have you tried this? Each team needs a camera. Send them out to take photos of anything they find in the school that represents a geometric shape or combination of shapes. You will be so surprised at all the things they find. It’s an exciting challenge. When this hunt is over have every team compile their photos into a PowerPoint or Google Slide form to share with others. This activity, by the way, is a perfect idea for distance learning!
#7- Use floor tiles to work on area and perimeter.
This is an eye-opening activity. Just use blue painter’s tape and mark off spots on your tile floor- rectangles or irregular shapes. Students will determine the perimeter and area of each shape.
They literally walk over these shapes to do the counting. Talk about hands-on! (or feet)
# 8 – Paperless Task Cards
Yes, I know… would you really try task cards in the STEM Lab? Absolutely!
Here’s the thing- students don’t always have the background knowledge needed for a challenge. Task card sets can spur interest, fill in the missing knowledge, or take the place of formal research. Call it mini-research.
These paperless sets are perfect- the task cards are in Google Forms and can be accessed via computers, Chrome books, or tablets. No printing or laminating- just assign.
# 9 – 10
#9 -Let’s talk about materials!
This is one area I learned to tackle early in my STEM Lab- I found great ways to gather materials from places other than my pocketbook!
The best place- parents of students!
Send home a note with all students, have it placed on your school’s website, have the principal add it to a weekly newsletter, but ASK for materials. Parents will send you more cardboard tubes than you will ever use- I have bins and bins of them. When I ask for boxes I get so many I have to store them in another closet down the hall. (Think Amazon) I have asked for pancake ingredients, craft sticks, and pencils and parents will send them in!
#10 – Ask local businesses for donations! Local vendors will give you boxes of paper cups or foam cups. Our local hardware store saved the industrial cardboard tubes and small boxes for me. A parent that worked there would deliver them about once a month. Need wood? Ask a hardware store or local builders to save scraps. How about microscopes? Our Partner in Education bought us a class set of student-microscopes!
#11 – Try a Digital Breakout
The first escape rooms I tried in the STEM lab involved boxes and locks and making copies and laminating. Let me just tell you- kids absolutely love these escape activities. Some students told me that the locked box events were their favorite things we did in STEM.
But, the boxes and locks can be daunting- so start with a digital breakout. All the students need is access to a computer or tablet-type device. These digital breakouts are also perfect for virtual classes!
#12 – 13
#12 – Use those balance scales.
Our lab already had sets of scales and I found, during one challenge, that students did not know how to use them. So, we stopped and learned how. They especially loved the balance set with tiny weights.
Add balance scales to your materials list for your school to purchase or a partner-in-education. Our lab has one set per lab table and a few spares. You might also try to find a digital scale, a spring scale, and pan scales. All are fun to learn to use.
#13- Use those microscopes! The display cabinets in our lab have rows and rows of microscopes and always, always, I have students ask about them. It is a fascinating instrument that too often just stays on the shelf. I have a microscope week during which we learn ways to carry the microscopes safely, use slides, and focus. We also make our own slides by going on a scavenger hunt outdoors. If you are looking to buy a class set look for student versions that are made in one piece!
#14 – Try a Flip Book
This is a perfect activity for introducing STEM and the Engineering Design Process. I have completed this booklet with third graders each year to get them ready to tackle bigger projects.
This is also a great activity to leave with a substitute. Sub-days are especially difficult for specialists. I struggle to know what kind of activity I can leave that will be meaningful and enjoyable. A flip book is a great idea!
#15 Theme Week
I love having theme weeks. We have Water Week, Coaster Week, Math week, and more.
When students see our posted agenda and it says, “WATER WEEK”, they come in the lab excited and ready to get to work. They also look closely at what each grade level is doing that is water-based.
During Water Week, the third grade makes boats or water slides, the fourth grade makes boats with task cards, and the fifth grade makes water pipelines. This idea works so well for me because having those water pans out and towels ready works better if every class needs them.
So, plan a theme week with every grade doing something related to the theme!
#16 Escape Room with Locks!
A real locked box event with a STEM Challenge is perfect for the STEM Lab. As I said earlier in this post, my students really loved these events.
We complete the escape portion one week and the following week we tackle the STEM challenge.
The example in the image is the Gold Rush Escape and the STEM Challenge is to build a raft.
Yes, you need boxes and locks, but all of my escapes include a “paper lock” system that you can use instead!
#17 Experiment and Design
This is one of my favorite ways to complete a STEM Challenge. Prior to the building activity students experiment with different materials. The results of the experiments are written on data tables and we talk about what worked best or what did not work at all.
In the image you can see that the paper strips are different widths. That is one of the variables tested in the Hoop Flyer challenge.
The idea with these challenges is that students will use their data to create the ultimate structure. So, in the Hoop Flyers challenges students will choose the lengths and widths of the paper and straws to build the best flying machine!
# 18 Try a Faculty Challenge
Your students will love this! We tried it one year as a team-building exercise for our faculty. I gave out the materials for the Spaghetti Tower challenge and the tables of teachers built the towers. #eyeopening
This not only gave the teachers a peek into what we did in the STEM Lab- it gave me a chance to show the students how their teachers completed a structure.
# 19 – Integrate a Challenge with other Subjects
The popcorn challenge is a perfect example. I use this with third graders to help them understand volume.
In the challenge, students must use the materials to build a popcorn container. The contain must hold the popcorn perfectly. The students are told how many pieces of popcorn will be in the container, but I don’t show them the popcorn. They use samples to plan their container.
Fabulous challenge using MATH!
#20 Real-World Connections
My Cargo Drop challenge came about after I watched a news video about a flooded area in which the residents were stranded and unable to get food or water. Airplanes were dropping pallets of water and meals. Cargo Drops was born from that video.
The discussion we had in class was focused on why people would need cargo dropped and how to drop it safely. We also watched some videos of actual drops to get ready to build our own!
#21 STEM Con 2021
Registration will open soon for this amazing event. If you attended last year’s conference you already know how wonderful it was.
I will add a link here as soon as registration is open! Twenty-five presenters, prizes, free downloads, and so much to try in 2021!
Friends, I know this year is going to be great! I am ready to tackle some new things in my life and hope I have inspired you to try 21 new ideas for STEM.
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