(and how not to worry about it)
It was the spring of 2013 when I first heard these words,
“We are going to have a STEM Lab next year!”
Well, I didn’t exactly know what that meant, but I researched a little and then went back to my principal to let her know the job was going to be mine. And it was!
Now, many years later I have learned so much. One thing that worried me, at first, were the articles and blog posts I kept finding that seemed to have some “myths” about STEM. So, let’s talk about five myths concerning STEM and how I can clear up those misconceptions for you!
A Myth about STEM – # 1
STEM curriculum is not creative. You just build stuff.
I read that in an article. STEM is not creative. Kids just build things and everything looks the same. Y’all. This is just not true. Even with the same task constraints and the same materials, the structures I see in class are all different. And, let me just tell you this: KIDS ARE AMAZING!
They have no fear! Most of them are not striving to be PERFECT. They just want to complete the task and add their own special touches to the devices. And that’s when I see their creativity!
Take a look at that photo above. The kids were building a box. The constraints required that the box be a certain size and it had to have a handle. However, what we ran into was that the boxes would not stay closed when picked up by the handle. So, teams had to add a fastener to hold the box closed. Do you see what that team did? Look at the arrow. It is showing you the little hook they created to hold their box shut. That is creative!
TIP: Allow time for decorating! Kids want to do it. They love making signs about their structure and adding those wonderful little decorative items. And, you need a scrap box. My students know to go to the scrap box when they are decorating. They will find all colors of paper in small amounts (many of them with a hole in the center because kids).
Myth # 2 –
STEM focuses on only one subject- Science.
Yes, Science is a major focus. But is that all? ABSOLUTELY NOT!
Our favorite challenges involve the scientific method and experimenting. This means we must keep data and this involves research, calculating, averaging results, analyzing results, and concluding from those results.
We write in every class. The kids must write explanations, draw or sketch ideas, jot down notes about what is happening, record improvements in their designs, and then write reflective paragraphs. We don’t always research, but we do use electronic devices to find information when we need it, we find ideas to help with designs, and we use recording devices to view our presentations or create our presentations.
But, here’s the BIG advantage of STEM. It’s not just about the academic subjects. The collaboration and teamwork are profound. Kids learn to work together as a team with the best interests of the team at the heart of the task. They learn to take on jobs and responsibilities and share the workload. They make DECISIONS! Good gracious, this is a big issue- making the right choices. I would have to say that STEM encompasses just about everything. It’s not just science.
And, by the way, that photo is showing you the amazing Barbie Bungee Jump. In this challenge students experiment with the length of the bungee cord and keep data in graph form. Then we plot expected distances based on the trend on the graph to determine what length would work best for a major 7-foot drop. Oh my, the math in this one is crazy good!
TIP: Let students use calculators. This makes the challenge about the structure and not those precise calculations that a calculator can do for us.
Another Myth about STEM – # 3
STEM is only about gadgets and robots and circuits.
For some people, the acronym STEM brings on the vision of robots, robotics, engines, and complicated circuitry. Those are part of STEM class, certainly. But, there is so much more. STEM includes the T for Technology and again, you immediately think of computers and then probably robots.
However, technology is defined as this: It’s the purposeful application of information in designing and producing goods and services or for use in human activities. Here’s another meaning: Technology means using materials in a way to solve a problem.
This might include using materials in an unusual or innovative way. Wow, does that sound like only robotics? No! It sounds like designing and building a device to solve a problem, maybe using materials that might not be the ordinary ones for that problem. Yet you tackle it anyway!
Now, think about that! Isn’t that real life? If you have not seen the movie called Apollo 13 you need to watch it. In that movie, the astronauts have to build a device to replenish their oxygen supply and they must use only the materials they have on the spacecraft. The materials were not meant to be used for this purpose, but it’s all they have (they are in space!) Friends, this is STEM! It’s not just robots!
But, speaking of robots! Take a look at the photo above. That cute little robot is from our Design a Robot Challenge. Students use a variety of craft items to create a robot and must create a function for it. The function must be reasonable and something I would purchase for use in my home. So, no saving the galaxy with this robot- I want want that will scoop the cat litter! Ha!
TIP: You need some cardboard tubes. Seriously, those cardboard toilet tissue or paper towel tubes are a perfect STEM material. Ask parents to save them for you!
Myth # 4 –
STEM is only for kids that are planning to be engineers when they grow up.
This myth just makes me laugh! Seriously, who would believe this?Let me just set this one straight.
STEM is for every kid! I see a little more than 350 kids each week and of that number, I would say about 10 don’t like STEM projects. The rest think coming to STEM is the best part of their week.
This is for so many reasons. Kids that are artists are the creative part of a team. Kids that like to build things are the construction crew. Kids that like to be exact are the tape managers or the person that keeps the group on task. My best students are NOT always the natural engineer type students. My best students are the ones that don’t do well in other subjects. Struggling readers, reluctant writers, not so great at math kids… those are my best students. They work hard because of one simple fact- in STEM class, failure is part of the process, and being able to re-do and improve is what they need to do all day long. STEM is for all kids.(Climbing off my soapbox now.)
If you would like to throw a little bit of real life into your STEM class try the Dream House Design project (pictured above). Students use graph paper to design a house that has their dream rooms. Don’t be fooled, however. This is more than a drawing project. As they design their rooms, the students must also calculate the area of each room! Love throwing in some math!
TIP: If you try a project like this do add a few basic rules. Students that have completed this in my lab will often have 14 rooms for sports and watching movies and making donuts and have zero bathroom or no closets. Yes, I allow the dream rooms, but my constraints include some basic rooms that all houses must have!
Finally, Myth about STEM # 5 –
STEM is expensive.
Okay, friends, I will not lie. Materials for STEM can be daunting. Goodness, I have made pancakes for THREE weeks with two grade levels and that amount of pancake stuff was over the top. But, they sure did learn a lot!
I have another challenge that requires five-foot lengths of PVC pipe, but once you buy them you have them forever. And, you can always substitute broomsticks. Go see the custodian!
Anyway, yes, materials can be a lot to purchase or have donated, but you can also build about anything with straws and craft sticks. So, let’s just dispel that myth about materials being expensive.
TIPS: Ask parents and local business to donate to you. Parents will save cardboard boxes and tubes for you until you run out of room to store them. Make a shopping list for things from a dollar store and put it on your website. YOu might be surprised at what parents will buy for you. I have lots more tips about gathering materials and I will link those below!
By the way, that cute poster set is one I created for first and second graders who needed Engineering Design Posters. For a few dollars you can grab a set like this, print it, laminate it, and use it for years! I have so many colors of this set for upper grades!
Click on any of the images to see the resources.
Blog posts about Materials: