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A Few Things That STEM is Not

There is a story behind this post about things STEM is not…

I overheard this one day,

“STEM is just fluff. All they do is play and build things!”

Grrrr…….Well, I decided to arm myself with information and my own experiences and see if I could help you with a few things! I started reading articles about STEM and realized there are still some misconceptions out there…

STEM Challenges have some misconceptions. This post addresses many things STEM is not and includes tips for you!

Just an Overview

Let’s give you a quick glance at my main points:

  • STEM is not spontaneous.
  • STEM is not cookie-cutter.
  • STEM is not a one-time build.
  • STEM is not just building.
  • STEM is not just for ‘fun days’.
  • STEM is not a craft project.

Are you ready to dive in? Here we go>>>>

Not Spontaneous

STEM projects do require preparation. Plan for the time needed and plan for gathering and distributing materials.

Let me explain what I mean by spontaneous. For me, it means something you throw together with little thought and you grab and go while students are working or waiting on you.

STEM might not work that way for you.

Calling all arachnid lovers- this Escape Room is for you! It's all about spiders and solving tasks and puzzles. Your students will love racing from clue to clue and then unlocking the boxes to get their next task. Best of all- this Escape Room culminates with a STEM Challenge!

The easiest way I can explain this is with an example. This Spiders Escape Room has a STEM Challenge that we complete with it. But first, we try the escape part.

Ya’ll, I love my escape rooms, but they require copying, laminating, and arranging the toolboxes with the tasks and locks. It is not something you can complete while your kids are at PE.

So, spontaneity will not work for this one or many other STEM Challenges.

TIP: When you are getting ready for a STEM Challenge, plan ahead. Read through the teacher’s guide so you can be prepared for things that might happen. Gather the materials and assemble them into bins for each team. As with anything we teach, that pre-planning will head you toward success!

Not Cookie Cutter

STEM project results are not all the same. Students create designs and build according to the design. Compared side-to-side differences between structures should be seen.

Think about cookie cutters. You use them to cut out cookie dough and then every cookie looks the same.

STEM projects do not (usually) end up looking the same. Sometimes, the results are vastly different.

Here’s one more great STEM building challenge with the easiest of supplies: Straws and Pipe cleaners! This challenge is to build a geodesic dome! Students will use only two materials for the dome! The challenge involves some research prior to beginning and some discussion of geometric shapes.

Another great example: We started this challenge about geodesic domes by researching what they are and investigating how to piece together straws and pipe cleaners to make our dome frames.

Our end result would resemble a sphere, but made of connected triangles. You would think they would all look alike.

Nope. Every single one of them looked different.

TIP: If you are following a list of directions for a STEM project and telling students the step-by-step procedure, you might not be completing a STEM project. In our STEM Lab, students have a list of rules to follow for a challenge and they all have the same materials, but there is not a list of directions for them. They create their own!

Do projects ever look similar? Yes, they can. One example of this is our Newton’s Cradle project. These do look similar but they are still different. Teams all build their basic frame for that structure in a different way!

Not a One-Time Build

Skills learned in one STEM Challenge can carry over to another challenge!

Let me explain! Yes, some structures are built in a day and we don’t revisit the challenge.

HOWEVER, the skills students learn in that experience carry over to more challenges down the road. How cool is that?

A STEM Quick Challenge is the perfect way to add science and engineering to your classroom! This challenge features the task of creating a blaster for pom-poms using some simple supplies you probably already have. My students loved this so much!

This Pom-Pom Launcher is a perfect example! Students must use the materials to design and build a catapulting device for a pom-pom. This can be challenging.

But… later in the year or the next year students will be tasked with similar projects. Our Basketball Goal challenge has a launcher. Our Football Challenge has a launcher. You’d better believe they remember what they did the first time.

Prior knowledge, y’all!

TIP: Many things students do for the first time will be challenging. Making a car axle, cutting out wheels, using counter-balancing for a tower, and even using tape wisely are all skills they learn how to do and use repeatedly. Don’t be afraid to demonstrate some things- like cutting tape or attaching cardboard or making an axle turn.

Not Just Building

STEM Projects do mean building structures, but sometimes you can add experimenting with models or competing with models.

I feel like I say this so many times in every post, “we build”. It’s even mentioned in the point I just made about one-time builds.

But there is so much more to STEM than building structures.

How far can you launch something with a catapult? Can you hit a target or go over a formidable wall? This STEM Challenge catapult building experience will have your students working together to build a catapult, experiment with different angles, and compete with several performance tasks!

Catapults is a great way to explain. Every team creates a catapult following a model. (Yes, I know, I just said STEM was not cookie-cutter, but bear with me).

Next we experiment with those models. Students change the angle of the catapult device to find the best launching distances and heights. They keep detailed data tables.

Then they design!

Using what they have learned in the experiment they can create a catapult with the correct angle for flying the farthest distance. Or they can change the angle to make a pom-pom launch high enough to clear a table. They will have also learned by the end how to hold the catapult or rearrange the cross-sticks and rubber bands to make it work the best.

Their catapults do look similar, but their style is always different! And we did more than just build a catapult- they experimented, kept data tables, used calculators to average distances, measured, and then designed. Awesome!

TIP: Don’t be afraid to try a multi-day event like catapults. Kids love these events and learn so much!

Not Just for ‘Fun Days’

STEM needs to be consistent and planned for- not used as a special reward that must be earned.

Oh. My. I read this on social media one day:

“My students finally filled their marble jar so we are doing STEM on Friday afternoon.”


Please don’t do this.

Do you love roller coasters? Kids do! This STEM activity is a roller coaster experience. Students have specific supplies and must design and construct a roller coaster model. They must work together and complete the challenge within a time limit. It is truly exciting to watch them work and test their roller coasters. It’s a test of patience with constant revisions.

Please don’t let STEM be a reward for good behavior or just a Friday treat.

It can be fun! But making it a consistent part of the curriculum has so many benefits.

It would take me a whole blog post to tell you all those benefits.

This Roller Coaster challenge will give you a few hints.

Students experiment with free play time. They experiment with arranging a hill for the coaster and try hills of different heights. They log their data and experiment with loops. After two, yes two, class sessions each team has three tubes and several marbles and they design their own coaster. By this point they know which sizes of hills work best and they know how to make a loop work. They add obstacles and supports and then share their final amazing roller coaster. With hilarious names like “The Death Drop”!

I didn’t even mention the math involved or the teamwork or the improving that needs to be done. I told you it would take an entire blog post…

TIP: Make STEM a consistent part of your curriculum. A picture book followed by a STEM Challenge. A math lesson about area and perimeter followed by creating a dream house. And so much more!

Not a Craft Project

STEM projects are not directed crafts. Students do not have directions, other than the goal, and design their own way of reaching the goal.

One day I had someone contact me to ask where the directions were to give the students.

My answer was, “This is a STEM project. Students have rules to follow, not directions.”

Directions make it a craft project.

Are you ready for a Ferris Wheel STEM challenge? Here’s the second challenge of a summer fun series to get ready for back to school time. Kids love this challenge no matter what time of year it is!

So, is this project about Ferris Wheels a STEM project or a craft?

My rules: It must have two sides and be symmetrical. It must turn. It must be elevated with a center support.

My directions: You have craft sticks and glue. Go.

Did I tell them how to do this? Nope. The students looked at images I found online. From there they realized it could not be round because – craft sticks…

They worked out that a geometric shape was needed and a hexagon or octagon seemed to be the idea. Students determined how to connect all of the parts- the support base and the turning axle and the sides of the Ferris Wheel.

Ferris Wheels is a STEM Challenge. A directed drawing is not. Stacking potato chips is not. (It’s a demonstration of the laws of physics.) Making Mother’s Day cards is not STEM. (It’s art- which is fine, but not STEM.)

Now, I could devote a lot more on this post about the Engineering Design Process and how projects need to include those things- but this is already a lengthy post. Also, I already have posts about the EDP. They are listed below!

STEM project results are not all the same. Students create designs and build according to the design. Compared side-to-side differences between structures should be seen.