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7 Tips to Avoid a Total Flop in STEM

A total flop! What? A STEM Challenge total flop! What is that? You know, to be honest, I don’t even know. A total flop to me is going to be different for another teacher.

I am guessing that a teacher expressing a STEM Challenge as a total flop means that none of the teams were successful. Total flop might mean no engagement, it might mean materials were wasted, or students could not finish.

See what I mean? It is hard to define “total flop”!

STEM Challenges can work perfectly - or NOT! This post offers great tips for what to do when your STEM lesson is a total flop!

JUST A NOTE: I am writing this for STEM teachers or classroom teachers that have tried or will try a STEM Challenge in the future. If you have ever experienced a STEM failure this post is for you. Failures happen for so many reasons. I have narrowed the list down to seven areas- the most common reasons I think you’ll have a flop. Tips are from my experience as a STEM Specialist.

Let’s talk about the age group.

STEM Challenges can work perfectly - or be a total flop! One tip is to consider the age group of your students.

When you choose a STEM Challenge, check the suggested age group. Sounds simple, right?

However, you know your students. When a challenge claims to be for 5th graders, does this mean all 5th graders?

Here is the thing. I have multiple classes. Some classes in a grade level can handle a project. The next class in the same grade cannot. Early in the school year, I discover which classes are going to need a little bit more background or research before beginning a challenge.

One year I had a third-grade group that could not complete anything. While all the other third-grade classes moved through projects, that one class spent more time learning to work together and completing small tasks. We spent about 6 weeks using five-minute challenges to get the class acclimated to STEM activities.

Does this mean the challenges were flops? Failures? No! It just meant I had to consider the age group and how best to work with them. When a group struggles I know they are just not ready for that challenge- YET!

IDEA: Try the Paper Chain Challenge. It’s a challenge I will link for you at the end of this post. It is suggested for grades 3-5. I have used it for all those age levels. The results are vastly different!

What about the time of year?

STEM Challenges can work perfectly - or NOT! One tip is to consider the time of year. Beginning of the year students might not be ready.

Think about the time of year when you try a challenge. Here is a great example:

I taught third-grade for years. On the first day of school, a lot of 3rd-graders would write on the wrong side of a piece of notebook paper.

And me telling them to flip their papers over needed to be repeated daily. This got better as the year went on. STEM works like that, too! Students will learn how to cut tape, use craft sticks, bend or tear materials, and how to work as a team.

A challenge that doesn’t seem to work in August is one you need to repeat in January. I promise you will get different results!

IDEA: Try the Index Card Tower. It’s a super-easy prep challenge. Use it in August and then repeat it in December. Let students build and watch as they complete the tower in a very different way and with more height and balance. Then add the Christmas version of the challenge. It is more challenging, but they will be able to do it!

If your first venture is a “flop”- talk about it with your students and repeat the challenge a few months later. They will love using all their new knowledge to build a very different structure.

How many STEM Challenges have your students tried?

STEM Challenges can work perfectly - or NOT! One tip is to consider the experience level of your students.

Let me share a personal story about my students having a lack of experience with STEM.

It was my very first year as a STEM Specialist. I introduced a rescue challenge to my fifth graders.

They had NEVER completed a STEM Challenge prior to this day.

I explained the rules and they got busy. Five weeks (yes, 5 weeks) later we packed up the structures and moved on. You could call this a STEM flop.

I recognized it for what it was. My students had no idea what they were doing. Working as a team was a brand new idea. Using materials to create a pulley system was a daunting task. The teams were too large. They didn’t get it.

I got it though! I backed up and slowed down for our next challenge. We spent plenty of time building teamwork ideas and learning how to build easier structures before we tackled a large project again.

STEM Flop? Absolutely not! I learned a ton and so did the students.

IDEA: Don’t be afraid to stop a challenge and change course. Modify the rules of the task. Make it easier or harder. Make it work for your age group. Learn that sometimes things just will not work the way you expect.

Speaking of experience…

STEM Challenges can work perfectly or be a total flop! One tip is to consider the background needs for your students.

Schema. Yes, I use that term when introducing a STEM Challenge.

And you know what? Students immediately know what I am talking about.

They know what schema is because of reading lessons in the regular classes.

Do students need schema for STEM? Yes, they do. Students do not always know what you are talking about when you tell them they are building something.

For many challenges, the background knowledge students need is essential. You may have to spend a class session just learning about the structure- before the students try to build anything.

We build a “gliding bridge” which is a form of the tarpul bridge. The story behind this bridge system is fascinating. We watch a couple of short videos, look at photos, and talk about the mechanics of the bridge system. Without this building of schema, the challenge is apt to be a flop.

Establish the background!

IDEA: Try the Gliding Bridge! By the way, my STEM resources all have notes in the teacher’s guides about a scenario to introduce the challenge. In some resources, I have pages dedicated to an explanation of the structure, links to videos, suggestions for books to use, or how I established schema.

Those Tricky Materials

STEM Challenges can work perfectly - or NOT! One tip is to consider the familiarity of the materials and how to use them.

Y’all, the first time I handed out pipe cleaners as a building material I was flabbergasted.

Students did not know how to wind them together to hold something tight. They did not understand how they worked at all!

Here are a few more items I discovered students did not automatically know how to use: paper clips, binder clips, hole punchers, and rubber bands. They do not automatically know how to tie a knot, create an axle, use string as a tie-down, or how to blow up a balloon.

I know that most STEM teachers keep a hands-off approach when students are designing a structure. I get that! But…sometimes, they do need some assistance with basic building materials and how to use them.

Before thinking a STEM Challenge is a flop, consider how the students might have needed an adult to show them how to clip something with a paper clip or how to make something symmetrical.

IDEA: We complete a Snowflake Challenge in the wintertime. Before even starting the process we watch a video and look at drawings of snowflakes. This is really fascinating! Snowflakes have many shapes and sizes and some are not symmetrical. But many are. If the ultimate goal of a challenge is to create a symmetrical shape, I make sure students understand what this means! For this challenge, they might also need help with manipulating pipe cleaners 🙂

How much time do we have?

STEM Challenges can work perfectly or be a total flop! One tip is to consider the amount of time needed for the challege.

This question is probably one of the top five questions students ask me.

How much time do we have?

If you teach multiple classes you know what I mean.

Our class sessions are one hour. That includes building schema, designing, building, improving, sharing, and cleaning up. It is hard to squeeze it all in.

So, what happens if I see that teams are not going to finish? Does this mean the STEM Challenge is a flop? I’m going with NO! This means we need to set a more realistic time frame.

You know your students and how experienced they are with STEM. You know if their age is appropriate for a short time frame. You know if they are on track with the challenge and just need 15 more minutes than you have allotted.

It is okay to stop, talk about frustrations, restart, stop again, and add more time to the session. If this means packing everything up and saving for another day, then do it! If my resource says it is a one-hour challenge, that means we did it in that time frame. You may need more. Or less.

IDEA: Consider using one class session for building schema, watching a video, reading a picture book, looking at materials, and drawing blueprints. Use a second session to review those blueprints, assign jobs, and build the structure. One challenge we do that works perfectly as a 2-class session is Roller Coasters.

In this challenge, we spend one session experimenting with hills and loops and using only one foam tube. This includes viewing an animation of a roller coaster and discussing momentum and gravity. We also talk about centripetal force. In the second session, students are given more foam tubes and they build their ultimate coaster design.

Failure is okay.

STEM Challenges can work perfectly - or NOT! One tip is to consider that failure is okay. Not all challenges will be successful.

I cannot say this enough. It is alright for a challenge to fail. Students may be frustrated, but this does not mean the challenge was a flop.

It means we have things to learn.

Some students, teams, or entire classes need many iterations in order to bring about the outcome desired. If you want a car to roll, you may have to experiment with many axle designs before one works. We don’t stop when the first trial fails.

If you want a balloon to propel something it may take many iterations before you find the right size and the right structure to make a boat or car move. We don’t stop when the first trial fails.

If we are building tube coasters we will need many iterations before a marble will travel the entire length and fall into a cup at the end. We don’t stop when the first trial fails.

Failure really is alright. This is how we learn. Imagine if the astronauts on Apollo 13 stopped trying to save their lives when their first efforts failed. But they didn’t. The crew and Mission Control kept working until they found a way to bring that spacecraft back to earth.

In Summary…

STEM Challenges can work perfectly or be a total flop! A summary of the tips found in this blog post.

Just a few things to remember.

STEM Challenges fail or “flop” for many reasons. Use this checklist as a constant reminder.

Adjust challenges to suit your students.

Now, I know some of you are thinking, “But, sometimes, the challenge just does not work!” Yes, to be honest, I have had challenges that did not work the way I expected.

When this happens I say, “Oh my goodness, this is not what I thought would happen. Let’s brainstorm what we need to fix this!”

Students help me adjust the materials or the rules of the task. And guess what- we try again.


STEM Challenges can work perfectly - or NOT! This post offers great tips for what to do when your STEM lesson is a total flop!