Well, how about that for a post title? Things not to do in STEM… hmmm, well anyway I do plan to focus my message on positive ideas and the things we can avoid in our STEM classes. Read carefully, because I have a freebie hidden in here somewhere!
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5 Things – The Quick Version
Just a quick overview of my basic points – in simple language:
- Let’s get real about failures.
- Let’s reconsider the rules of the task
- Let’s skip the trends.
- Let’s stop wasting money.
- Let’s rethink complex challenges.
Ready for the details? Read on!
Focus on Growth as Engineers- Not on Success
We certainly want our students to all have standing structures that follow the task constraints. This, of course, just does not happen. STEM projects embrace failure- it is, in fact, the heart of the challenge.
From our failures, we learn to make improvements and try new things. When something doesn’t work as expected, this failure causes us to quickly problem-solve and tackle a new solution.
I find that students are their most creative when their original thinking goes awry and they must adjust. When there is only one solution to a problem students have no need to think outside the box.
The growth mindset of cooperation, resiliency, accepting failure as an opportunity, and a can-do attitude make the STEM lab a comfortable place to learn.
So, focus on growing in STEM. True success can occur even when the towers collapse. What did you learn? What can you do differently? What will you try next? I once had a student jump up and say to me, “I cannot tell you how many times this has failed!” What did he do next? He sat down and got right back to work.
Focus on Simplicity – Not on Overcomplication of the Rules of the Task
I try to make every task have necessary rules and leave out repetitive and lengthy guidelines. A full page of rules for the task is overwhelming. Keep the rules of the task simple. Leave some “holes” in the constraints. Trust me, two things will happen.
Students will ask when they are unsure if something is allowed. Or students will use a loophole to make the design work. The best example is when I say something may be taped to the table. I have had teams build something on the floor and tape it to the side of the table- which helps it stand up. I learned to add that structures may be taped to the tabletop.
Another way you can keep it simple is with the Engineering Design Process. Talk about the ASK Step- define the problem being solved. Plan designs that help develop a solution. Engineer a response to the building dilemma and optimize your solutions by improving your design.
Yes, all my lab sheets for students have all the steps of the EDP, but we do not worry about naming these steps. I never ask students what step they are on! This places the emphasis on vocabulary and that is not my goal. I know we are following those steps!
Focus on Clear Directions and Doable Projects- Not on the Latest Trend
To put this simply- do the project ahead of time yourself. This is the surest way to know if the task rules are going to work and it will alert you to the right materials for the structure.
I cannot tell you how many times I have started building something myself and need another type of material. This makes me change the materials list for students. As I am working, I tweak the task rules, too!
Building myself lets me know how long the project may take and it prepares me for any problem students may encounter.
This helps me know what to anticipate for students. I am ready to answer questions and teach when it is needed.
Also, as students are working I do find that they will run into a problem I didn’t have and my “test class” always helps refine the challenge even more.
Now, about those trends. Yes, you may see a blog post or a Pinterest pin or an Instagram photo that shows a STEM Challenge you just feel a need to try. But, what if you jump into it without trying it first, and realize it’s too difficult or easy for your class. Try it yourself first!
Focus on Using Materials Wisely and Not on Spending Too Much Money
The first year I was the STEM Specialist my principal offered to “find” the money to buy some expensive STEM kits. I looked at the kits and realized that an enormous amount of money would be spent on something that would not have enough to use with multiple classes. I had to think of ways to gather materials at little or no cost.
So, here’s the short list:
- Shop at dollar stores.
- Ask for donations.
- Reuse gently used items.
- Ask if you can place items on your school supply list.
I am linking 2 Materials blog posts at the end of this post that will give you more tips about these. And, I am linking you to a free Google slides document that contains lists of materials and parent letters asking for items to be donated. It is editable!
The button will take you to a Forced Copy page for Google Slides. Make your copy and then you can edit the pages. You will find materials’ lists and parent letters asking for donations! I placed “post-it” notes in the document margins to give you hints and ideas!
Focus on the Purpose- not the Difficulty Level
This seems like such a simple idea, but I am guilty of making things too complex and losing sight of the intention of the challenge. When students became frustrated with difficult challenges I realized there were some things we needed to do. Harder did not make us better engineers.
Things to think about:
1. Focus on the steps of the challenge. It is possible that students don’t know how to do something and they cannot complete a structure because of that one skill. Example: Building catapults.
The first launching device we built was a pom-pom launcher that would throw a candy pumpkin. I realized quickly that students did not understand a “springboard” that would launch the candy. When I backed up and showed some ‘punkin chunkin’ videos they better understood the challenge.
2. Focus on the purpose of the challenge– does it meet the question being asked in the beginning? An example is the best way to explain what I mean. My older students do a more complex catapult than the pumpkin launcher. The photo above shows a row of our catapults. Do you notice they are all just alike? This doesn’t seem like a STEM result, does it?
But, the purpose of this challenge is to create the best catapult to perform specific tasks. The catapult itself is not the focus- it’s the performance of that catapult. We tested different angles for the launch and students kept data on what worked best for distance, height, and accuracy. They used the test results to create the version of the catapult that would be used in competitions. It’s a fun challenge!
Alright STEM Friends! I hope I have mentioned some things that will help you on your STEM journey. The links below will take you to Materials’ blog posts and the Google Slides document (freebie- if you missed it hiding in this post).