Get Ready to STEM - You can do it!

I get a lot of questions about doing STEM... How do I start? Where do I get materials? How much time does it take? What kind of challenges should I choose?

Today I'm going to focus on choosing the right kind of STEM challenge because that is the number one most important thing. The rest is just details.


What does that mean? Well just like anything else you teach, your STEM activities need to have a clear reason behind them. Why? Because...

  1. A reason gives you an end-goal and that is how you tell whether your students were successful or not.

  2. Learners who are given a meaningful reason for learning will naturally learn more.

Why spend valuable classroom time on something if you and your students don't really know why they are doing it.


Okay, so this is a big one and some people might take issue with what I'm about to say...

STEM isn't stacking a bunch of cups on top of each other to see who can make the tallest tower. That's a fun contest.

STEM isn't making a butterfly with scraps of paper and fabric. That's art.

STEM isn't making a kaleidoscope out of a toilet paper tube. That's a craftivity.

STEM isn't copying 3-D shapes with toothpicks and gumdrops. That is building something according to someone else's design.

"Whaaaaaaat?" you say. "But I see those things all over the internet!" Yeah, you do... They aren't STEM.

STEM is thinking about a real-life problem.

STEM is brainstorming what to do about it.

STEM is coming up with a detailed plan.

STEM is designing a solution.

STEM is testing your design.

STEM is revising your design and testing again.

STEM involves predicting, estimating, measuring, reflecting.

STEM is a process that requires students to first identify a problem, something that needs to be fixed. None of the examples above present students with any kind of problem, and that goes back to point one... STEM needs a clear purpose.


A true STEM challenge follows the engineering process. It doesn't stop short. And what is that process?

  1. Define the problem.

  2. Brainstorm solutions.

  3. Plan your best solution.

  4. Make a model.

  5. Test your model.

  6. Reflect and revise.

  7. Test your model again.

  8. Share your results.

Many, many, many challenges I see stop after step 4. But is that what real scientists and engineers do? Stop without finding out if their ideas work, if their hypothesis was right?

Of course not! So why should your students?

Take them all the way... please!


Ideally, a STEM challenge will present students with a very clear problem to solve and something that makes them WANT to solve it. Knowing how their ideas might be applied in the real-world can turn disinterested students into highly motivated learners.

A good example is a house building challenge. Students could either...

  • Build the strongest house they can or

  • Design a house that can withstand hurricane force winds for a family living in Haiti

Now, which do you think is more motivating? Which has a clearer purpose? Which has clear requirements that could be tested? You know the right answer.