I get a lot of questions about teaching STEM. What exactly is STEM? How do I start? Where do I get materials? How much time does it take? What are some easy STEM activities to start with?
Today I'm going to show you how to choose the right kind of STEM activities for third, fourth, or fifth graders because that is the number one most important thing. The rest is just details.
Why focus on 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students, you ask? Well, most younger students aren't quite ready for the full engineering design process. They are definitely ready to explore science concepts and learn about the scientific method which are the building blocks of a real stem activity.
So for those younger learners in 2nd grade and below, a simple experiment is a great way to introduce them to the basics of science.
So now, what are some good STEM lessons for your young scientists in 4th grade and up? Let's look at how to get started...
STEM CHALLENGES MUST HAVE A PURPOSE
What does that mean? Well just like any other subject, when teaching STEM, your activities need to have a clear reason behind them. Why? Because...
A reason gives you an end-goal and that is how you tell whether your students were successful or not.
Learners who are given a meaningful reason for learning will naturally learn more.
Why spend valuable class time on something if you and your students don't really know why they are doing it.
WHAT STEM IS NOT
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 activity, a contest.
STEM isn't making a butterfly with popsicle sticks and pipe cleaners. That's art.
STEM isn't making a kaleidoscope out of a toilet paper tube. That's a craft.
STEM isn't copying 3-D shapes with toothpicks and gumdrops. That is following directions.
"Whaaaaaaat?" you say. "But I see those things all over the internet!"
Yeah, you do... and they aren't STEM. They don't follow the engineering design process. Even a simple science experiment isn't STEM.
STEM IS ABOUT SOLVING REAL-WORLD PROBLEMS
Now that you know what is STEM is not, let's think about what it is so you can plan some high quality and FUN stem activities for your students. STEM is....
thinking about a real-life problem
brainstorming what to do about it
coming up with a detailed plan
designing a solution
testing your design
revising your design and testing again
predicting, estimating, measuring, reflecting
It is a problem solving process that requires students to first identify the 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.
STEM FOLLOWS A PROCESS
A true STEM challenge follows the engineering process. It doesn't stop short. And what is that process?
Define the problem.
Plan your best solution.
Make a model.
Test your model.
Reflect and revise.
Test your model again.
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?
BACK TO THAT DARN PURPOSE
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 problem solvers.
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 specific requirements that could be tested? You know the right answer. I've actually designed several sets of STEM challenges that all share a common theme and purpose like designing items that will help a stranded sailor escape a deserted island.
Here are a few other ideas that could be the basis for some excellent stem challenges:
Design an effective method for cleaning up oil spills in the ocean
Build a device that can remove fallen rock quickly after an earthquake
Create a waterproof capsule that could be used to send supplies to a trapped submarine
CHOOSING A CHALLENGE
Now that you know what a good STEM challenge should include, it will be a lot easier to find or design one for your students. To help even more, I've designed this quick little checklist:
Does the challenge...
Present students with a problem to solve?
Include suggested materials?
Have clear parameters or requirements?
Require students to measure or test their results?
Provide an opportunity to revise and retest?
If you can say yes to each item on the list, you know you've got a real challenge that will develop your students' critical thinking skills. I encourage you to steer away from the term "easy stem challenge" when searching for activities for elementary kids. The word easy tends to bring up fun activities that might involve a bit of science but don't fit the criteria of STEM learning. You really want something that will challenge your young learners to think creatively.
The last step before incorporating engineering projects into your lesson plans is to collect some simple materials. Keeping a stash on hand makes doing STEM a lot less overwhelming. Here are some ideas for materials that always come in handy:
Your students will also need some tools like rulers or measuring tape, timer, scissors, and pencils. They can also use technology to research their ideas or gain background knowledge (like, how does a catapult work?), so tablets or laptops are helpful as well.
A good way to get supplies without spending a bunch of money is to just ask your students to bring some junk in from home. You can also send a letter to parents asking for donations of simple materials.
To make it easy, grab my free STEM starter kit that includes an editable letter you can use plus an entire STEM challenge to try out with your class!
Now what are you waiting for? Get out there and start teaching STEM with your third, fourth, and fifth graders!
Looking for some fully-planned STEM challenges for your students? Each of these sets includes 5 exciting challenges centered around an engaging theme:
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