You are probably reading this because you’ve watched that teacher down the hall doing STEM challenges. The kids are always talking about it, but it looks like a hassle or a fad you aren’t sure you have the time or motivation to take on. Or maybe you have tried implementing a STEM challenge, but it didn’t go as expected. Now you’re looking for vindication that this whole thing is so much hype!
So let’s dig right in:
There are five hang-ups I often hear in response to this question. Some are legitimate concerns; others are misconceptions. This post aims to clear the path and get you fired up to do STEM challenges in your class! I created a video to complement this post (embedded below). While there is a great deal of overlap, you’ll find some details in the video that aren’t in the post and vice-versa. Each “hang-up” header is linked to the start of its matching video section.
Tips to boost your rigor and get past this hang-up:
Tip 2: Use strong Criteria & Constraints Lists to convey the requirements and limiting factors of the challenge. While all ages of students can build towers, their criteria & constraints should be modified to increase/decrease difficulty.
Tip 3: Do challenges on Friday afternoons so you’ll feel less pressure if an unenlightened administrator thinks you’re just “playing” around.
Tips to get past this hang-up:
Tip 2: Write 5+ minutes of clean-up time into your plans.
Tip 3: Create classroom jobs and/or offer extra credit for materials managers. Have these helpers set up bags/boxes for challenge materials ahead of time and collect unused materials and place in storage post-challenge.
Tip 4: Play “Magic Spot” to get your room cleaned up in record time! You select one or two items out of place. Give students 30 seconds to play magic spot (or as long as it takes for you to be satisfied with the state of your room). The student who cleaned up the magic spot receives a small prize.
Tip 5: Get more comfortable with chaos!
Creative clutter is better than idle neatness. ~ Unknown
If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign? ~ Albert Einstein
Time is precious, and there are many things vying for it in your classroom, so this is a big concern. When you are new to a process or task, it always takes a longer time than it should. It’s going to take experience before your time gauge — and your students’ — is fine-tuned. When you start, you’ll probably need 90 minutes for a challenge. Eventually, you can get this down to 45 – 60 minutes (not including post-design, cross-curricular connections/lessons/research) depending on the complexity of the challenge.
Tips to maximize your use of time and get past this hang-up:
Tip 1: Use a timer to constrain build and discussion time, but build flexibility in your schedule so you can extend, if desired.
Tip 2: Do multiple iterations of challenges. This seems counter-intuitive on the surface, but there are benefits to repeating challenges. First, when students know they’ll get a second chance to perfect their designs, you’ll find them more willing to stop the first design when you call time. Second, it decreases anxiety about trying different ideas, so they can get started building right away.
Tip 3: Teach related content lessons between the iterations. The first iteration lets students create without too many preconceived notions; the second iteration allows students to apply content learning and continue to innovate. Connecting content to challenges makes them even more worthy of your time (and increases rigor)!
(If you only watch one section of my video, please make it this one! Click the title above.)
I struggle to understand how this became such a common misconception. Can anyone tell me when or how we decided that the highest engagement/critical thinking activities should be reserved for a small subset students? That is such crappy short-sighted and outright incorrect thinking.
I’ve seen first-hand, and gotten feedback from other teachers, that it’s frequently students who struggle in traditional academic settings — the ones whose classmates think they are dumb — who come up with the most interesting ideas. These experiences win them newfound respect from peers and increase their confidence in the classroom, which has domino effects!
On the flip side, those high-achievers who are great at following directions sometimes struggle without a clear roadmap to success — and that experience is a good one for them to have early and often. STEM challenges are an opportunity to level the playing field! Don’t make them the sole domain of the gifted student!
Tips to get past this hang-up:
Just one tip: STEM challenges are for everyone!
Teachers spend a whole lot of time and effort finding ways to make learning easier and more accessible to students, so our aversion to diving head-first into an activity that we know could cause frustration, failure, and/or tears is understandable.
In “Telling You the Answer Isn’t the Answer” (linked at the bottom of the post) Rhett Allain writes, “Confusion is the sweat of learning,” and explains that just like doing a pull up for someone else won’t help them build muscles, giving students all the answers doesn’t lead to true learning. Confusion is not the enemy; it’s a prerequisite to learning!
You might also find yourself struggling. You might be married to the need for a challenge to be successful immediately, but that just won’t always be the case. You might be hit with a nagging feeling that you aren’t doing it right. You know what? You might not be. Getting comfortable with discomfort is precisely one of the goals of STEM challenges. Walk the walk. We we want and expect students to overcome the discomfort of uncertainty and forge ahead, unafraid of failure; you must be the example!
Tips to get past this hang-up:
Tip 1: Change your mindset (if necessary) about the link between confusion, struggle, and learning.
Tip 2: Don’t dumb down your Criteria & Constraints List! Let the students experience confusion and frustration and work through it. Create high expectations; you’ll be surprised by how much they can do. If it turns out the list was ridiculously ambitious, you can always adjust it on the second iteration.
Tip 3: Do multiple iterations. This one keeps popping up for good reason; it is a major key to STEM challenge success! Students will learn to deal with frustration better when they know there’s another chance coming and they have time to process, think, and adjust in between those iterations!
Tip 4: Don’t lead; facilitate. When it’s hard for you to let them struggle, remember that telling them the answer isn’t the answer! Ask them questions, but don’t give answers or be too leading. Use your experience. if students need more coaching, then give it to them, but back off over time.
This is the most nuanced part of running challenges, and it takes a lot of practice to find the right balance. Just keep at it! Learn from your mistakes, dust yourself off, and move on!
Tip 5: Know this: Frustration that can drive you to tears leads to utter elation, pride, and confidence when you finally do solve the problem! There is no better feeling as a teacher than seeing your students develop this self-reliance!