18 Reasons to Try STEM in 2018-PART 1

A few years ago I switched from a regular classroom to the STEM Lab! I had no idea what I was going to do with this new job. I had no curriculum, no resources, no textbooks... nothing.

It was, to say the least, daunting and quite scary.

But, I believe in hands-on learning and inquiry-based, student-driven activities, and I knew we could make this work.

Wow. That is an understatement. It works. It's fabulous. Kids love it and I am having a blast.

So, let's see if I can convince you to try STEM in 2018- because I thought of at least 18 reasons that you should! This is Part 1- only half of the reasons! Check back next week for Part 2!

This post will be heavy on photos, but you are going to love seeing little glimpses of our work, our projects, and the amazing inventiveness of kids.

1 - Hands-On

STEM is hands-on learning at its best. Given a task with certain rules kids will just astound you with what they can build. One of our first challenges a few years ago was one I call the Popcorn Challenge.
STEM Challenge- Create a container for a certain amount of popcorn.
Kids must build a container to hold exactly a certain amount of popcorn. They have a small sample to use in estimating. They create the container and then we pour the popcorn into it. Their containers are almost always too large and this turns out to be an eye-opening exercise into learning about volume. It's a hands-on lesson they do not forget. 

Truth: All STEM is hands-on. This is why kids love it.

2- Problem Solving

This is a huge part of STEM projects. Kids have to find ways to make things work. The photo below is a perfect example.
This group was piecing together the spans of a drawbridge. The string to pull the span up kept getting in the way of the bridge so they attached straws, punched a hole through the straws, and ran the string through the hole. Perfect!

In the photo above, the group built a car that was to hold an egg and roll down a ramp. It kept popping open, so they made their own latch!

Above is another example from the drawbridge project. In this bridge, one span would sink too low when it was in the down position. So, the team used pencils taped to the opposing span that caught the other span and kept it level. (Materials included new pencils in this challenge!) 

Truth: Kids can solve anything. Given the time and the brainstorming together they can do this. STEM teaches them to think outside the norm.

3 - Materials Are Easy!

To be honest, yes, sometimes the materials are complicated. But, on the other hand, a lot of our challenges use materials you likely already have in your classroom.
The photo shows materials bins ready to hand out to kids.You can see we are using empty water bottles, craft sticks, foam cups, and straws. Easy-peasy.  Also, I ask parents to donate items. I get bottles, newspaper, cardboard tubes, and boxes all the time. I also occasionally will ask for donations and that's how we have so many straws and craft sticks. Ask your parents for help!

Cardboard is one thing we do use a lot. I save boxes and cut them into pieces and keep a large bin full all the time. Parents will send boxes or ask your cafeteria. They get food supplies in large boxes and they will save them for you.

Above is a first-grade project we completed using straws and craft sticks. Super easy materials and the kids loved building bridges and rolling little cars across them.

One of our favorite big kid activities is to build boats and I thought first-grade engineers would love this, too. I cut up an old pool noodle and we added straws and construction paper and sailed our boats. 

I have several blog posts about materials from the Dollar Tree and how we use straws. Don't let the materials be a reason not to try STEM! It's easier than you think! (Links are at the end!) 

Truth: Materials can be expensive and a lot to gather. But, some of our favorite projects were made from junk I threw together at the last minute!

4- Add Some Reading

This turned out to be the best idea ever! With my smallest engineers, the key to grabbing their attention was to read them a book first.
One of our favorite books was called What Do You Do with a Tail Like This? It sparked a discussion of animal adaptations and led to creating our own versions of animals. Look at that cute little monkey with very large ears (and the materials were just cardboard tubes and construction paper). Another book we loved was called Biggest, Strongest, Fastest. That book showed the largest, most unusual animals and our task was to create a jellyfish. Links to blog posts about books and STEM are included at the end!

Kids love to be read to and it helps tie some science and engineering to the read aloud. One of the most heart-breaking things a teacher ever said to me was, 

"I don't have time to read to my  kids!"

Take that five minutes at the beginning of science time, read a book or a part of a book, and dive into your project.

Truth: Classroom teachers are busy. Too busy. Whenever we can tie multiple subjects together and knock out a lot of standards in the process it becomes a win-win. Read a book and try a STEM Challenge- you are covering reading, writing, teamwork, science, and engineering standards. (And maybe some math!)

5 - Creativity of kids is astounding.

I cannot say this enough. Kids think way differently than I do. I tend to think about the aesthetics of a project and I am very symmetrical. I would never think about using a foam cup to make something, but just check the photo below.
Build a car that rolls and has all the parts a real car might have!
Seriously they cut the cup into a seat for their car. And, yes, those are bottle cap headlights.

Build a tower with a working part that twirls!
The one above gets me every time. The rule of this structure was that it had to have a part that twirls and a reason for the twirling. A lot of teams built windmills, but this team went one step further. It's a windmill on a mini-golf course. And, they built a golf club and ball for it.

Truth: Kids will create endlessly. They love mazes for this reason. It allows them to make things beyond the structure. For almost every challenge my kids make signs and labels and give their structures a name. It makes lab time so fun!

6 - Teamwork is the key and is essential!

I cannot say this enough either. Teamwork. Teamwork. Teamwork. Nothing else I have ever tried has brought groups together like STEM challenges.
Team Building activities in the Lab!
I love the photos showing many hands all working together. Everyone does his or her part and everyone stays engaged.

One of our group guidelines (that I make part of the Engineering Design Process we follow) is that every team must make a list of jobs before they begin a challenge. Then the jobs are assigned and we all do our jobs.

Team Building activities in the Lab!
Take a close look at the photo above. One student is assembling while the other is just holding the structure in place. That job, just holding something, is part of the building process. That job is just as important as the builder!

Truth: I stress the teamwork part of the Design Process. A lot. It's a procedure to learn just as much as your bathroom procedure or traveling down the hallway procedure. We learn it, we practice it, and we review it from time to time. I check those job lists and ask students to tell me their jobs in a group. And here's the key: When we share at the end of class I make sure I note which teams I saw doing extraordinary things as a TEAM. 

There's a link at the end about team building tasks.

7 - STEM tasks are highly engaging.

I mean this, seriously. Kids are engaged with STEM projects and it is all-hands-on-deck.
I see the most amazing collaboration with STEM and I also see it bring out the best in kids.
I see the most amazing collaboration with STEM and I also see it bring out the best in kids. They learn to work with anyone and everyone. One of my favorite things to watch is how the shy and quiet kids get involved. Those little introverts cannot deal with large groups, but put them in a group of 3 or 4 and they come alive.

Truth: I also notice that kids that are not great with academics are sometimes the best little engineers. STEM projects just give those kids a chance to shine!


8 - We learn from mistakes.

Boy, do we! Take a look at the Newton's Cradle below. See those little blue marbles. If they are not lined up perfectly then Newton's Law just doesn't work. I have watched kids create these and then discover they needed to adjust the marbles or the strings and have to start again.

Another project we tackle often is making a car that rolls. Look at the one below. Can you see what the problem is? They did not align the car's axles and the wheels won't turn together.

Last example - take a look at the bridge. This is the drawbridge challenge again. The requirements did not say kids had to build ramps on each end. But, inevitably some teams will do this. I watch and let them make this simple mistake. It doesn't take long for them to realize that making those side ramps creates so many problems. They will eventually take it all apart and start over with a flat bridge!

Truth: You would think I would see kids get really frustrated when things don't work. But, they really do not. For the most part, I see them take things apart that don't work and dive right back to fix the problem and try again. Awesome, right?

I linked a post at the end of this one all about the messes we make in the lab- and it's about mistakes I made!

9 - Kids learn to make decisions.

This is one of the most fun things! I give the kids an array of materials and they have to pick the items that they think will work best. It is so fun to listen to them talk about the merits of getting extra craft sticks versus straws.
One of our favorite things to do is add a budget to the challenge. Kids have a certain amount of money and must spend it wisely. This means being even more careful about the materials and how they use them.
As kids test their structures they will make even more decisions. When something is not supporting weight (like the above photo) they will alter their plans and thinking and add something to the design.

Truth: Kids need the opportunity to make those decisions and one of the hardest things I have learned to do is leave them alone. Even when I know they are making a mistake I keep my mouth closed. They will learn it on their own and the learning is so much more valuable!

LINKS (for a lot of the things I have mentioned)!

Book Posts - 
Part 2 of the 18 Reasons to Try STEM in 2018 will be coming soon!

2 comments

  1. I just happened to come across your blog! This is perfect! I've been dabbling in STEM for a couple of years. But now, my district is really jumping in and many teachers (including me) need these guidelines!! Thank you so much! You now have a new fan and will probably have many more once I share this!

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    Replies
    1. Yay! I am so glad you found my blog! Part 2 of this post will be next week and I have tons of ideas and resources I share here and in my TpT store!

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