5 Tips for STEM Newbies

Do you shop at Teachers Pay Teachers? I sure do and I am so excited that many of my blog readers also shop at TpT and at my store! I started creating STEM Challenges about 5 years ago and it has been quite a learning experience - both in the creation process and all the things I have learned about STEM in the classroom.

I love hearing from teachers that have purchased my challenges and used them with their students. Probably a day I will never forget is when a customer used a challenge and then posted photos on her Instagram account. When I saw the photos it was very humbling but was made even more so when I noticed the teacher was from Australia. How is it possible that something I created is being used in a STEM class all the way on the other side of the world?

On the flip side of the happy moments are those times I do hear from teachers that are not pleased with their STEM results. Recently I received feedback in my store that let me know the challenge did not work with the teacher's students.

Oh, wow, I wish I could help and I would be happy to do so! This was the inspiration for this post. I wonder if I can point you in the right directions with tips for being a first-time STEM user.


STEM Challenge advice and tips for teachers new to STEM! This post can be a great help with your expectations and planning for a STEM activity!

The Basics

Whenever I do hear from a teacher that lets me know the challenge didn't work, I have questions!
  • What experiences have your students had with structure building that depends on teamwork?
  • Are students able to use the materials efficiently?
  • Is the challenge appropriate for your age group?
  • How did you manage the time?
  • And, the #1 question is not a question at all. It's this: Failure is okay. 
Let me tell you a little more about each question. At the end of this post, I will include links to previous blog posts that might give you even more details!

Teamwork vs. Autonomy

Let me just tell you that nothing taught me more about teamwork than working on STEM activities with first graders. No matter how many times I reminded them to build one structure I would still find that every table group would be building multiple items and in most cases, every student was building alone.
First graders seem to be autonomous (being independent in thoughts and actions; working alone without thinking about the others in the group). As soon as I caught on to this previously unknown characteristic of first graders, I took some backward steps and started over with activities that put them more in a teamwork frame of mind. I also learned to let them build alone for 5 minutes before insisting on a group build! Ha!

So, what's my tip: Handing out STEM materials and a list of the task criteria and expecting kids to work together might work. In my classroom experience, it hasn't worked. We spend time learning procedures and learning about the Engineering Design Process before we tackle a project.

It takes some background work to make teamwork part of STEM! That photo above showing many hands completing a project is a fabulous photo and I have tons of pictures just like it. But, I have just as many occasions where kids need more guidance in working together.

I have posts linked at the end about our planning procedure and the Engineering Design Process!

Use of Materials

Oh. My. Goodness. This is one of those things about STEM that I learned over time and perhaps the hard way. It really never occurred to me initially that students would waste materials or not know how to use them efficiently.
The photo above shows you what I mean. Obviously, this team used a little bit too much tape. 

It seems a simple fix to just limit the materials a team can get for a project, but it goes beyond that. Do they know how to use the materials?

Examples: pipe cleaners and paper clips. I consistently find that some age groups have no idea how to clip things together with a paper clip or how to wind a pipe cleaner around something or through something to fasten the items together. At the same time, I find so many teams that will use 6 inches of tape when they only need a sliver.

Here's my tip if you are new to STEM: I constantly rotate around my room looking for groups that need a lesson about the materials!

Just a few I have done every year:
  • How to clip with paper clips and clothespins
  • How to fold paper to make a box
  • How to cut tape in half and then in very small pieces to make it last
  • How to attach string to things (so many kids cannot tie a double knot)
  • How to fold paper to cut out a shape that is symmetrical
  • How to use string as a tie-down to make a tall structure stand securely

These are just a few of the instant lessons that arise and here's another tip: Teach it to one group and then have those experts help other groups!

A link is at the end about Materials!

Time Limits

There is a story about this tip and it's another one I learned the hard way. The very first STEM Challenge I tried with fifth graders was about Saving the Food on a Hike. The team was supposed to build a structure that had a "pulley" system that could have a food bag attached to it. The food bag could be raised high enough to keep animals out of it. The premise of this challenge was that a group was hiking in an area that had no trees.

Simple, right?
Ah, not so much! Seriously, this challenge should only take one class session, but at the time I didn't know that! So, we built and improved and built and improved and after 4 class sessions I had the kids share and we moved on.

TIP: We try to finish a challenge in one class session. Sometimes it does take two classes, especially if we experiment and use data to design. As my students start planning I let them know how much construction time they will have and we stick to it. When time is up, we stop.

I know it seems harsh to make them stop, but our class time is limited. Here's the thing: I find that kids will rise to this occasion. When I give the two-minute warning, they start scrambling and they will have a structure to share. The structure might not work perfectly and they might have had plans for more things to add to it, but we still share.

It's okay to have teams that cannot finish! This does not make the challenge unsuccessful. Some of our best discussions come from those groups sharing and talking about frustrations and what did not work. The important thing is very simple- we all learned something. I also always find that the other teams will offer encouraging words to the teams that couldn't finish. Set a time limit!


Age Appropriate

So, one day in first grade I decided to have the students build a maze. I knew how much my older students loved creating mazes, so I thought the little kids would have fun, too. Was this activity appropriate for their age?
It absolutely was! I used some very basic classroom materials - colored tiles and pom-poms. The firsties covered their tables with multiple paths and dead-ends and then blew or thumped the pom-poms through the trails. They loved it.

Tip: Make sure you take a really good look at the expectations of a challenge and your age group before you tackle it. My resources are labeled with the grade levels I have tried it with and if you are ever unsure just contact me. I can tell you (and I will be honest) whether your younger or older students should try the challenge.

Also, don't be afraid to change the rules of the task if you think it is too hard for your students. I sometimes change the rules when we are right in the middle of a challenge. When I see a team completing a task way too easily I stop the whole class and toughen the rules. I also add materials to help when I see teams struggling.

Failures

The problem with failure is that we all want perfection. We want that A+ grade and we want our team to have the best project. We want to win. Failure is not an option.

Except in STEM class.

Not everything will work. Take a look at the photo above.

I decided to have my third graders make mazes from straws on a metal cookie pan. I made sure the magnets would stick to the pan before I purchased them. Then we set to work. The kids made fabulous paths using tape and the straw pieces and then we were ready.

I had magnetic marbles and the idea was to place a magnet on the bottom of the tray and move the marbles through the maze paths.

Y'all, it would not work! Oh my gosh, the kids were so disappointed. The magnets I had would stick to the trays but they were not powerful enough to move the marbles.

We tried over and over with the largest magnets I had and this would still not work. And it was okay. We talked about all the things we had learned about magnets and then we used free rolling marbles to try the mazes. (Needless to say, I only tried this challenge with one class!)

TIP: I have teams that cannot finish a project often. There are so many reasons that a team cannot finish, but this does not mean the challenge did not work. Some teams can complete the challenge. We ALL still share. The teams without a completed model show us what they were working on and what they had planned. We offer encouragement and sometimes someone will suggest a way that could have helped them with the problems they had. It's a learning event. Sometimes failure is our best teacher.

To Sum It All Up:

Your success with a STEM Challenge is going to look very different than mine. I hope you are trying STEM and don't forget:
  • Procedures and ways to use materials wisely are important. Team building activities and a planning procedure really need to be part of getting ready for a STEM Challenge.
  • Make sure the challenge is appropriate for your age group and make adjustments as you need to.
  • Expect failure, but also expect a great learning time!

LINKS TO BLOG POSTS:

STEM Challenge advice and tips for teachers new to STEM! This post can be a great help with your expectations and planning for a STEM activity!





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