5 Tips for Using STEM Challenges in Your Classroom

STEM Challenges are one of my favorite ways to engage my students. STEM challenges require the use of problem-solving and critical-thinking skills in a way that replicates real-world challenges and how teams really work together to solve a problem. A STEM challenge is also a way for students to be creative and hands-on and may help students who seemingly struggle academically, to show off their creative, innovative design and building skills. A well-designed STEM challenge can teach students so much more than just academic standards.

  1. OBJECTIVE. What is your objective?  STEM challenge activities can be planned around a theme or a standard. Either way, a STEM challenge is targeting engineering, design, problem-solving, and critical-thinking skills.   A theme could be a season, a holiday (Halloween, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, etc.), even a book.  A STEM challenge can also be planned around a standard in any subject like social studies, music, art, and of course, science. For St. Patrick's Day, you could have students build a Leprechaun Trap. To integrate with other subjects or seasons you could have students design a house for the 3 Little Pigs, float for the Thanksgiving Day parade, or a catapult for launching pumpkins in the fall.

  1. PLAN.  What materials do you need?  What are the rules for your students? How will you group your students? What questions do you want them to answer?  A reflection at the end of a challenge is so important for students to learn from any successes and failures, with the design or with their group. What worked well? What didn’t? What would you try differently next time?

  1. TIME. How much time will the challenge take? Often a simple challenge can be completed in 45 minutes to 1 hour. Other times, you may want to give your students time to complete background research for the challenge and the challenge can take several class periods. I also recommend giving students time limits for each step of the challenge.  For a 60 minute STEM challenge, I’ll give my students 5 minutes to plan their design and 35 minutes to build/try/revise.  Next, my class will take 10-15 minutes for each team to “compete” in the challenge, and finally, we wrap it up by having each team answer STEM challenge reflection questions.

  1. PROCEDURES.  It is very important to go over procedures for the challenge. How will materials be handled? Will group roles be assigned? I have my students work together to assign team roles: Materials, Time Keeper, Build Director, and Recorder (I’ll have two students assigned to a role if I have a group of more than four).  For a successful classroom STEM challenge, it is very important for each student to have a job and to know what that job entails.

                        I require each team to complete a:

  • Planning page to record their ideas and sketches for the design

  • Trials page to record tests and any design changes or improvements made

  • Challenge Observation page to record observations about all of the teams’ designs and results of the challenge

  • Post-Challenge reflection page to collect ideas about what worked well, what didn’t, and how the team might approach the challenge differently if given another chance

  1. EXPECTATIONS. How will teams be graded?  How should teams handle conflicts?  STEM challenges are cooperative activities and can be great for students to practice working in a group.  Group tasks can come with their own challenges when students don’t agree or get along with each other. Teaching students how to handle any conflicts that arise are an added bonus to  STEM challenges. Reviewing a  STEM challenge rubric is a great way to go over your expectations for each step of the challenge and helps all students to be successful.

I love planning and creating STEM challenges for my classroom. You can use my FREE STEM Challenge Planning Page and Rubric by subscribing to my email list, just click the link HERE.

One of my favorite STEM Challenges is my St. Patrick's Day Challenges and you can check them out in my TPT store linked on the image below.

I would LOVE to help answer any questions about STEM Challenges in the classroom. Leave a comment below if I can help.

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