June 30, 2016

5 Keys to STEM Challenge Success

I've been giving some thought to what the most important keys are to any successful STEM challenge. I've summarized my thoughts below, and the video you see here explores each key in greater detail. 

Key 1: Criteria & Constraints

Students need to have guidelines when they are designing solutions to problems. A criteria & constraints list is your opportunity to tailor virtually any challenge to any age group. The three areas you'll keep in mind when defining your criteria & constraints are:

- Age appropriate, but still challenging
  • Keep high expectations! Make sure you aren't inhibiting your students based on your own limiting beliefs.
- Content lessons you could relate to the challenge
  • STEM challenges can provide students with prior knowledge and context for new information
- Storage Space
  • If you'll need to store the designs for any length of time, limit the dimensions of the final product

Examples of differentiated Criteria & Constraints lists for the same challenge

Key 2: Materials & Group Size

I know, I'm a cheater! This is technically two keys, but they're short so I felt justified!


Each challenge requires a different set of materials, but in general, you want materials to be:

- Simple (i.e. budget friendly)
  • Many materials you will likely already have at home or in your classroom. Others should be things you can buy at a dollar store, hardware store, Target, etc. There's no need to break the bank! 
    • Note: I'm going to create a blog and video on materials for July 21, 2016.
- Malleable
  • The more flexible the materials, the more creative your students' designs will be. Foil and pipe cleaners are you best friend!
- Constrained
  • Constrain the materials to keep your budget down, the size of their designs reasonable, and to challenge the students!

Group Size

Groups should be 2 - 4 students. Any more than that means someone is almost always on the outside looking in. We want all the students engaged in the process of designing and building solutions to problems.

Key 3: Time

There's no way around it, time management during STEM challenges is tough! With experience, you can expect to get through most challenges in one hour or less. When you're still new to it, it's more realistic to plan for 75 - 90 min.  If you're a multiple subject teacher, plan & build one class period and record, reflect, and discuss the next.

Two things that will help:

  1. - While students are building, call out elapsed time every 10 minutes or so.

  2. - Tell the students ahead of time it is very possible they won't be done building when you call time, and that's ok. If they aren't done, they can simply explain what they need to do to finish and/or their intent.  Caveat: this only works when you employ Key 4!

Key 4: Multiple Iterations

If you've only been doing one-offs, you're only exploring the tip of the STEM Challenge iceberg; there's a world of delight & opportunity under the surface!  

Reasons to do multiple iterations:

- Helps ease student anxiety over a timed build. 
  • Some students will freeze up if they think they only get one chance.
- Increases creativity & innovation
  • The overachievers will usually take a safe route, trying to get the "right" answer if they only get one pass.
- Makes students less upset over hearing time called for the first build

- Gives you the chance to use STEM challenges as engagement & culminating activities, serving as a pre/post assessment

- Not doing it is akin to allowing your students to never revise their writing as long as they tell you how they could make it better

- The Next-Gen Science Standards say you should

It does take extra time, but it's worth it! Try it out just once to see for yourself!

Key 5: You

Your mindset and what you do and don't do is very important during STEM challenges!

Your Mindset
Let go of any attachment you have to success and/or aversion to failure, or redefine what success and failure mean to you! You want to be flexible and teach your students that failure is nothing more than data you can analyze to lead to your next success. One of the reasons I love using STEM challenges is that I want to make sure my students are not afflicted by a fear a failure that keeps them from living fully!

Your Role: Facilitator
You won't lead, solve, or fix anything for the students. This is about developing their ability to problem solve, for the most part, independent of adult intervention. You'll mostly observe and ask questions, but you will not suggest what they should do.  This is easier said than done! That's why my next two videos and blog posts will be a two part series about your role as the facilitator and will cover how you should prepare, what to do during the build phase, and what to do when the challenge is over. 

As always, reach out in the comments or by email if there's a specific question or topic you'd like me to address. :)

Check out these other great ideas from some of my favorite bloggers!


photo credit: Triple Timer via photopin (license) photo credit: Point via photopin (license)

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  1. So, so helpful! Thanks for all the great tips! I agree; the multiple iterations are the key to successful engineering process! Love how you incorporated growth mindset. Your STEM challenges are always awesome!!

  2. This is such a helpful post. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Kerry! This was so timely for me! STEM is one of my next classroom adventures. Thanks for the great tips!

    1. Any time! You are going to LOVE it, and so are your students! :)