June 28, 2016

Intro to STEM Challenges

I've been working on creating a YouTube channel for the last couple of weeks, and I've just posted my first video! Well, I guess it's the second if you count my Trello tutorial, but this is the first with my face in view. :)

It's definitely harder than I anticipated, but it's getting easier with practice!  I'll be posting videos weekly; I'm aiming for Thursdays, but I'm also going to be flexible and kind to myself as I learn the ropes of filming and editing.  After a month or so, you'll be able to set you watch by me ... that's the plan, anyway. 

My hope is that by using video, I'll be better able to share tips and tricks of getting the most out of STEM challenges in your classroom than I can with print resources and blog posts alone.  

My first post covers the who, what, when, where, why, and how of STEM challenges. Over the next several weeks, I'll be posting tips about your role as facilitator, keys to STEM challenge success, materials review, and how to start a challenge off right. I'm looking forward to sharing some walk-through examples of challenges I've created as well!

Hope you'll find it useful. Please like/subscribe/comment if you do and let me know if you have a specific question/topic you'd like me to address.

Video Transcription

Hi there, I'm Kerry. This is my channel and for my very first video, I wanted to introduce STEM challenges. We'll cover the who, what, where, when, why, and how. The STEM challenge is not necessarily in that order. Let's get started.

What is a STEM challenge? Well, it's a hands-on design challenge, where students work against criteria and constraints to design and build a solution to some problem. As the name suggests, STEM, it has to incorporate some combination of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math standards, and you also might've heard them referred to as STEAM challenges. Well, if you add that "A" in, then you're just going to be adding Art standards as well, and the classic example of a STEM design challenge would be to build a tower or to build a bridge and we usually use some simple materials to do that.

Who should be doing STEM challenges? I'd suggest everybody. They're really appropriate for all ages. If you think about the classic tower example, what do toddlers do when they get a bunch of blocks? They build a tower. What do adults do? They might build the Eiffel Tower.

You really have anything in that range of possibility, and the way that you make it appropriate for each age group is you just modify the criteria and constraints that are guiding them in the challenge to make it appropriate. That might be modifying the outcomes, what your expectation is for the size, the durability, the materials that they use.

There are a lot of different ways to modify and differentiate to make some challenges really appropriate for anybody. I am actually going to go into that more on next week's video, so be sure to subscribe.

When should you do a STEM design challenge? There are two ways to look at this question. First is frequency. I would say often, meaning, maybe you start monthly, and then gradually build up to where you're doing STEM design challenges weekly, but make sure you're going at a pace that you feel comfortable with, so that you are sure to keep up with it. STEM challenges usually take about 45 minutes to an hour depending on how complicated your criteria and constraints are, as well as the discussion questions, post-activities, that sort of thing.

You also want to make sure that you pencil in time for multiple iterations, at least, one. What I mean by that is if you're doing the tower challenge and you do that in one Friday, the following Friday, you might want to repeat that tower challenge and that gives students an opportunity to modify their original designs, apply any lessons or learnings in between, try something new. That's really important.

The other way to interpret the "when" question is whether you do the STEM challenge before lessons or after lessons that are related. My suggestion is ... I think it's a great engaging activity. I always prefer to do my STEM challenges, my very first iteration before any lessons. This allows students to be creative and also gives them something to get their knowledge connected to, gives them a context for their learning.

My second iteration will often follow any lessons that might have been related to the task or research or anything like that and that gives them an opportunity not only to keep their creativity and their innovation from their first design, if they prefer, but also to build on it using the learnings that we've had together in class.

Where do STEM challenges belong in your lesson plans? Well, the obvious answer is going to be in your science or your math classes, but it's really not the only place. Anywhere there's a problem, you can have a STEM challenge, because STEM challenges are really just about solving a problem.

If you think about an English language arts, I've seen some great ideas online for connecting STEM challenges with problems in stories. With the Three Little Pigs, for example, you have to build a house that will withstand the wolf's huffing and puffing or Jack and the Beanstalk, a way for him to get down from the beanstalk quickly or Hunger Games, you have to build a bow and arrow or create a bow and arrow using some found materials.

None of those are my ideas. I don't want to take credit for any of those. They're just some examples of things I've seen. For social studies and history, the same sort of thing is there. City planning, creating a mode of transportation.

There are possibilities that are basically endless and it's interdisciplinary. Especially if you're a self-contained classroom, really, anytime, at any point in the day, you can have a STEM challenge, and your goal should always be to pull in as many different standards from as many different subject areas as you can to get your bang for your buck, but if you are not a self-contained classroom and you're a single subject teacher, well, then your answer is obvious.

Why should you do STEM challenges? This is a great question. It's one of my favorites. I'm going to try to keep myself brief on this. First of all, they're naturally engaging. Students love them, but beyond to that, what I think is maybe more important is that it helps them work on their higher level of thinking skills, their problem solving, their having to work collaboratively with their peers.

They have to plan and reflect and discuss. They are working on their Next Generation Science Standards, particularly in engineering, with any STEM challenge, just about, as well as other Science, Math, English language arts and History standards, as well as in some cases, Art or even Music, like in some cases I've seen, but probably, the most important thing is that it helps them learn to be resilient and to persevere in the face of frustration and failure.

Those are some skills that recently have been in the news. College professors are sort of lamenting how students lack that ability to push forward and to not be crushed by defeat. To me, if there's nothing else that a STEM challenge does, the fact that it does those things is crucial and critical, and they are clearly not getting enough of that in whatever else we're doing or college professors wouldn't continue to write articles about this in the news. Beyond that, again, kids really love it and they'll talk to their parents about it, and that's an exciting thing when you are able to get them that enthused about something.

How do you get started with STEM challenges in your classroom? My advice is to start simple by choosing a classic like build a tower or build a bridge. Let's say, you start with tower. That's a very simple one. Take 20 note cards and a length of tape, 12 inches to 24 inches, less for older students and more tape for younger students, and some scissors. You'll put the students in pairs. You'll give them 15 to 20 minutes and a criteria and constraints list that they will use to guide them in their challenge.

It's going to be a very simple list. Maybe only a single criterion. Build a tower as tall as possible. Your constraints are going to be that they may only use the materials provided to them. They have to do that within the time constraint, and you can't have it leaning against. It has to be a freestanding tower.

If you want to make it a little bit more complicated, you can add some additional criteria like that it has to have a radio tower at the top of a certain height or they have to use certain 3D solids or it has to be weight-bearing, things like that, but again, my advice is to keep it very simple on your first challenge, so I would really just stick with the single criterion on this one, no matter what the age.

You're going to also want to look for some cross-curricular connections, some ways to pull in standards from other subject areas as extension activities after you do the design challenge, but beyond that, the How-to-do STEM challenges is really my purpose in creating this channel. Every week, I'm going to be posting new videos that give additional tips and tricks and even walk-throughs of certain STEM challenges from beginning to end.

I hope you will join me weekly and please subscribe, and that you will find links to some of my other social media and my Teachers Pay Teachers store, where, of course, I sell some STEM challenges, but I hope that you will subscribe. See you next week.

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