December 10, 2016

The STEM Challenge Cycle

STEM Challenge Cycle shows how to break a STEM Challenge lesson down into parts.

How long should a STEM challenge take?

Is there more to STEM challenges than just designing & building?

How do I plan a STEM challenge? How does it break down into smaller parts?

If you’ve found yourself asking any of the questions above, you’re in the right place! Essentially, you’re wondering how to best approach the lesson/activity flow. Like so many things in life, there’s more than one way to get the job done well, but I’d like to share with you a tried and true approach that worked for me. I have named this approach the STEM Challenge Cycle. Hopefully, it will save you a bit of time in finding/tweaking the flow that works best for you and your kids!

Below, you can find a short, animated video of what I have more-or-less transcribed below.

Overall Timing:

If you follow the same approach, the first iteration of a challenge typically takes 60-90 minutes with presentation, discussion, and reflection time factored in. Follow up lessons, research, and second iterations will occur on subsequent days. 

What follows are the steps of the STEM Challenge Cycle you should follow for every STEM Challenge:

1. Plan

Give your students 5 – 10 minutes to plan what they’re going to design. You can let students think silently for a time, draw their ideas, discuss with their teammates, or use a combination of approaches. Consider mixing it up and not always using the same approach so students gain experience with different methods of planning!

2. Build

Students build their designs using a Criteria & Constraints List as their guide. Depending on the complexity of the challenge, the build phase can last anywhere from 15 – 40 minutes. During this time, the teacher acts as a facilitator by walking the room, checking in with groups and asking questions. Be careful not to be too leading or solve design problems for the groups. It can be a difficult balance to strike, but it becomes easier with practice.

3. Share

Give groups 2-3 minutes to present, explain, and demonstrate their designs. For those not finished, groups share how their designs will look and work when done. Groups can also take questions from their peers.

(Note: Sometimes, especially on tough challenges, I'll pause the build phase and interject a quick gallery walk/share session in the groups. This gives students a moment to walk away, see a few alternate ideas, and it can take the steam out of any building frustration (either due to the complexity of the challenge or of working with certain teammates! If you ever feel you've got a STEM Challenge going south, try this!)

4. Record & Reflect

Allow 10 – 15 minutes for students to record the results and reflect upon the challenge. All of my STEM challenges come with handouts for this purpose.

5. Discuss

Students should hold a broad discussion about the challenge either within their groups or the whole class for about 10 minutes. My challenges come with a set of 8 discussion questions – 7 are standard and one is a different quote to analyze and apply to the challenge at hand.

6. Extend

In the days that follow the first iteration, teach standards-based lessons that apply to the challenge, or have students conduct related research to aid in their next designs.

7. Next Iteration

STEM challenges work well as both introduction and culminating activities to both inspire students to learn about the content you wish to teach and to prove they have learned the content well enough to apply it in their designs. Holding a second or even third iteration is like creating drafts in the writing process: each iteration gives students an opportunity to refine their designs, apply new learning, and take new risks.

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