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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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.

June 2, 2016

Get out of Post-it Purgatory

Are you a TpT seller or just someone with a LOT on your to-do list? 

I know I’m not alone. Thousands, if not millions, share my post-it-note-stacks-of-notebooks-hastily-scratched-paper-scrap-notes-to-self chaos. There’s a lot going on, and there are constant lists, ideas, and inspiration striking at all times of the day. 

Do you ever get that déjà vu sensation when you’re planning a lesson that you’ve done this before? Or worse, that haunting feeling that you had a brilliant idea, you wrote it down (didn’t you?), but it’s nowhere to be found?  Or, perhaps even more annoying, you complete planning a project, and directly afterward find the set of notes from the first time you planned the project – months ago – in a “safe” spot: the purple notebook at the bottom of the notebook tower on your desk?

Look familiar? Just a small sample of my collection!

Notebooks run out of space and post-it notes lose their stick -- if you move them as much as I do, anyway. Frankly, I just couldn’t keep my ideas and task organized effectively until last year, when I found a life-saver of an organizational tool. It’s FREE!!! It’s helped me so much, and no, I am not being compensated in any way to write this blog. They have no clue who I am, but I am indebted to Trello, and I wanted to share the love.

Trello is an online project management tool (it’s also available as a mobile app). You can use it alone, or you can share task boards with a team.  See the screenshot below for some of my favorite features:

I created an introductory video (~13 min.) embedded below to show you how to get started:

Note: I posted this video on my new YouTube channel, which was one of my Trello task cards, now completed! More videos will be coming weekly, starting June 16 - mostly focusing on STEM Challenges. Be sure to check it out/subscribe! :)

Since using Trello a year ago, I created more than half the products in my store -- I started my store in 2012, so that's saying something! I’m using my time more efficiently, and I’m able to jot notes quickly at any time on my phone or laptop! The best thing is, I’m no longer losing track of my ideas. Thank you, thank you, thank you Trello! 

And, no, I was not sponsored or asked to write this blog; I think Trello is just that awesome and thought you might agree!

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

Screenshot fonts: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Fonts-Fonts-Fonts-170-Personal-and-Commercial-Use-Fonts-ALL-KB-Fonts-by-Khrys-505757

photo credit: 02.07.2014 via photopin (license)