July 9, 2017

Top 10 Reasons to Start the School Year with STEM Challenges

As the summer winds down, and you're planning to begin another school year, the feelings are usually mixed, aren't they? The anticipation of a fresh start is energizing, but the end of wearing pajamas all day just 'cause you can feels like a loss to be mourned!

My advice: focus on the positive. The beginning of the year brings with it a chance to set a new tone and reconnect with all the things that made you love teaching in the first place, and I know that can sometimes be a hard thing to keep hold of with all the pressures in and out of the classroom today.  The reason I became obsessed with STEM Challenges is because it did help me find that idealist I once was. It made me feel like a good teacher again. I could see it in my students' faces, and that's why you find almost the whole of this blog devoted to STEM Challenges. I want you, and your students, to find the joy in teaching and learning again. So with that, here are my:

Click to watch!

In the event you prefer to read the Top 10 list, the video is transcribed below. Links mentioned in the video are included following the transcription.


Think STEM Challenges are a little too much for the Back-to-School season? Think again! STEM Challenges are the perfect way to practice your class routines and procedures, set the tone for the year, and much more. Check out these top 10 reasons to start the year with STEM Challenges!

Video Transcription

Hi. I'm Kerry from Feel Good Teaching and back to school is just around the corner, and the perfect way to start your school year right is with STEM challenges. Think that idea sounds just a little bit nuts? Well, get ready to agree with me. Here are my top 10 reasons to start the school year with STEM challenges.

STEM challenges are a great way to practice your routines and procedures. You'll have your quiet down signal, your transition from one activity to the next, how to work appropriately in a team, how to manage materials, where those materials belong, and so forth.

I have to confess I can't stand ice-breaker activities, most of them. They always just feel a little bit too forced and a little bit cheesy, but STEM challenges actually feel like a really natural way to get to know your classmates. And for those of us with a little bit of social anxiety, STEM challenges are a really nice distraction because you really can't focus on all your stress when you're trying to complete the task at hand.

STEM challenges are highly engaging. I like to say they are brain-busting work disguised as fun. It really sets the tone for the school year. Your students right off the bat are going to know that your class is an exciting place where new adventures are going to be happening all the time and it's not going to be just paper/pencil tasks all the time. This is a classroom where multiple intelligences are honored.

STEM challenges are standards based. You're going to cover your next-gen science standards for engineering as well as many other subject areas, and I'm not just talking science, technology, engineering, and math. It's usually entirely possible to integrate some ELA, and sometimes even social studies, PE, and other subject areas. You'd be surprised.

STEM challenges help you get to know your kids quickly. As you're walking around observing the students working in teams, you're going to notice a lot of talents emerging that might take you weeks to discover otherwise. You're going to find your leaders, you're going to see how students handle frustration, you're going to see who works well in teams and who might need a little extra support there, and maybe you'll even discover one or two creative geniuses.

STEM challenges are a great way to develop growth mindset skills. You want your classroom to feel like a place that's safe to try, fail, and try again. STEM challenges are a great way to practice these skills, because if you are setting up challenges that are challenging, then at some point the students are going to experience frustration and indeed failure. I think it's so important that we establish that fail is not a four letter word in our classroom. It's a learning experience. It's really nothing more than a data point that we observe, and we analyze, and we move forward trying to address it in the next iteration of that design.

Which brings me to my next point. You might have formative assessments to do where you are working with students one-on-one. What do you do with the rest of the students in your class during that time? This is the perfect time for a second iteration of a design challenge. The reason I recommend doing a second iteration during assessments rather than just doing a brand new challenge on that day is that the students will already be familiar with their criteria and constraints list, and because they know what they're supposed to be doing they will be more engaged, and they will be less likely to need to interrupt you with any sorts of questions.

Now if you like to have class meetings to develop your classroom community, STEM challenges are going to be a great generator of topics for these meetings. Some things that might come up are how to deal with conflict within teams; how to make sure you're listening to everybody on your team and selecting ideas to move forward with fairly; and maybe even strategies for how to handle frustration or failure when things aren't going well with your designs.

This is one of my favorite reasons. Students love STEM challenges and this means when their parents ask, "How was school today? What did you do?", they're going to have some pretty amazing stories to tell them right at the beginning of the school year.  That's going to make you look pretty good, which is always nice, but there's an even better benefit. Once you get bitten by the STEM challenge bug, you're probably going to want to do STEM challenges at least once a week. That means you're going to need a lot of materials. If your students are going home every day telling their parents how amazing STEM challenges are, that's going to work out really well for you when you send home a request letter to parents asking for donations of STEM challenge materials like pipe cleaners, masking tape, and foil. And I don't know about you, but free pipe cleaners make me want to do a little happy dance.

But the best reason to start your year with STEM challenges is actually for you. STEM challenges have produced more feel-good teaching moments in my career than really any other type of activity. You know those moments, those ones that make you remember why you became a teacher in the first place. Those moments where you look out on your class and the student groups are huddled in, completely focused and engaged in what they're doing, unaware at how much problem solving and critical thinking, and flat out work they're doing because it's just so interesting to them. When you walk up and you actually speak to the students in their groups about what they're doing, their eyes are lit up with discovery. Those moments where students who might not be very successful in the traditional school tasks, paper/pencil tasks, have created something incredible that their peers are stunned by and so impressed, and they have that moment to shine and to feel like they belong in the school. That pride that swells up in you because you made this opportunity available to these students, and they showed up, and they invested, and they did the work.
Some challenges aren't magic, but they're pretty darn close. The good news is STEM challenges are a lot easier to implement than you may think. I've created a library of video resources for you and that includes some professional development, best practices, as well as specific challenge walk-throughs, and I've got more on the way. I even have a bundle of back to school challenges both in printable and in digital for those paperless one-to-one classrooms that you can use with Google slides.
Now you don't have to do one of my STEM challenges, but I hope I have convinced you to do some STEM challenges for back to school, and let me know how it goes. Please follow or subscribe if you're not already so you don't miss any STEM challenge videos this year. Until next time, have a fabulous week and may your school year be packed with feel good teaching moments. Bye.


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