This image shows two middle school students with a robot and a laptop. The text reads "Your first weeks of STEM class."

How to start a STEM program: 5 tips for your first weeks of school

The first few days of a new semester are always exciting, but they are also so important for creating the classroom culture and routines that will guide the rest of the school year. While some classroom procedures and routines can be used in any classroom, there are specific considerations for a STEM classroom. Whether you are a veteran STEM teacher or just getting started in STEM education, these concrete suggestions for how to start a STEM program will help you plan an awesome first few weeks of school!

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Tips & Tricks on How to Start a Successful STEM Program

This image shows two students working with a robot and a laptop. The text reads "5 tips for how to start a STEM class."

1. STEM classroom set-up considerations

Group work, storage, and flexible furniture are three major considerations as you set up your classroom to facilitate a STEM program. You’ll need space for students to collaborate in partners and larger groups as they tackle different STEM projects. Tables are ideal if possible. Otherwise, try grouping your desks to better facilitate group work. You’ll also need space for students to sometimes build large, unwieldy projects. Storage space for your STEM supplies (building materials, art supplies, recyclables, etc.) and ongoing projects is also important. Large bookcases and shoe-box-size plastic containers will be your favorite classroom decor if you don’t have much built-in storage space. There will also be times when you need open space in your classroom for either building or presenting projects. Consider how you can push the furniture aside or how the furniture can be arranged to give you open spaces when you need them.

2. Develop a collaborative classroom culture

Group work is an essential part of any STEM program. This is also challenging for many middle school students, so you need to explicitly teach teamwork skills and set the expectation that students will work together with everyone in the classroom starting on Day 1. You can do this by sharing real-world examples of STEM professionals collaborating and including a small group work activity every day as part of your introductory lesson plans. Also, consider introducing group work procedures and routines, such as group roles and participation rubrics, that will support collaboration. 

3. Teach or review the engineering design process

Regardless of the specific STEM content focus of your course (engineering, robotics, computer science, 3D printing, etc.) you need to teach or review the engineering design process. STEM education is a specific teaching philosophy where students are presented with real-world challenges and use the engineering design process along with their science, technology, engineering, and math skills and knowledge to develop a solution to the problem.

  • If your students are new to STEM, you’ll want to do a deep dive into the engineering design process. Start by explicitly teaching the steps of the design process and giving students opportunities to practice their problem-solving skills with STEM challenges.
  • If your students have participated in other STEM programs, you’ll want to review the engineering design process steps that they’ll use in your course and give them at least one opportunity to practice and reflect on the process before moving into more specific course content. This will ensure your students have an understanding of how to approach any problem you’ll be presenting throughout the curriculum.

4. STEM-specific classroom routines and procedures

STEM programs are student-led and require lots of different materials. For these reasons, there are special classroom routines and procedures that need to be created to ensure your STEM class runs smoothly. Consider how you will manage and teach students the following: 

  • Setting up and maintaining STEM notebooks to document projects
  • Distributing and cleaning up supplies
  • Storing in-progress projects
  • Managing classroom technology
  • Moving into groups
  • Working collaboratively on a project with team members
  • Breaking down projects and preparing the classroom for a new project
  • Requesting and collecting material donations
  • How to get help from the teacher
  • Setting and checking on progress toward project deadlines
  • How to make up work after an absence

5. Assessing students in STEM class

The big goal of STEM is to teach students how to solve problems. This is a skill that will benefit them throughout their education and beyond regardless of their chosen profession. However, assessing students on a skill like problem-solving isn’t as easy as checking a quiz. Developing a plan for assessment before starting a STEM program is crucial. I recommend using a generic rubric (like this one) that you can apply to every project in your STEM class. Then your students will become familiar with the rubric criteria and be able to begin assessing themselves and reflect on their own STEM strengths and areas of growth.

Looking for more support with how to start a STEM program?

Grab this free first day of STEM lesson plan. First, you’ll lead your students in a reflection and class discussion so they can share their background knowledge about engineering.  Then students will experience the engineering design process and practice working with a team during a quick STEM challenge. Next, students will do research about what it means to engineer and learn about real-world engineering careers. Printable and google versions are included. With your first-day planning done, you can focus on creating the classroom culture and environment that will set you and your students up for success!

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