So, you are teaching STEM. It’s awesome! It’s exciting! And so much fun!
But starting a STEM class can also be overwhelming and confusing. What is STEM based education? What do I need to teach my students in STEM class? How can I start my STEM class strong?
Keep reading to feel confident going into your first weeks of STEM and beyond!
What is STEM?
If you have already been assigned to teach STEM, I’m guessing you already know STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. Many people assume that if you just teach each of these four subjects, you are doing STEM. This is not STEM. STEM is actually a way of teaching that builds students’ problem solving skills and helps prepare students for learning and working in the real world.
In STEM by Design, Anne Jolly provides one of the best descriptions of STEM education that I have ever seen. She says “in teaching STEM you’ll be involving students in an approach to learning that focuses on combining knowledge from four content areas – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – to solve current, real-world problems,” (2017, p.8). In other words, students will be presented with a real-world challenge, and use the engineering design process along with their science, technology, engineering, and math skills and knowledge to develop a solution to the problem. An engineering challenge doesn’t have to only include the STEM subjects, and it doesn’t have to involve all 4 STEM disciplines, but it does have to include problem-solving as the focus.
On a side note, if you are looking for a STEM Teacher textbook, STEM by Design is the one! You can find a copy here. It’s not an affiliate link, I’m just a super fan.
I got the basics… Now how do I get started?
Because problem-solving is really the focus of STEM education, I strongly recommend teaching your students the engineering design process first. This will be the foundation for everything you do in STEM class. Once your students have this process down and understand how to approach a problem and develop a solution, you can throw any STEM challenge their way and they will know how to get started.
What’s the Engineering Design Process?
The engineering design process is a problem solving strategy used in STEM class and in real-world engineering. The iterative process is used to develop and refine solutions. If you google engineering design process, you’ll find many different versions, but they all use different words to describe a similar approach. First, you analyze the problem and determine criteria for success. Then you do research and brainstorm possible solutions. Then you plan and create your solution. Finally, you test your solution and evaluate the results. The evaluation should lead to identifying areas of improvement and the cycle can begin again.
If you are interested in more engineering design process resources, check out this article.
How do I get my students to problem solve like engineers?
Here’s an outline of how I start my STEM classes every year. This tried and true plan allows students to build their problem solving skills and lay the groundwork for a successful year of STEM.
1. Explicitly teach teamwork skills.
Engineers work on teams. Before students can do any STEM challenges, they need to know how to be a good team member and practice it. Otherwise, even the most interesting and exciting STEM challenges can be a flop. If you need ideas for how to teach this important skill, read on here.
2. Let them experience a STEM challenge!
Right after we work on teamwork skills, I give my students a design challenge. I tell them their only grade will be based on their teamwork (the rubric I use is here), and they do not need to successfully solve the problem. I want students to construct their own understanding of the engineering design process by experiencing the problem solving approach first hand. This background knowledge will help them make connections and learn vocabulary when you introduce the process in the next lesson.
3. Teach them the engineering design process steps and vocabulary.
Show them a chart of the design process that you will be sticking with throughout the course. Grab a copy of the one above for FREE here! Explain what happens during each step of the process. Have students make connections to the STEM challenge and steps they went through previously. Let them observe others working through the design process in TV shows or articles. Teach them the important vocabulary, like criteria, constraints, and prototype.
4. Assess their learning through another STEM challenge.
Now that they are familiar with the problem solving approach, give them an opportunity to apply the engineering design process to a new problem. At first, some students will really struggle with brainstorming and having their prototypes fail, but as they learn this is all part of the process, they will get better and better at it.
If you’d like more support planning your first weeks of STEM, you can grab this complete 5-week unit plan with over 200 pages of digital and print resources to ensure your students master the engineering design process and meet middle school engineering standards, while having a lot of fun!
After working through this plan, your students will be ready for whatever topic you want to explore next. From environmental science to robotics, students can apply the engineering design process to create solutions for just about any problem they come across.
If you aren’t sure which direction you’d like to take your class, ask them! What are their interests? What problems exist in those fields? Or you can grab your next easy-to-implement middle school STEM challenge here.
What Did I Miss?
Do you have other burning questions or concerns about STEM based education? Let me know in the comments and I’ll get back to you!
STEM is truly the most fun subject to teach! Wishing you the best school year yet!
Here’s to inspiring future scientists and engineers,
Jolly, A. (2017). STEM by Design: Strategies and Activities for Grades 4-8. Routledge.