STEM Challenges are one of my favorite ways to engage my students. STEM challenges require the use of problem-solving and critical-thinking skills in a way that replicates real-world challenges and how teams really work together to solve a problem. A STEM challenge is also a way for students to be creative and hands-on and may help students who seemingly struggle academically, to show off their creative, innovative design and building skills. A well-designed STEM challenge can teach students so much more than just academic standards.
Table of Contents
STEM Challenge Objective
When planning a STEM challenge for your classroom, it’s important to have a clear objective in mind. STEM challenge activities are designed to target engineering, design, problem-solving, and critical-thinking skills. You can plan these activities around a specific theme or align them with educational standards.
Choosing a theme for your STEM challenge adds an element of excitement and relevance to the activity. Themes can be based on back-to-school, seasons, holidays like Halloween, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, or even a specific book. By incorporating a theme, you can spark students’ interest and make the challenge more engaging.
Alternatively, you can plan a STEM challenge around a standard from any subject area, including social studies, music, art, and, of course, science. This cross-curricular approach allows students to apply their knowledge and skills in various disciplines, making learning more meaningful and interconnected.
For example, during the first week of school, you could have students build a nametag that stands on its own, combining design and engineering skills.
To integrate with other subjects or align with different seasons, you could have students design a house for the Three Little Pigs, creating an opportunity to explore structural engineering. Another idea could be tasking students with designing a float for the Thanksgiving Day parade, incorporating art and design elements alongside engineering principles.
In the fall, students could create a catapult to launch pumpkins, integrating physics concepts into their designs. In the spring, for St. Patrick’s Day, a fun challenge could be designing a leprechaun trap, combining creativity and problem-solving.
By aligning STEM challenges with themes or educational standards, you create engaging and purposeful learning experiences that allow students to develop a wide range of skills while making connections across different subjects.
STEM Challenge Planning
What materials do you need? What are the rules for your students? How will you group your students? What questions do you want them to answer?
When you’re planning a STEM Challenge for your classroom, there are a few important things to keep in mind. First, you’ll need to gather all the materials you’ll need for the challenge. This could be things like building blocks, circuit components, or even just everyday items like paper, index cards, and tape. Make sure you have everything on hand before you get started.
When it comes to grouping your students, think about how you can encourage teamwork and collaboration. You might want to mix students with different skills and abilities so they can learn from each other. Or you could assign groups based on complementary skills so they can work together effectively. It’s up to you to decide what will work best for your students and the challenge you’ve chosen.
To guide your students through the challenge, ask them thought-provoking questions. These questions should make them think critically and come up with creative solutions. For example, you could ask them why something is happening or what they think will happen if they try a different approach. By asking these questions, you’ll encourage them to explore and learn more about the STEM concepts involved.
At the end of the challenge, it’s important to have a reflection session. This is where students can think about what went well and what didn’t. They can think about what they would do differently next time and what they learned from any mistakes or successes. Reflection is an important part of the engineering design challenge process because it helps students grow and improve their skills. So make sure to give them time to reflect and share their thoughts.
STEM Challenge Time
How much time will the challenge take?
When it comes to planning the time for STEM Challenges in the classroom, you need to consider a few things. Simple challenges can usually be finished within 45 minutes to an hour, which is a good timeframe to keep things snappy and exciting. But there may be times when you want to give your students more time for background research, and that could stretch the challenge over a few class periods.
To keep things on track during the challenge, it’s a good idea to set time limits for each step. For example, in a 60-minute challenge, you can give your students 5 minutes to plan their design and 35 minutes to build, try, and make any changes they need. Then you can have each team “compete” in the challenge for 10-15 minutes, showing off their work and explaining their approach. Finally, wrap it up with a reflection session where each team answers some questions about the challenge.
Remember, these timeframes can be adjusted depending on the challenge and what works best for your class. The goal is to create a fun and engaging learning experience while giving your students enough time to think, create, and reflect on their work.
STEM Challenge Procedures
It is very important to go over procedures for the challenge. How will materials be handled? Will group roles be assigned? I have my students work together to assign team roles: Materials, Time Keeper, Build Director, and Recorder (I’ll have two students assigned to a role if I have a group of more than four). For a successful classroom STEM challenge, it is very important for each student to have a job and to know what that job entails.
For STEM challenges in my classroom, I require each team to complete a:
- Planning page to record their ideas and sketches for the design.
- Trials page to record tests and any design changes or improvements made.
- Challenge Observation page to record observations about all of the teams’ designs and results of the challenge.
- Post-Challenge reflection page to collect ideas about what worked well, what didn’t, and how the team might approach the challenge differently if given another chance.
STEM Challenge Expectations
It’s important to set some rules and expectations for your students. These rules can be about safety, time limits, or even how many students can be in a team. By establishing clear rules and expectations, everyone will know what’s expected of them and the challenge can run smoothly.
STEM challenges are cooperative activities and can be great for students to practice working in a group. Group tasks can come with their own challenges when students don’t agree or get along with each other.
Teaching students how to handle any conflicts that arise are an added bonus to STEM challenges.
Include these expectations in a STEM challenge rubric. A STEM challenge is a great way to go over your expectations for each step of the challenge and helps all students to be successful.
I love planning and creating STEM challenges for my classroom.
Get a FREE STEM Challenge Planning Page and Rubric:
Interested in more classroom tips and ideas?