12 Steps to Great STEM Lessons
When I was young, I secretly hoped to find that magic bottle – the one with the genie who suddenly poofs out and announces dramatically, “You have one wish, so you’d better make it good.”
Well, if I had one wish for education, I would wish for a miracle that I believe would have a powerful impact on student learning. I would ask the genie to redesign teachers’ schedules and build in time for them to work together to plan, learn, share, and reflect on ways to implement STEM curriculum and the engineering design process in their classrooms.
In many places, of course, teachers are already being asked to plan and implement STEM lessons. But so often these “requests” are accompanied by very little preparation, explanation, or time to work together. In a search for some kind of help, these teachers may look for STEM lessons online. That can be both a rewarding and frustrating experience. It’s rewarding because teachers will, in fact, find some engaging lessons out there. But it’s also frustrating because the lessons they find may have little to do with what they are teaching.
Maybe the process that a group of 8th grade teachers in Mobile, Alabama are using to design STEM lessons can help. Let’s give it a shot. (Keep in mind that the principles they are using would work equally well with other subjects.)
12 key steps to good STEM lesson building
1. Prepare the STEM lesson around a topic you will be teaching. Like these Mobile teachers, I’m guessing you don’t have time to get “off track” with regard to the curriculum pacing guide.
During the second quarter, 8th grade science students in Mobile will be studying physical and chemical changes, types of chemical reactions, and acids and bases. The student math objectives include computational fluency and solving linear equations. Sounded like a possible fit. Great! That allowed the teachers to blend some math and science content so kids can actually see how the two subjects interconnect.
2. Connect that topic to a real world problem. Easier said than done.These Mobile teachers stretched their thinking caps to arrive at a real world issue. They decided to explore the problem of airbags. A simple and safe chemical reaction takes place between acetic acid (vinegar) and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). This produces a gas (carbon dioxide) that might be used to expand airbags. Voila!
3. Clearly define the STEM challenge students will tackle. The teachers tossed around ideas on how the air bag might be used: possibly as a cushion for elbows or knees if contact occurs during a sports activity; or possibly as a non-inflammatory automobile air bag. Here’s the draft challenge the teachers are working on now: Design a cost-effective airbag from nonflammable chemicals that will inflate quickly and prevent injury.
4. Decide what success looks like. This is still under construction, as the Mobile teachers discuss how teams might test the effectiveness of their air bag in preventing injury. Using a boiled egg as a passenger is a popular way of doing this. Exactly how will they conduct this investigation, and what measurements will they take? Those are questions teachers address next. Fortunately they have a good resource in Alicia Lane’s lesson plan on the Chemistry of Air Bags.
5. Use the engineering design process for planning. In another week or so, the teachers will get together to develop the lesson plan. Since they will be teaching students about the tried-and-true engineering design process, they will follow this kind of format in their planning as well. Whether you’re working alone or with a team, I think you’ll find it useful. (Note: the order of the lesson components may vary from one lesson to another. It will usually take more than one day to complete a lesson.)
6. Help students identify the challenge. Do this in an engaging way. Set up a scenario that captures the students’ interest and lays out the problem. YouTube videos may come in handy. Use a skit or some other attention-getter. In the end, be sure the students understand their challenge and, indeed, feel challenged.
7. Involve students (in teams) in researching the content for the challenge. Note that teachers have an opportunity to teach content such as balancing chemical equations — that’s part of the curriculum. Keep in mind, however, that this student research can be hands-on research. It may involve learning about acid-base reactions by experimenting with the chemicals they will use. It can also include learning about air bags. This may involve reading or videos. Research doesn’t need to be just a “nose-in-a-book” process.
8. Encourage teams to develop their own ideas about how to solve the problem. Before you turn students loose to brainstorm ideas and solutions, you’ll want to establish some criteria and constraints. For example, one criterion might be that their air bag should be cost effective. Exactly how much of each chemical will they need to produce enough gas to fill the air bag (a plastic sandwich bag) to the optimal level? A constraint might be that they have only a certain amount of acetic acid and sodium bicarbonate to work with.
This is really important: Let students generate multiple ideas for solving their problem. One thing they need to learn is that there are usually multiple solutions for problems – not “one right answer.” This is the step that separates real STEM learning from cookie cutter lab experiments. After students get some ideas on the table, they can select one to try. (In this case, teams might muck around with the chemicals and come up with their own proportions for inflating the airbag. If students will be using a boiled egg in their investigation, they will need to engage in another round of brainstorming – how will they attach the passenger to the airbag? As they work together, monitor how their teamwork is going. Is everyone participating? Sharing? Respectful?)
9. Guide teams to choose one idea to test and then create their prototype. In this case they might select the airbag system they think has the most cost-effective ratio of chemicals and a device they think will best transport the passenger egg. Let them dive into building a prototype of their air bag system. (Again – watch to see that they’re working as a team.)
10. Facilitate the process of prototype testing and evaluation. Teams should test their prototypes and collect data on how well they worked. This may involve one test or many tests, depending on what kind of data they will collect. Then teams should analyze their data and decide how well their prototypes met the criteria.
11. Involve teams in communicating their findings. The teams might display their data and then make decisions as a whole class about which airbag system worked best and why.
12. Redesign if there’s time. Once teams have time to learn from one another, they can then redesign their airbag systems and improve them.
The key take-aways
I can’t conclude this overly-long post until I reiterate these important points to remember:
- Provide lots of guidance but few instructions.
- Mistakes and design failures are good methods of learning.
- The STEM process is not linear – the sequence of events may change.
- Students work in teams to solve STEM challenges.
- Work with colleagues if possible to write and implement STEM lessons. If it’s not possible, then go for it anyway!
Thanks for hanging in there, and happy lesson developing!
Genie image: Thomas Hawk, Creative Commons