Real-World STEM Problems

A MiddleWeb Blog


1 stem_design_logo What do STEM teachers do? According to U.S. News and World Report, STEM teachers pose problems and combine problem solving with project-based learning across disciplines. They work together with students on activities to develop students’ critical thinking, communication, assessment, and inquiry skills. That’s an impressive job description; however, one source describes the teacher preparation system for STEM teachers as “chaotic, incoherent, and uncoordinated, filled with ‘excellent programs, terrible programs, and many in between.’” That’s not surprising, since the STEM acronym has only been around for a few years. But it certainly needs to improve. While things seem a bit muddled on the STEM teacher preparation front, we do know some things about STEM curriculum. We know, for example, that a good STEM lesson accomplishes these things: 1.    Helps students apply math and science through authentic, hands-on learning 2.    Includes the use of (or creation of) technology 3.    Involves students in using an engineering design process 4.    Engages students in working in collaborative teams 5.    Appeals equally to girls and boys 6.    Reinforces relevant math and science standards 7.    Addresses a real-world problem Problem solving is really the heart of STEM investigations. Providing students with real-world problems to solve fuels their curiosity and investigative interests. One of the 3 Best Practices of Successful Science and Math Teachers states that real world problem-solving is the essence of scientific and mathematic investigations. Providing students with real-world problems to solve brings their higher order thinking skills into play. But for me, identifying real-world problems that students can solve is one of the hardest parts of creating STEM lessons. Those all-important problems must synchronize with a specific set of math and/or science standards from the school system’s pacing guide. Hopefully you don’t have that constraint, but realistically you probably do.

Sites for Real-World Problems

I’ve located some sites that help me come up with real-world problems, and I’m always on the look-out for more. I’m going to share several sites I’ve located, and I hope that you’ll share some as well. I invite you to click on these sites and mull over the possibilities. The National Education Environmental Education Foundation is a great site for problem hunting. The site correctly avows, “Solutions to 21st century environmental challenges often result from STEM knowledge and skills. Hands-on environmental education projects enrich STEM learning and offer an exciting opportunity to engage more students in STEM. The possibilities are endless – from calculating school water usage to observing, documenting, & protecting wildlife populations in the schoolyard.” In the Greening STEM section on this site you’ll find ideas for relevant problems. Most environmental topics can fit under standards for either life or physical science, so these may provide you with some real “kid-catchers,” or ideas that snag students’ interest. Topics include areas such as: •    Oil spills •    Water pollution •    Air quality •    Endangered species •    Environmental Health Another favorite site of mine is the Design Squad Nation. They have some real-world problems there that I find intriguing. For example student teams might invent these: •    Band Instrument •    Electric Gamebox •    Confetti Launcher •    Solar Water Heater •    Speedy Shelter How cool are those ideas? As a middle school science teacher, I found STEM to be a natural fit for most of the topics I taught. Math, however, seems to be a different matter.

The Problem with Math

One issue I hear repeatedly is that math teachers find it difficult to identify real-world problems and implement STEM projects in math classes. (Note that these math teachers are not able to work collaboratively with science teachers to develop/implement lessons, and must therefore “go-it-alone.”) However, the math teachers who mentioned this are looking determinedly for ways to implement STEM lessons. The Common Core Standards state: “Mathematically proficient students can apply the mathematics they know to solve problems arising in everyday life, society, and the workplace.” This adds urgency to the search for real-world problems that bring in appropriate math standards. Some places that may help with this dilemma are these: The STEM Collaborative offers lessons that focus on key middle school math standards and content. While most of these focus on real problems, you may need to be selective if you want the activity to qualify as a true STEM project. Math standards addressed by the lessons on this site include these and more: •    Fractions, decimals, percents •    Ratios and proportions •    Estimating and predicting •    Rates and unit rate •    Modeling problems with graphs, tables, and equations •    Comparing, graphing, and interpreting data •    Scale factors •    Geometry and measurement •    Probability •    Proportional reasoning Another site that links math to real problems is Middle School Math and Science. Students solve problems involving train races, global sun temperature, amount of water usage, and so on. Most of these are Internet-based, so you may want to design some of them as hands-on projects for students.

Teach Engineering

No list of real-world problem ideas would be complete without mentioning the Teach Engineering lessons. As you peruse these, read the summary of the lessons rather than relying on the titles. Look for projects that involve hands-on ideas, such as projects involving microbes, rocket-powered boats, solid fuel reactants, and so on. Notice that many of the lessons have hands-on “Associated Activities.” These generally hands-on investigations bring the “E” in STEM to your students. I hope these sites will be of value to you, and will assist you in brainstorming ideas for real-world problems. Feel free to share comments or sites of your own. We’re inventing a new specialty and need all the help we can get and share!

Anne Jolly

Anne Jolly began her career as a lab scientist, caught the science teaching bug and was recognized as an Alabama Teacher of the Year during her years as a middle grades science teacher. Today, she works with teacher teams in schools across the Southeast to help them take control of their own professional learning. Her practical how-to book Team to Teach is published by Learning Forward. Anne is also a curriculum consultant for a Mobile-based, NSF-supported project to develop engaging, standards-based STEM lessons that are easily integrated into middle school curricula. One important focus of her MiddleWeb blog is to engage readers in conversations around STEM subjects.

11 Responses

  1. Linda Schwerer says:

    Hello Anne.
    As a new STEM coordinator, I have to give a STEM presentation to principals for my charter schools. Can you suggest and lessons, books. power points,etc. that would be advantageous?
    Linda Schwerer
    Pinellas Academy of Math & Science

  2. Anne Jolly says:

    Hi, Linda – I have a couple of ideas . . . If you contact Susan Pruet – Director if Engaging Youth through Engineering (you can google it) she will send you a copy of a free STEM launcher. It’s a lesson intended to demonstrate the STEM process. You could lead your principals through it if you think they really need a better understanding of the difference in STEM and science experimentation. You could also distribute it to your schools for teachers to use as a launcher into the STEM way of thinking. It has PowerPoint slides with it.

    An online document that you might like to look at is “STEM Teachers in Professional Learning Communities: From Good Teachers to Great Teaching.” You can google this document online as well as a National Academies Press document titled “Successful K-12 STEM Education: Identifying Effective Approaches in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.”

    I’m not sure if you’re trying to introduce these principals to the idea of STEM and convince them that they need to do this, or if you’re trying to show your principals how to do this. Those are two separate presentations – at least.

    Good luck with your preparation! You have a lot of research to back up the need for STEM!

  3. Paula Irons says:

    I love the STEM idea. But, as a 7th grade math teacher, I don’t see a place in STEM programs to ensure that students understand the basic math skills required by educational standards. For many kids, it takes a long time to understand and be able to apply math concepts. With STEM programming focusing on the project-based approach, where does mastering basic skills fit in?

    • ajollygal says:

      Hi, Paula,

      Mastering math skills and applying them through STEM isn’t actually an either-or situation. If kids see reasons for what they are learning, they tend to learn more deeply and quickly because they are actually engaged in the content. I’ve worked with STEM courses that made use of math that the kids had already learned. I’ve also worked with STEM projects that taught the math kids needed in order to solve the problem. Both were effective. The real purpose of STEM is to ensure that math and science students learn their content more deeply. If that isn’t working, then we’ll need to keep adjusting until we get there. Thanks for asking!

  4. Mary Tromba says:

    Hi Ann,
    I am a third grade teacher and currently co-chair a curriculum committee to develop a summer program for Kindergarten through 3rd grade. I am having trouble finding age appropriate STEM lessons for kindergarten through 3rd grade. Do you have ideas or suggestiosn as to where I can start? Thank you.

    • Anne Jolly says:

      Hi, Mary! So glad you’re working on developing a summer program. I know someone who’s been there, done that, and I’m going to put you in touch with her. Her name is Susan Pruet and her email is Please shoot her an email and she’ll be happy to tell you about what materials, etc. she uses.

      I’d also take a look at the Engineering is Elementary (EiE) curriculum from the Boston Museum of Science. Those are quite thorough and good.

  5. Darren Webb says:

    Hi Ann
    I am a seventh grade science teacher and we are in the early stages of implementing STEMS at our school site.Can this program incorporate all content areas, history, language arts, math and science all in the science classroom? This is not my understanding of how it should be taught. I understand the math and science but to include what the history and language art teacher is teaching doesnt seem to work.
    I am hoping you can clarify this for me.

  6. Anne Jolly says:

    Hi, Darren. Wow. You’re gonna be sorry you asked me this . . . my answer won’t be short!

    For me personally, STEM includes an indepth, integrated focus on science and math, and on using the engineering design process to solve real-world problems. Technology may be used to help with the solution, or teams of kids may create technology as part of the solution. (Anything made by humans to meet a want or need is designated as technology). This in-depth focus on science and math through STEM has come about as the result of a 21st Century workforce with an increasing need in STEM fields and a lack of STEM-prepared workers. The math and science deficits are sending our industries abroad to find workers qualified for our 21st century workforce.

    Now to your question. I see a place for art in the STEM product design – it could be used to make the product teams produce more appealing and desirable – although that may be for the art teacher to work with if it’s going to involve knowing art design principles.

    Likewise, you have to use some form of language arts in the communication process (communication is part of the engineering design process); however, it’s used naturally as teams work together to solve the engineering (STEM) challenge and to publicize their solutions. It’s not used try to accomplish specific language arts objectives.

    History might be incorporated if you need to set some sort of context for the engineering challenge. But I can’t visualize incorporating specific history objectives during a STEM challenge unless they happen to be a natural fit. And unless you need a historical context for the challenge.

    Doing a “force fit” with other subjects doesn’t make much sense to me. Not to mention – class time is already at a premium. STEM work, with its inquiry-based approach, already requires more time than a traditional science (or math) class.

    The fact that all subjects are not taught directly in an engineering challenge doesn’t lessen the value of those other subjects. Again – it goes back to the need we’re attempting to meet by going deeper in math and science content through an engineering process.

    So for me, in a STEM project students focus on using science and math to solve real world challenges, and they use the engineering design process to bring structure and process to doing that. Language arts and history are always appropriate to the extent that (and if) they add value to the STEM challenge. They shouldn’t be add-ons just for the sake of adding them on.

    Remember, however, that there is an intense focus on the science and mathematics objectives in a solid STEM program. And this works best when these two subjects are integrated and the math and science teachers work together on teaching STEM projects.

    Now, aren’t you sorry you asked? Seriously – remember this is MY opinion and STEM has other looks as well. I’d advise you to listen openly to the need for including other subjects as explained by your principal or other decision-maker. Then – rather than pushing back – in a positive manner explain how these subjects could fit naturally during the course of the STEM projects. Also explain what you expect to accomplish for your students through STEM and note the limited time you already have. Let me know how it goes. :-)

  1. 12/18/2012

    […] By Anne JollySummary by MiddleWeb Smartbrief"Providing STEM students with real-world challenges fuels their curiosity & investigative interests, writes science educator Anne Jolly. But where do teachers find problems worthy of investigation? In a new post at MiddleWeb's STEM Imagineering blog, Jolly makes the case for real-world problem solving and points to Internet resources that can help teachers find suitable challenges in science, math and engineering."  […]

  2. 02/26/2015

    […] head over heels in a STEM project—before the familiar acronym had even burst onto the scene. See Real World STEM Problems for some suggestions for projects students might focus […]

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