Six Quick Tips for Sudden STEM Teachers

stem_design_logoFall has arrived, school doors have reopened for many students across the USA, and quite a few educators face a fresh and potentially daunting assignment: Teach STEM.

STEM, it seems, has finally reached Education Buzzword of the Year status. Novice teachers, experienced teachers, and even administrators are being asked to create STEM classes, often with inadequate know-how or support. I know this from all the pleas for help in my own daily email! Let’s read about some real situations educators are dealing with. (I’ve changed the names and locations.)

  • My name is Jane and I was a kindergarten teacher. Now I’ve been assigned as the new STEM teacher on campus. I have a beautiful state-of-the-art classroom, but no idea where to begin. I’m looking for all the help I can get, plus I need some curriculum.
  • I am a new middle school STEM teacher. I have a biology degree, a graduate degree, and I taught in college for 16 years. Now I’ve been assigned to teach STEM. This project is new to me and to the school district. I need help and resources!
  • My name is Jerrold and I teach in a rural community in Ohio. This year our middle school will be a full-fledged STEM school. This process is completely new to me, and I would like to be as successful as possible. I will teach each group of students once a week for about an hour.
  • I am Scott Greene, the principal at Jones Middle School. I am looking for ideas on how to start implementing STEM at my school. Where can I find ideas and resources to begin this unfamiliar journey?
  • I’m Tamala and I’m a new teacher. I applied to teach high school history. Now I have been asked to teach after-school STEM in a middle school. I don’t know much about STEM and I don’t even know where to get curriculum and what resources to order. Help!

Can you hear a touch of panic in some of these voices?


6 basic ideas for STEM teachers under the gun

There is obviously no one-size-fits-all answer for all the dilemmas that first-time STEM educators are facing this fall. If I could sit down for a few minutes and share some basic things with all the folks out there who are under the gun, I think these are the six points I would make:

1. Prepare to integrate the four STEM subjects. STEM subjects are not taught in traditional silos. In your STEM teaching you will be integrating and applying science, technology, engineering, and math. This produces real-world, meaningful learning for students. Your students should receive a more authentic treatment of grade-level science and math content than in traditional classes alone. Help students apply what they learn and become more innovative. Build their ability to develop thinking, reasoning, investigative, and creative skills so they can function and thrive in our highly technological world.

2. Prepare to use the engineering design process (EDP). Engineering is the heart of the STEM process, so you’ll need to be familiar with the steps of this process. Math, science, and technology are integrated – woven together to solve problems – through an engineering design process.

EDP-wheelThe EDP gives students a way to think systematically about solving problems, and it carries over into other areas as well. In this process, kids define problems, conduct research, develop multiple ideas for solutions, develop and create a device or prototype, and then test, evaluate, and redesign. Here’s a graphic of the EDP I use, which certainly isn’t the only one out there. Just google it and you’ll see other options. You don’t have to follow these steps in sequence. Engineers move back and forth between them.

3. Build successful student teams. Your students will work in teams to tackle engineering challenges and solve real world problems. Helping students work together as a productive team is never an easy job. Organize the teams of students for productive teamwork. You can use my free download Student Teaming Tips to give you some help with that.

6883029422_bcc3a6f56b_z4. Focus on real-world problems. In STEM lessons, students address real social, economic, health, environmental, and other global problems and seek solutions. See Real World STEM Problems for some suggestions for projects students might focus on.

5. Locate STEM Curriculum. Good STEM curriculum is still a work in progress, but several sites carry good STEM lessons. One of my “go to” sites for lesson ideas is eFGI for Teachers. Look at the lesson plans section for some good lessons. TeachEngineering also has some good STEM lessons. A word of caution for any site you use, however: Not every lesson that claims to be STEM is actually STEM. Here is a checklist I use.

A good STEM lesson —

  1. Presents a real and compelling open-ended problem
  2. Allows for several acceptable solutions for the problem
  3. Integrates and applies grade-level content in science and math
  4. Expects students to work in teams to solve the problem
  5. Uses the engineering design process approach for solving problems
  6. Includes technology that adds value and enhances learning
  7. Supports a teaching process that is inquiry-based, hands-on, and student-centered
  8. Requires students to design and create a model or prototype of the solution
  9. Provides time for kids to test their solutions, evaluate the results, and redesign if needed
  10. Views failure as a positive step toward discovering and designing solutions.

You might also want to take a look at three posts here at MiddleWeb:

Engineer a Great Middle School STEM Curriculum
12 Steps to Great STEM Lessons and
Before You Lead that STEM Lesson

6478250635_2104b78e25_z6. Inquiry-based instruction or student centered teaching. In STEM lessons, the path to learning is open ended.The students’ work is hands-on and collaborative, and decisions about solutions are student-generated. Students communicate to share ideas and redesign their prototypes as needed. The most valuable thing you can offer them instructionally is the opportunity to imagine, develop their own ideas, test them to see if the work, and realize that they probably won’t work initially. Kids learn more from what doesn’t work than from what does work. They can analyze their results and redesign.

Study, learn, persist, and try to have fun!

I hope those ideas will be of some help. For more, here’s our archive of STEM articles. Remember that STEM lessons focus on using the engineering design process to apply concepts students have already learned in math and science classes, along with appropriate use of technology.

Congratulations and best of luck to you! Try to have some fun. You may get off to a challenging start, but as you study, learn, and persist you will discover your STEM efforts can have authentic value for your students.


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 in Mobile, AL. From 2007-2014 Anne was part of an NSF-funded team that developed middle grades STEM curriculum modules and teacher professional development materials for the Mobile Area Education Foundation's Engaging Youth through Engineering (EYE) initiative. Anne has also teamed with science and math teachers to help them develop and implement their own STEM curriculum. Her book STEM By Design: Strategies & Activities for Grades 4-8 was published by Routledge/MiddleWeb in July 2016.

12 Responses

  1. dlc4 says:

    Another great blog post, Anne. Love your repeated inclusion that the end result of the EDP is a tangible product [“a device or prototype”]. EDP is not the same as a science experiment. [NGSS clarifies that here: ]. Also, that solutions/projects are student-centered. There is no right answer, only discovery! Thanks for this website.

    • Anne Jolly says:

      Thanks! It’s sometimes hard for science teachers (I was one) to wrap their heads around the difference between the scientific method and the engineering design process (EDP). What’s so neat about STEM is that kids can go so much deeper in the science and math learning because they are actually applying the content. Math and science become useful to them and take on real value. And STEM can also develop persistence. Think of how many times those devices and prototypes don’t work. Then it’s back to the drawing board.

  2. mrjtoner says:

    In assessing and designing projects it can be helpful to consider the roadblocks that students will run into. These are your entry points for meaningful integration of Science and Math content. For example, If three rubber bands launched my projectile 50% farther than I wanted, how many rubber bands should I use next time?

  3. Anne Jolly says:

    Great example! So often kids miss the connections between math and science – not surprising since they’re generally taught in silos. Thanks for that insight.

  4. Thank you for this post!!! It comes at just the right time for me as I’m feeling a little overwhelmed when starting a new elementary course from scratch!

    • Anne Jolly says:

      Wow! I imagine “overwhelmed” is an understatement. The thing to remember about elementary STEM is that you’ll need to do a lot of scaffolding. But the thing I like best about elementary STEM is that your whole day’s (week’s) curriculum can be built around a STEM unit. Kids can really begin to build the idea that the subjects they are learning are interconnected. They can begin in kindergarten looking at a process for thinking through how to solve a problem. The possibilities for their learning are truly astounding.

  5. Ebiri Nkugba says:

    Great recommendations here! The STEM consultancy at Kent ISD in Grand Rapids, MI has defined STEM as, “The integration of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to solve complex, real-world problems.” As an active commercial pilot I use unmanned vehicle technology in classrooms, while my peer (a mechanical engineer) uses engineering software to teach business problem solving. Feel free to access some of our ideas at this link. Good luck all, and STEM it up!

  6. Don Morgan says:

    As a STEM/Engineering & Technology teacher, I’m glad to see ( finally) someone that actually knows what their talking about. I’ve sat through so many STEM workshops that totally left out the Engineering part and referred to the Technology as whiteboards! One presenter told me that she was a Science teacher and didn’t have a clue. I asked why she was there and was told that she had been sent!! Gee!

  7. Anne says:

    Thanks for your comment, Don. I’m also frustrated by the kind of thinking about STEM that just focuses on part of the acronym and totally ignores the E. Without engineering there’s no practical way to integrate the other subjects. Engineering is pretty much the entire STEM story.

  8. Donna Cohen says:

    Hear, hear, Ann! An additional way for teachers to look at it is that _everything_ around us that is not part of nature is the result of engineering. Pick anything – even a pencil. How did this come about/evolve? Another aspect is linking STEM with careers. I have a great slide I created [for a course] that starts out with the words “Engineering – Customize a Bicycle: Connections”; then animates to numerous related topic areas [e.g. Repair/Manufacturing Technologies, Bikes around the world, Design/Build/Customize, Physics, etc.] surrounding those words. Then animates again to add in careers associated with all those topics. [I’d send you the slide if there is a way to post it here.]

  9. Donna Cohen says:

    Will do!

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