Use a STEM Launcher Activity to Kick Off Your Program!

A MiddleWeb Blog

Engineering is fun! As you watch kids pile back into the classroom after a holiday break, you may notice that they need to engage in some active lessons to work off excess energy and get back in the swing of learning. A quick STEM launcher may be just the thing your students need to refocus and resume learning!

Carolyn DeCristofano

What’s a STEM launcher? Before you read any further, let me reintroduce you to Carolyn DeCristofano – a top-notch STEM specialist and writing colleague.

Carolyn came up with the STEM launchers idea when we were working on an NSF-funded curriculum development team. She shared this thumbs-up idea in a MiddleWeb post titled STEM Launchers! Before reading further, you might want to check out that post. It will further clarify questions you may have about the purpose and use of STEM Launchers.

Since engineering forms the heart of the STEM initiative in tuned-in K-12 schools, the Engaging Youth Through Engineering initiative of the Mobile Area Education Foundation uses three engineering launchers for middle schools. (These quick activities are also used in other grade levels successfully.) The goals of the launchers are to (1) present students with an open-ended engineering problem – one with multiple possible solutions; and (2) help them be able to apply engineering ways of thinking to new tasks.

Lay some groundwork first

Click to enlarge.

So, if you’re ready to reintroduce (or introduce) students to engineering, teamwork, and a way of thinking about how to solve problems, try using an engineering mini-launcher. But first do a little stage-setting.

While your students may find it hard to imagine the actual work world they will enter, the principles and skills they will learn through STEM roll over into a variety of STEM careers – and some non-STEM careers as well. Invite your class members to think about whether work like this might appeal to them.

  1. Design solutions for problems that are keeping our Earth from being clean and healthy.
  2. Develop ways to help people stay healthy and fit, develop medicines, track and prevent diseases from spreading.
  3. Work with animals to find ways to improve their care and nutrition, and to prevent diseases.
  4. Develop more effective ways to deal with natural disasters such as earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and fire.
  5. Design new computer systems that keep American industry on the cutting edge, and computer programs that provide entertainment and enjoyment for people.
  6. Create, test, and build new things that make our communities better places to live.

Kids can probably suggest a host of other things they would like to be able to do to help people and our planet. Nearly all jobs, whether classified as STEM or not, will involve students knowing how to identify problems and find solutions.


All workers will need people skills like creativity, innovation, and caring. Successfully working together in teams is at the heart of the 21st century work world. (For some ideas on student teaming, feel free to download this document from my book website: Student Teaming Tips.) With that in mind, an engineering launcher is a good way to help kids get back in the mindset for their STEM work.

The ‘Bama Bears Challenge

One thing to keep in mind – engineering launchers are not complete STEM lessons. For example, while they reference math and science, these launchers do not fully integrate grade-level science or math core concepts into the lesson. They focus on the engineering design process.

Click here to download the Bears Challenge Launcher (PDF)

The ‘Bama Bears Launcher is so named because it was developed in Mobile, Alabama. Feel free to do some renaming (but plan on having four identical teddy bears).

This activity works well as an initial engineering launcher and as a mid-term reminder in a STEM program. The Bears Challenge reviews the engineering design process (EDP) and guides students to use EDP to steer their planning and thinking. (Note: you may use an engineering design process that uses slightly different terms, but the goal and steps are likely the same. For a look at the one I use, glance at this tool on my book website.)

The ‘Bama Bears Challenge also guides students to review and discuss the importance of collaboration and effective teamwork.

Bama Bears, like a launcher I previously shared here at MiddleWeb (Drop, Stop, Don’t Pop), is designed to be used over two days: one day in math class and one day in science class.

Working together on the same engineering challenge can help science and math teachers practice working together on STEM challenges. However, when you look over the challenge, you’ll notice that one teacher can lead the whole launcher if necessary.

As always, please make creative adaptations. And If you lead STEM workshops for teachers, note that this launcher can be easily adapted for use with workshop participants to introduce them to an engineering process.

Some highlights of the Challenge

In this brief challenge, students will form teams to construct a tower to be placed in a stadium. The tower should be able to prominently display the team mascot (in this case, a bear). You may have encountered this engaging idea before. This approach may be a bit different.

As you read through the lesson, you will realize that it’s detailed enough for teachers who have little experience with engineering and offers teaming guidance as well. You may also notice a reference to the need to download PowerPoint presentations from a wiki. Ignore that. I’ve included the PowerPoint here (just two slides but note the slide with the EDP wheel can be clicked to reveal one wedge at a time). All other resources are included at the end of the PDF lesson itself.

Following the launcher activity, you may want to give two letters to your students to stimulate their thinking about entering an engineering field, and to help them recall what their STEM program includes: Could Engineering Be the Coolest Job Ever? And A Welcome Letter to New STEM Students. After going over the information in the letters with the students, suggest that they give these letters to their parents as well.

For a 20% discount use code MWEB1.

Looking for a personal New Year’s resolution? Continue to engage your kids in real-world learning activities that focus on the engineering design process, and guide them toward making the world a better place to live and work.

(A special thanks to the Mobile Area Education Foundation and its award-winning initiative, Engaging Youth in Engineering, for giving me permission to share this launcher with you. )

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 long career as a middle grades science teacher. From 2007-2014 Anne was part of an NSF-funded team that developed middle grades STEM curriculum modules and teacher PD. In 2020-2021 Anne teamed with Flight Works Alabama to develop a workforce-friendly middle school curriculum and is now working on an elementary version. Her book STEM By Design: Strategies & Activities for Grades 4-8 is published by Routledge/EOE in partnership with MiddleWeb.

2 Responses

  1. Andra Myers says:

    Hi Anne. I am trying to locate more information about STEM Launchers you mentioned in this article. Do you know where I can locate/purchase these materials? Thank you.

  2. Anne Jolly says:

    Hello, Andra. There are three STEM launchers in all. You can download the Bama Bears launcher from this post. You can get another launcher – Drop, Stop, Don’t Pop – from my website at Scroll down and it’s the January 20 post. I haven’t posted the third launcher yet, but if you will send me your email, (email me at I will go ahead and send you the third launcher as well. There’s no cost for any of these.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.