STEM Lessons Sparked by Real World Problems

A MiddleWeb Blog

Authentic STEM focuses on problem-solving, and the best STEM lessons address some aspect of a real-world challenge that engineers and scientists might address.

So STEM teachers often face a recurring problem when designing  lessons for their classroom or school lab: Just how do you DO that? How do you build a STEM lesson around a real-world challenge?

That’s not always an easy thing to figure out. While there’s no single  answer for that, I can give you an example of a STEM lesson that math colleague Judy Duke co-created with me (I was the science teacher in the mix), designed around a local environmental challenge. Here’s how we proceeded:

We started with a problem that students were interested in. One particularly painful problem in our area involved sand and clay from a large road construction project washing into streams. These muddy streams fed into the city reservoir, polluting it with excess sediments.

Local news reports showing a muddy reservoir fueled students’ indignation and they wanted to know how to stop those sediments from washing into the streams. That student question became the real-world problem for a great STEM project.

This problem supported our curriculum standards. My science students had recently studied erosion and deposition, and Judy’s math students were working with flow rates. This problem fit nicely with our grade level curriculum.

After some discussion we arrived at this STEM challenge: Reduce the rate at which sediment is being discharged from Spring Creek (a nearby creek) into a stream feeding the reservoir. We titled the project “Don’t Go with the Flow.”

We formulated ideas for how kids might conduct this project. We involved students in thinking this through with us, making sure that the process we decided on was doable and affordable. The process involved teams in designing and constructing a system of barriers in model stream beds, while following specific criteria and constraints. They would test their barrier systems, calculate the sediment discharge rates, redesign as needed, and document their results on Excel spreadsheets for class analysis.

We gathered and set up materials and equipment. What materials would teams need to set up streambed prototypes, construct barriers, and control the amount of water? What sediment would they use in their modeling? How would they collect and measure the sediment discharge? What would they do with left-over sediment and water?

Those are just a few questions we had to consider. Each team needed its own set of materials to simulate this sediment problem, so materials had to be inexpensive and easily accessible.

We planned our project facilitation process. We used a project-based learning approach for all STEM projects, including this one. Students would use an iterative engineering design process (EDP) to guide them in coming up with multiple ideas for solving the sediment problem.

As with all of our STEM projects, each team would work out its own design and approach. Our primary function as teacher-facilitators was to provide guidance with steps of the EDP and with teamwork.

Kids conducted a science experiment to research a variety of barrier features. To make good decisions about how to design their barrier systems, students first needed to find out which barrier features might work best. Would the length of the barrier matter? The shape? What about the distance between the barriers? Student teams conducted controlled experiments to test each of these features – then compiled their data on Excel spreadsheets. Team members then analyzed and used the data to make decisions about which particular barrier features would work best in their barrier systems.

Students worked diligently to find solutions for the sediment problem.  All teams discussed, selected, sketched, and constructed their respective barrier systems. To test its system, each team released a liter of water at a precise rate down the model streambed. Teams then measured the amount of sediment that got past the barriers and entered the stream (a bucket at the end of the streambed). They also clocked the amount of time this took. Team members used this data to calculate the sediment flow rate and decide whether to redesign the barrier system to hold back more sediment before recording their results.

Redesign is generally in order. Predictably, most barrier systems did not work well. That always provided important learning opportunities. After losing to Clemson in the 2019 National Championship game, Alabama coach Nick Saban directed his team, “Don’t waste a failure.” This STEM project offered abundant opportunities for our students to learn the benefit of failure and the skill of persistence.

The project lasted 5 class days. Obviously, I didn’t do full-blown STEM projects every week, but I tried to do at least one such project per quarter. In between big projects, the kids worked on their subject matter and on specific STEM skills – things like teamwork, using specific digital technology, suggesting multiple solutions for a problem, and so on. STEM skills fit seamlessly into our everyday curriculum.

Where to look for more real-world problems

That, in a nutshell, gives you a starting point for designing a STEM lesson/unit around a real-world topic. If you’d like more information about designing STEM lessons, check out chapters 7-8 of my STEM By Design book and/or visit my book website for plenty of free materials and tips. This design tools page at the book site includes both teacher tips and student handouts – like this one about teaming.)

Here’s a parting tip: If you want to know more about real world problems, you can overview some of the big challenges at a couple of sites: Global Goals and Grand Challenges for Engineering.  As an FYI, I edited the Grand Challenges to make them more middle school friendly, with approval from the National Academy of Engineers. You can download my version here.

Anne Jolly’s bestselling book STEM By Design: Strategies & Activities for Grades 4-8 is a Routledge/ MiddleWeb publication. MiddleWeb readers receive a 20% discount from Routledge with the code MWEB1. Visit Anne’s book website for many more articles and free STEM resources and lesson ideas.

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.

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