New to STEM Teaching? Five Things to Do First

A MiddleWeb Blog

I started my journey into middle school teaching during a teacher shortage crisis. I had a BS in biology, zero courses in education, and an emergency teaching certificate. However, my only real qualification at that time was that I had a pulse.

Today schools are dealing with post-pandemic teacher shortages and need more qualified STEM teachers than ever before.

You may be a recent graduate with a teacher education degree. Or perhaps you’re one of those emergency certified teachers assigned to teach STEM. Or you may be an experienced teacher who has suddenly learned that you will be teaching STEM this year for the first time.

In any of these cases, you may lack education in STEM content and teaching methods. Will this put you at a disadvantage as a STEM teacher? Not necessarily!

A quick note about STEM: The term STEM isn’t used consistently in schools across the United States. Some school systems may use it synonymously with “Science.” When I talk about STEM here, I refer to the combination of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics taught using the engineering design process. (These short “teaching tool” documents at my book site background the difference.)

Remember that STEM is a relatively recent area of study that engages students in non-traditional ways of learning. Few teachers have specific training in teaching STEM, so you’re part of a cutting-edge effort being developed by teachers of all experience levels. If you’re reading this before or at the beginning of a school year, you have many months to learn and try out best ways of leading STEM projects. However, you obviously want to get off on the right foot, so I’ll offer 5 ideas to help during the first weeks.

1. Find out about your students

The first week of school, before you begin leading STEM projects, start building a positive classroom community and get to know your students. Middle schoolers are the most intriguing and amazing group of students you’ll ever teach. Your attitude and interest in them sets the climate for their learning. Take time to find out about traits they liked in their favorite teachers, their favorite way of learning, and behaviors they value in you and one another.

Let your students know that you like them and look forward to teaching them (even at times when you’re not so sure you do!). Remember – middle schoolers may totally change personality from one day to the next. At this age, they don’t actually know who they are anymore – and you won’t know either – so just go with it.

2. Get a handle on Project Based Learning (PBL)

Even experienced teachers find STEM to be a new challenge. If you aren’t familiar with the PBL teaching method find out all you can about it. PBL is hands-down the most successful method of involving your students in STEM challenges.

3. Start stuffing your STEM toolkit

When leading STEM challenges, you’re preparing kids for their future occupations whether or not they choose a designated STEM field. For example, STEM content includes a heavy emphasis on “soft skills.” Today this area of learning is called social-emotional learning (SEL) or life skills.

Business identifies SEL skills as being critically important to workforce success. They lament that many workers are noticeably lacking in these, and this affects their quality of work. Start now to plan how to work SEL skills into your classes for all students.

Don’t panic! Remember that you can think this through and incorporate various skills into your projects throughout the year. For the first week, pick one skill to begin building in students – perhaps something familiar, like respect. Online help is out there to help you figure out how to help kids learn SEL skills.

As far as explaining the actual STEM principles and skills – I don’t have space to go into STEM particulars in this post, so please start your study by checking out What is STEM, 8 Criteria for STEM, and STEM lessons. This will give you a beginning foundation in basic STEM principles and the all-important Engineering Design Process.

4. Begin with a simple STEM challenge

Decide on a simple, interesting STEM challenge to introduce (or reintroduce) kids to the STEM process and the way they will be approaching challenges. You might give them this handout to read over as homework after you introduce STEM. (Be sure you have the materials and equipment kids will need for this project.) You can find a few project ideas here.

Be sure to make these points with the kids upfront: In STEM work, failing to solve a challenge is not a bad thing. It’s just a normal part of engineering work and is the way they will get information to rethink their solutions and try again.

You won’t be giving kids instructions on how to solve their challenge – they will come up with their own solutions and experiment to see if they work.

Different teams may come up with different solutions. That’s okay – there are usually several correct answers.

5. Set kids up for successful team experiences

To solve problems kids will work in teams. Your students may have worked in teams before and probably acquired some unproductive (useless) teaming habits. During the first week, start them working on at least one successful teaming strategy. Gradually build this skill set throughout the school year. Download a free booklet from this site for procedures for setting up successful student teams.

A couple of additional first-week tips

► Post a chart in the room showing the engineering design process (EDP) so kids can see it as they work on challenges. Remind them that they can go back and forth between the steps.

► Introduce students to digital technology they will be using in their first challenge and make sure they feel comfortable with it.

► Begin helping them think like problem-solvers. As one of your first classroom activities, toss out a problem and ask them to get in small teams and suggest solutions. Point out that they should consider many possible solutions when solving STEM problems, and different teams may come up with different correct ways of solving the problem. Explain that out-of-the-box ideas are welcome.

It takes time. Be kind to yourself.

Please note that it can take a full year for STEM projects to become ingrained as a way of doing business in your class. When this happens, the culture of your classroom shifts, and students will begin to support one another as fellow learners. In fact, team members begin to take responsibility for the success of one another.

Also note that there is no “one size fits all” in establishing a successful STEM process. Mechanically following these procedures I suggest will not bring about magical results. Intentionally continue to study, implement, assess, and adjust STEM projects. Tailor this process for your students as you learn. Be flexible, resilient and positive, and enjoy the journey!

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. Susan Pruet says:

    So glad to see my friend Anne Jolly still sharing her extensive experience and knowledge around STEM! Anne, you are a treasure!

  2. Anne Jolly says:

    I had a wonderful friend/teacher/mentor who led me into the STEM arena and worked with me on NSF STEM curriculum for 5 years, Susan! YOU are the treasure!

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