When I first started pursuing STEM as a career interest, I found there to be a variety of opinions of what STEM is and how it can be utilized in schools. These opinions ranged from STEM being just another education buzzword to STEM being a mindset which can be beneficial to all students regardless of their interest in the subjects of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. The more I began studying and utilizing STEM in my classes, the more I realized it was much more than a buzzword. I began to see the skills STEM emphasized were skills which would make great ELA students, great Art students, great teammates, and great citizens. I find one of the most rewarding aspects of STEM is that some of the activities and projects take students out of their comfort zone and place them in a position of uncertainty. Though this may sound like a situation we do not want to place our students, I believe when done correctly and in the appropriate environment, there is an enormous amount of learning which can take place. We have all seen the memes and inspirational images declaring that nothing great ever happens in our comfort zones. What if we purposely designed these learning opportunities for our students? Would this give them the opportunity to learn how to deal with uncertain situations which they may face in life. I think in the real world we call these situations “problems”. There is one thing I have heard from nearly every educator I have had the pleasure of speaking to. I hear they would like their students to be better problem solvers.
Life problems can materialize in a number of different ways. In class, I like to tell students that some problems provide us the luxury of planning out the steps we will take to solve the issue. We have plenty of time to define the issue, organize information, realize our parameters, and design a possible solution to it. While it is still a problem, we have time to properly address it. Other times, we aren’t that lucky. Problems are sprung on us which require us to make use of what we have around us and come up with the best solution with limited time and resources. While these are uncomfortable situations, all teachers and students will face these times in our lives. One of the least supportive opinions of STEM which I have heard over the years is that you give kids a bunch of junk and see what they can build. I think what these people are referring to is what has been called a Maker’s Challenge. I see tremendous educational and life skill rewards in activities such as these. They emulate these problems which catch us off guard and require us to make the best use of our current situation. Let’s try one!
Gather some random materials (this is what has become known to some as “junk”). This could be a few paper or plastic cups, some paper, tape, straws, craft sticks, paper plates, plastic spoons, etc. Without telling students what the challenge is, have them gather a specific number of each material. Once the materials are dispersed, give them a time in which they must complete the challenge. Finally, tell them the challenge and allow them to work. Maybe the simplest example of this is having students build the tallest tower that will hold a tennis ball at the very top of it without falling. Once the time is up, have all students stop the process. From the outside, I can see how some people may view this as building with junk. I see students identifying a challenge, observing their resources for their potential function based on form, realizing their parameters they must work within, cooperating with other students in order to achieve a task, and testing a product to determine its effectiveness. They do all of this with limited resources and limited time. Don’t we often find ourselves in those situations in the real world? We could extend this beyond the time frame you give them. I want to see students analyze what was successful and not successful about their structure. Can they use their language skills to communicate this to the class? Can they find the portions of their structure which were not symmetrical and which lead to unbalanced forces and movement? Are students able to use their critical thinking skills to identify the failures and design a statement of how they would address this? Through activities such as this, vital life skills are needed to successfully complete the challenge. Look at what you did! You designed discomfort for students and they learned through their successes and failures. Nice job!