Simple STEM challenges ignite students’ engagement, enthusiasm, and knowledge of the engineering design process. Just add one per month – and let the thinking begin!
Ms. Sneed Searches for Simple STEM Challenges
Our favorite fourth grade teacher, Ms. Sneed, met with her mentor just before school began. “This year,” said Ms. Sneed, “I want to try one simple STEM challenge each month.”
“The kids would love that,” her mentor, Mrs. Brown, replied. “What will you do?”
Ms. Sneed pointed to the screen of her laptop. “Well, I found this file of ten engineering design activities.” She turned the device toward Mrs. Brown so she could get a better look.
The Engineering Design Process
“I see it begins with the engineering design process:
- First, kids identify a problem with criteria and constraints.
- Second, they can conduct research.
- Then they develop possible solutions and choose one.
- Next, students construct a prototype.
- After that, they test the prototype, using a fair test in engineering.
- Many times, after communicating their results and evaluating, they’ll go back to the drawing board and try again.”
10 Simple STEM Activities
Next, the two teachers looked at the table of contents. “The activities seem doable. Not too many materials. I like the simplicity,” said Mrs. Brown. Ten STEM challenges were listed:
- Tin Foil Boats
- Paper Airplanes
- The Egg Drop
- Spaghetti Tower
- Bell Silencer
- Zipline Challenge
- Candy Catapult 1
- Candy Catapult 2
- Newspaper Table
- Balloon Rocket
Directions and Student Sheets
“And look at how the activities are laid out,” said Ms. Sneed. “For each simple STEM challenge, they provide thorough directions. Additionally, a student recording sheet moves them through the engineering design process.”
“Once the kids have some design process practice under their belts, they can review and take test,” added Ms. Sneed.
Mrs. Brown nodded. “I like the way it introduces steps in the engineering design process, gives kids plenty of practice, and assesses them using the same language. Yes, you’ve found a winner.”
Ms. Sneed Tries a Simple STEM Challenge
In September, the class tackled their first STEM challenge: the spaghetti tower.
“As we discussed,” she said to her students, “engineering design problems include both criteria and constraints. Today, you will build the tallest spaghetti tower possible in just one class period. To achieve this, you’ll receive 20 pieces of spaghetti and 10 large marshmallows.”
Using the Engineering Design Process
Ms. Sneed circulated as her students worked on the STEM challenge.
Since the problem was already presented, they began with a little research. After some online searching, the groups that understood how to build a strong base for sturdier, taller towers.
Next, they sketched a few possible solutions. After discussing pros and cons, they chose one and built a prototype. For this challenge, failure was easy to spot: their tower simply fell over. And then, it was back to the drawing board. In other words, they chose another solution and built a new prototype.
Later, Ms. Sneed debriefed with her mentor. “What struck me the most with these activities? My students’ autonomy! They moved through the steps of the simple STEM design challenges independently. They acted like engineers. Heck, they even talked like engineers!”
Mrs. Brown smiled. “It’s great to see you so excited it,” she said.
“Me? You should have seen how excited the kids were! Next year, I’d like to try integrating STEM into my science curriculum. Using the engineering design process is just awesome!”
STEM Challenges Through the Year
As the years rolled by, Ms. Sneed did just what she said. To address her standards, she integrated engineering design activities with science content. When she taught sound, kids built a musical instrument. For force and motion, they designed roller coasters. To better understand waves, they built a wave simulator. As they studied natural disasters, kids learned even more about the design process. They even built hydroponics systems. It seemed that everywhere she looked, Ms. Sneed found opportunities to teach STEM.