How to Design a Successful STEM Lesson

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If you’re a STEM teacher, then you face a recurring challenge during the school year: How do you design and lead high-quality lessons? After all, these are not typical science or math lessons. STEM lessons actively engage students in creating and engineering solutions for real-world challenges. Generally, these challenges are open-ended and result in the design, testing, and evaluation of prototypes, followed by a redesign phase. A STEM lesson integrates and applies science and math grade-level content while involving students in understanding, using, and creating technologies. And STEM lessons allow for more than one right answer—they permit a number of acceptable and inventive approaches for successfully solving a problem.

Designing a successful STEM lesson may sound like an ambitious agenda for any teacher to tackle, but these seven up-front considerations can make that job easier.

1. Design your STEM lesson around a grade-level science or math topic that students have studied, or are studying. I’m guessing you don’t have time to take detours with regard to your curriculum and pacing guide. In that case, take a good look at your required science and math objectives, and plan your lesson around one or more of these. Start by determining where science and math might be used together. A STEM challenge dealing with erosion might dovetail with the mathematical concept of flow rate. An objective from a human body unit might lend itself to a challenge involving both prosthetic devices and proportionality. One thing to note—it’s not necessary that each subject be addressed equally in every STEM challenge. Science might be the driver in one challenge, while math concepts drive a different challenge.

2. Grasp the content and big ideas for the lesson. To successfully integrate science and math in a STEM lesson, be sure you have a good handle on the subject matter in both content areas. Math teachers designing STEM lessons often need to dig deeper into the science content, and science teachers need to understand the language and content of the math components. Consider how students might creatively use available digital technologies to solve their engineering challenge when appropriate. The best “look” is for math, science, and technology teachers to study and design lessons together. You can also get feedback and information from engineers, subject-matter experts, print materials, and websites with substantive content information.

3. Keep the challenge realistic. One STEM lesson I came across called for students to design a solution for an insect infestation problem involving imaginary insects with implausible features. While insect infestation is certainly a real problem, an infestation of mythical insects is not. Likewise, space aliens and other theoretical life forms are not real 21st-century problems (at least not yet). STEM lessons need to deal with real-world problems. You can encourage STEM students to use their imaginations and still "keep it real."

A quick note: While most of the solutions students design and construct will not actually be used in real-life situations, they are constructing prototypes and simulating solutions for real problems. Engineers generally build prototypes before constructing an actual device. Prototypes and simulation are bona fide stages in engineering design.

4. Be familiar and comfortable with the Engineering Design Process (EDP). The EDP should be the heart of your STEM lesson—the process by which students will tackle the problem. I like to use this particular version of the EDP (see image) with middle schoolers. (Click on this EDP Description for Teachers for an explanation of this process.) Please note that the steps are iterative; they do not have to occur in any particular order or frequency. Engineers regularly go back and forth between steps in their work.

5. Consider the criteria and constraints needed for your STEM lesson. Your lesson should spell out criteria and constraints that students must meet when designing solutions for a specific problem. Simply put, criteria identify the ways students will define success. What will a team’s device or prototype need to be able to do to solve the problem, or to simulate a successful solution?

Constraints refer to limitations that students must observe when designing their solution. They may need to limit the size or weight of the device. They may have to consider safety factors, environmental impact, and availability of materials. Cost effectiveness might also be a constraint. To make their engineering task more realistic, you might price the materials that teams can use and give them a certain amount of money to spend for their project.

To the extent possible, involve your students in developing criteria and determining constraints as they begin wrapping their heads around their challenge. As they gain experience with STEM lessons, they will learn to recognize realistic criteria and constraints.

6. Have a good grasp of inquiry-based teaching and learning. Your STEM lesson needs to be grounded in inquiry-based instructional practices. That means activating students’ curiosity, leading them to ask good questions, and transferring the responsibility for learning from you (the teacher) to them. During the STEM lesson, you (the teacher) will not tell students how to solve the problem. They will make decisions and come up with solutions on their own, perhaps with gentle guidance to keep them on track if needed. Each team’s solution can be different. “Out there” ideas are welcome, as long as they are based on real possibilities and research. Failing to find a solution is okay, and students can use what they learn to improve their solution.

7. Know how to successfully engage students in purposeful teamwork. Face it—teamwork will not always go smoothly, and your students need to know the basics of productive teamwork before they tackle STEM lessons. Before and during your STEM lesson, you will need to provide intentional guidance to help students practice successful team behaviors and personal interaction skills. If you’d like some ideas, you might download my Student Teaming Tips. These are designed to use in conjunction with STEM lessons.

That, in a nutshell, gives you a starting point for designing your STEM lesson. If you’d like more information about designing STEM lessons, check out chapters 7-8 of my STEM by Design book; visit my book website for plenty of tips.

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