Anne Jolly’s new book, STEM by Design, has just been published by Routledge and Middleweb, and she has graciously allowed me to publish this short book excerpt.  The book also has its own website containing many additional resources:

I wrote STEM by Design because I’m passionate about STEM and about creating meaningful learning experiences for kids. But I’ve found that passion alone isn’t enough. Teaching STEM takes knowledge, energy, persistence, and the ability to create learning experiences that cultivate kids who can successfully tackle real-world challenges.

According to studies and writings about STEM education at its onset, certain criteria and principles would be common to STEM lessons and programs.

Consider how these criteria match up with some of the most popular approaches to K-12 STEM in U.S. schools today. This information might be useful if you and your fellow teachers are called on to help design or set up STEM programs and classes.

Remember, good science, math and technology programs can have many different “looks,” but if we’re going to call a program “STEM” then these eight STEM criteria should be at the center.

The Eight STEM Criteria

1. An engineering design process is used to integrate science, mathematics, and technology.

2. Science and math content is standards based, grade-appropriate, and applied.

3. Students focus on solving real-world problems, or engineering challenges.

4. Students regularly work in teams to plan, design, and create prototypes and products, then test and evaluate these and plan how to improve.

5. Students use a variety of communication approaches to describe their challenge and justify their results.

6. Teachers facilitate inquiry-based, student-centered learning that features hands-on investigation.

7. Failure is regarded as a natural part of the design process, and an essential step toward creating an improved or successful solution.

8. Students are introduced to STEM careers and/or life applications.



What Kinds of Problems Can Students Realistically Address? 

Problem-solving is fundamental to STEM. But coming up with real-world engineering challenges for students to solve can be tricky. Here are some ideas about locating problem possibilities.

Encourage student-generated problems. These are obviously ideal for creating student enthusiasm and engagement. Adolescent students love to make learning about “me.” Give them as much input as possible into problems they want to solve, within constraints dictated by the curriculum.

Engineering teacher Alexander Pancic addresses student engagement with problems in this way: “I’ve been trying to get my students to make the step, when they encounter a problem, of asking, ‘What do I need to know to try to solve it?’” “Students who are accustomed to doing worksheets,” Pancic says, “get used to having everything they need to know included in the problems. Life isn’t like that. You encounter real-life problems and have to figure out, what do I need to know? How can I find out? And then, how do I apply it?”

Check out 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering. In the 2008 National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenges for Engineering report, the NAE identified 14 broad categories of problems that we as a nation must be prepared to solve in this century. Mull over the list of real-world problems. Your students might be interested in designing model solutions related to some of these. Some Grand Challenges that I think might inspire middle school STEM students include solar energy, clean water, health care (including food shortage and disease and accessibility issues), and urban infrastructure (including transportation systems and visually appealing bridges and municipal structures).

Do an Internet STEM Lesson search. Simply typing “real-world problems” into a search engine can bring up a host of possible sites that you can sift through for ideas. Of course, everything labeled “STEM” is not necessarily a true STEM lesson. To narrow your search you might detour over to the Resources section in the Appendices and examine some sites mentioned under “STEM Lessons.” Be sure the check out the Link Engineering website for great insights into good STEM lessons as well as information about engineering design.

Keep the problem do-able. Whether your students identify a problem to solve or you choose the engineering challenge, be sure to keep it do-able. Consider (1) what students have already learned that can help with solving this problem, and (2) the resources available for the challenge. Engineering solutions for a problem involving clean energy (wind turbines, solar cells, etc.) might be quite realistic. Tackling a problem involving interplanetary travel—not so much.

For more thoughts on finding good STEM lessons, see  “How to Analyze a Lesson for STEM Potential” at my book website.