Practical Strategies for Teaching STEM

Strategy: They Should Do More Work than Me

My students are offered design challenges in the form of a question. For example, How do we design an eco friendly home? How do we design a nuclear waste facility? I said to myself, “I want them to do more work than me, so they own the project.”

This is a standard lesson plan framework, regardless of the design challenge.

  • Step 1: Ask them what they want to design.
  • Step 2: Make them sketch it.
  • Step 3: Make them determine important questions that need to be answered.
  • Step 4: Plant the content questions and pull out my tried and true investigations.
  • Step 5: Agonize because the schedule changed again for another bullying assembly and I may not get to the investigation by the time grades are due, right?


I ask students to take out a piece of graph paper and make four sections, using the entire sheet. I have them number the boxes. Box 1 is the preliminary design. After the initial discussion of the design problem, I say, “Sketch a design idea, by yourself in box one.”

This causes a lot of chatter. “But what should I sketch?” “How do I know?” I explain that they will be given the opportunity to change their ideas but having an idea is important to thinking about how the design will grow. After a few minutes I let them talk to their partners, mostly because I don’t want them to feel anxious about their ideas. I let them share ideas and talk about labels that can be used to make the sketches easy to understand. (BTW, I really like the cognitive dissonance in this section. You can feel their brains working.)

Box 1 is the preliminary design. As the design changes, they will draw subsequent designs in Boxes,2-3-4. This gives me a real easy visual to assess design changes.

I ask, “Who thinks they have the perfect design solution?” When no one admits to the perfect solution, I ask, “What do you need to know to help you solve this problem?” Okay, there is always one kid who says his is the best and is willing to tell everyone, right? I ask a one question. “What makes it the best?” That usually does the trick. Then, “Class let’s see if we can come up with a better design.”

I then give the students the opportunity to ask their own questions.   I say, “In partners write 5 research questions you need to research to help solve this design problem.” They have sketched a solution they think is incorrect and now are thinking about what they need to know to create a solution. Student ownership of the development of the solution is inherent.

The student questions are sometimes good and sometimes really bad. The good news is Google docs. They will all share their ideas with me. As a class we discuss what makes a good research question and we rewrite the questions together.

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This is a great opportunity to make group decisions. In the eco-friendly animal shelter design challenge, the kids ask, “What kind of animals?” As we rewrite questions, the class can begin to determine the criteria of a design. The design is for cats and dogs only. There are 72 animals that can live here. We need a hospital and storage for Food, etc. Many decisions are made together about the building or the client. Students are curating their learning by determining the criteria for a successful design.

My job shifts from expert to coach. The students develop the activity, I help them with by coming up with activities that will help them solve the problem. My content standards are an important part of the design solution and I want to build in some labs. “Hmmm,“ I say, ”You will be much more successful if you understand heat transfers. Let’s add ‘What are the heat transfers conduction, radiation and conduction?’ I plant my content questions authentically because students will need to understand heat transfers to determine eco-friendly components of a building.

To add my scientific investigation, I say, “I have an awesome heat transfer experiment! I think you will really like it.” I pull out my tried and true content and heat transfer investigations. I’ve been doing them for years. This is easy.

Here it is the strategy in NGSS Speak

  1. Defining and delimiting engineering problems involves stating the problem to be solved as clearly as possible in terms of criteria for success, and constraints or limits.
  2. Designing solutions to engineering problems begins with generating a number of different possible solutions, and evaluating potential solutions to see which ones best meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.
  3. Optimizing the design solution involves a process in which solutions are systematically tested and refined and the final design is improved by trading off less important features for those that are more important

Keep Tuned for More Practical STEM strategies


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