Does STEM scare you?

It scared me for a long time.

I was that guy who put IKEA furniture together… backwards.

When the oil light came on in the old Pontiac 6000 I used to drive, I thought it meant the car needed more gas.

And yet recently I have been placed at the helm of a Montessori Elementary schools’ new STEM program.

Needless to say, I felt like a fish out of water.

But as is the case with any new project I take on, I have realized, success is about .5% me and 99.5% the team I place around me. Fortunately, I have two brilliant team members- one, a hippie science whiz who would give Bill Nye a run for his money; and another, an easy going, affable Canadian who could probably figure out how to re- assemble a computer having never seen inside a CPU.

Together, we have slowly introduced STEM to the elementary students within our brand new MakerSpace.

And while it’s been slow going, and we have made tons of mistakes along the way, I believe we are starting to gain traction.

If you are new to STEM or are trying to figure out how to maximize use of your new MakerSpace, here are five things to consider:

  1. Make it Fun

Like most educators we started our STEM projects with way too many guidelines. Our first project had rubrics,  journal prompts, criteria (s) for success, timelines, and multiple feedback sessions. And while we thought this would signal to kids and teachers that we had our s**t together, in reality, it told students that this was OUR project, not THEIRS. We learned. Our second project had far less parameters and allowed students to explore.

  1. Make it Short

A good STEM project is like a short roller coaster ride at your favorite amusement park. It throws you around a few turns, has 1-2 unexpected surprises, and provides a finale just as you are hoping there is more. A good STEM project is the same. Get kids creating things fast. Have them make birdhouses/ feeders for the visiting birds. Let them build a simple toy out of a motor and a switch. Exhibit what they create right away. This will build confidence in your students and leave them begging for more.

  1. Make it Collaborative

Get students involved early and often. Our second project- building a habitat for a younger years’ class pet allowed students total freedom into their design and build for their furry friends. They chose what animal they would design for; what materials they would use and how they would divide up roles and tasks. Providing them this freedom allowed them ownership over the project, resulting in better outcomes and increased engagement throughout the process.

  1. Make it Manageable

This tip relates to tip #2 in keeping it short. Although it’s ambitious to ask students to solve the global waste problem, it’s much more manageable to ask them to address the plastic problem in their local bay. It allows you as the STEM instructor to source appropriate materials, scaffold mini lessons, and create partnerships with other schools/ organizations involved in this work within the community.

  1.   Make it Visible

There’s a famous TED video that shows a random guy dancing in the park. After about five minutes of un-inhibited dancing, another sun bather joins him. Pretty soon, the entire park joins in the fun. The purpose of the video was to demonstrate, ‘How you start a movement.’ The same lesson can be applied when developing your STEM program/ MakerSpace. In our case, we organized a simple ‘STEM Fair.’ Students across the school were invited to sign up and deliver an experiment to share with other classes. As was the case with the ‘random dancer,’ sign ups were at first limited to only the bravest students. But as the date for the fair approached, more students gained in confidence. By the day of the Fair, we had to close sign ups because there was no room left to exhibit!

STEM can be scary, but it also provides us with an incredible opportunity. It allows us to create makers, tinkerers, creators, scientists and explorers. By making STEM fun, short, collaborative, manageable and highly visible, you will watch your students becoming this daily.