Tips for Adding Rigor to Your Elementary Classroom STEM Lessons

A common issue we find in classrooms is the use of STEM-related activities (such as worksheets, learning to code, makerspace builds, video creation, writing blogs, doing crafts, etc.) that are passed off as rigorous STEM projects. The learning of a technology or a skill as an outcome (like video creation, blogs, etc.) needs to be distinguished from how this technology is utilized as a tool for authentic STEM. Although activities like learning to code are valuable, they lack the inquiry and reflection found in authentic STEM.

In the real world, STEM is used to search for answers and solve problems. Scientists, engineers, and others in STEM fields run investigations, reflect on their outcomes, communicate with other experts in their field, and improve on their designs.  Although it is necessary for students to learn basic programs, make videos, code, etc. these activities serve as tools to help students in either their investigations and/or the communication of their findings to others. However, in order to build an accurate understanding of how STEM is used in society, it is important that we give students as many opportunities as we can for them to practice authentic STEM that echoes the STEM practices of the real world.

To help you evaluate whether your STEM activity is a tool or authentic STEM, we offer the following questions:

What is the purpose of the activity?

Making something for the sake of making it is not authentic STEM.  Each STEM activity should have some kind of purpose to it beyond just building something or using technology. For example, having students create crystals because you want students to grow crystals is a wonderful craft. However, it isn’t STEM unless you have students experiment, investigate, and think critically about what they are doing. Having students conduct their own original crystal experiments to answer the driving question, “What conditions produce the largest crystals?” makes this craft a very engaging STEM lab!

What problem does it solve? OR What question does it answer?

A good STEM activity/lab should answer a question and/or solve a problem. Scientists do research to answer questions about our world. Engineers build technologies and other systems to solve problems. For example, asking students to build a boat is a craft. However, if you ask students to build boats from cardboard to test which designs last the longest on water, you’ve now got a STEM investigation that solves a problem. Having students reflect and build a second iteration of the boat to make it better makes this an amazing and memorable engineering investigation! Speaking of which….

Are students doing some kind of investigation?

An investigation is a self-directed study.  If the activity is led entirely by the teacher, and everyone has the same outcome, it is not an investigation. When students have opportunities to explore on their own, they will start to form their own questions and start thinking as innovators, engineers, and scientists. The outcomes from these authentic investigations may have very diverse solutions — which is a good sign that your students are being innovative and original thinkers!

How/when do students get a chance to reflect on their outcome and their learning?

Every STEM lesson should have time to reflect built into it. Reflection deepens learning because it requires the student to make connections, find meaning, and consider how they can improve on their designs in the future.

When do students get a chance to improve on what they learned and try again?

A key component of engineering practice is to give students the chance to try again. Engineers (and many other STEM professionals) often revise and improve their designs constantly.  Think about the computer you use today. Is it not a better design than the one you used ten or twenty years ago?

These are critical questions to help you bring authentic STEM into your classroom. To help you keep these questions in mind as you plan your STEM activities/labs, we’ve made a handy graphic! The download link includes both color and black and white versions for easy printing.

You can grab it here by subscribing to our newsletter:

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4 thoughts on “Tips for Adding Rigor to Your Elementary Classroom STEM Lessons”

  1. Pingback: How to Add Rigor to Your Elementary STEM Lessons - STEAM Café

    1. Hi Virginia, our newsletter comes out on Wednesday, so the direct link will be in tomorrow’s newsletter. If you’d like I can also email you a direct link to the download if that would be helpful.


  2. Pingback: Elementary STEM Professional Development | STEAM Café™

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