Imagine the following scenario. You give a student a few popsicle sticks, a sheet of sandpaper, a handful of paperclips, a rainbow of chenille sticks, a couple of rubber bands, a fistful of cotton balls, half a dozen toothpicks, and a glue gun, and you tell her, “make me a cell phone stand.” There are no instructions other than this directive. You have provided the student with no blueprint, no image of the finished product, no ideas to see what it might look like. The only thing you have really offered is the sparse list of materials, a space with which to work, and one of the most important resources, time.

After a half-hour or so, your student turns to you and shows you her creation:

You pull out your cell phone and give it to the student, “let’s see if it works”. The student places the cellphone in her makeshift stand, and immediately the device plops over. The student looks horrified because the contraption did not work. You smile and simply challenge her, “how could you make changes so that it does work?”

This is an example of a STEM design challenge. These challenges use engineering principles to get students to think outside of the box.

STEM is a concept that has many definitions to many people, but one of the more common ones is:

(STEM) is problem-based learning by students utilizing math, science, engineering, and technology principles.

The exciting thing about STEM; it is not simply a smashing together of these subject areas. STEM is designed to do one thing really well; to give students the chance to think creatively. It does that by offering the following:

  • Designing, developing, and utilizing technological systems
  • Open-ended, problem-based design activities
  • Cognitive, manipulative, and effective learning strategies
  • Applying technological knowledge and processes to real-world experiences using up-to-date resources
  • Working individually as well as in a team to solve problems (ITEEA, 2011)

You can see the creativity that would be required in designing, manipulating, applying real-world processes, and working as a team in open-ended tasks. And unfortunately, creativity is something that is found in short supply in many of our classrooms across the country. With a focus on content, students are not given the free reign to be creative because they must find the correct answer. Anything that is not “right” is an incorrect answer rather than an opportunity to make things better.

The best part of the STEM design process is that it has several possibilities. That student who made the cell phone stand could have gone a million different directions with her product. She didn’t use the sandpaper, cotton balls, chenille sticks, or toothpicks. However, she might use them in her efforts to improve the product. If you gave the same supplies and task to a dozen other students, you will likely get a dozen unique products.

The true value of STEM is not its focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, and/or Math. The value in STEM comes from its design process and how it allows students to use creativity:

This is the same process engineers go through while creating something. This is a sound process that can be applied to other things not related to science, technology, engineering, or math.

Why it works so well is that it actually encourages mistakes. It is constantly asking you to think about improvements and how to make things better and how to reflect. This allows students to expand their creativity and to learn from their mistakes instead of being penalized for them.

Once you get students trained on this STEM design process, they will intrinsically revert to it whenever they are working on something and thus naturally be more creative in their thinking. This is the true value of STEM learning.

Questions to Ponder:

  1. How many opportunities do students get in your classroom to use creativity?
  2. What would be the benefit in providing such opportunities for creativity?
  3. How could you incorporate STEM design challenges and the engineering design process in your classroom to increase the creativity taking place there?

International Technology and Engineering Education Association. (2011). Technology for All Americans Project. Reston, VA

TODD STANLEYTodd Stanley is a National Board Certified teacher and the author of many teacher-education books including Project-Based Learning for Gifted Students: A Handbook for the 21st Century Classroom (2nd Edition), Promoting Rigor Through Higher Level Questioning, and his most recent How the Hell Do We Motivate These Kids?

He served as a classroom teacher for 18 years teaching everything from 3rd graders to seniors in high school. He is currently the gifted services coordinator for Pickerington Local Schools where he lives with his wife and two daughters. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati. You can follow him on Twitter @the_gifted_guy or visit his website at where you can access blogs, resources, and view presentations he has given.

More blogs:

The Possibilities of a Cardboard Box

Asking the “Why” in the Arts

Creativity is Everywhere, You Just Have to Look for It

Go Big or Go Home: Encouraging Risk-Taking in the Classroom

How to Create Your Own Makerspace in Any Classroom

How to Use Creativity to Get Out of a Rut

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