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Engagement,  Science

How to Set Up and Run a Successful STEM Challenge

Have you ever done a STEM challenge?

One of my favorite activities to do in the classroom is a STEM challenge. These short, quick engineering challenges are easy to implement, fun for students, and SO meaningful! I guarantee you that your students will be begging for more. I highly recommend any science teacher implementing STEM challenges regularly into their instruction.

When I taught third grade, I tried to do one challenge per week. When I moved to a new school, I didn’t quite have time for that in my new schedule. However, it still made a great, special activity every once in awhile.

If you’ve never implemented STEM challenges in your classroom before, here are some of my tips for making sure they go smoothly every time!

What is a STEM challenge?

If you aren’t familiar with the concept of STEM, it is an acronym that stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Sometimes there is an “A” thrown in there (STEAM) for art. Basically, STEM/STEAM activities involve a focus on any or all of these areas.

STEM challenges deal mostly with the engineering aspect, though it can incorporate some of the other elements, as well! Basically, they are mini projects where students will design a solution to a problem.

stem challenges

Common examples of STEM challenges include catapults, towers, bridges, and ramps – though there are many others out there as well! Typically, students work together in small groups to complete the challenge. Groups of students may be competing against each other (depending on the challenge). They may also be required to complete the project within a certain amount of time or only using certain materials.

Typically, a STEM challenge only takes about 15-20 minutes of class time, plus a little bit of prep beforehand. If this sounds like something you may want to implement in your classroom, here are some tips to help you and your students be successful.

Prep & Set Up

The only downside to STEM challenges is that they do involve some prep ahead of time. I, personally, try to make mine as low-prep and inexpensive as possible, because teachers don’t have time for that. However, some prep is unavoidable, so here’s how you can make it as painless as possible!

First, choose challenges that use supplies you either already have, or can easily purchase. Certain materials may be worth stocking up on, because they are used in a lot of different STEM challenges. These materials include:

  • Clothespins
  • Pipe cleaners
  • Popsicle sticks
  • Toothpicks
  • Straws
  • Tape
materials for stem challenge

You’ll need to have enough materials for each group of students to successfully complete the challenge, so keep that in mind when you are getting your materials together.

I highly recommend dividing out the materials for each group prior to doing the challenge. Place each group’s materials in a container so when it’s time to start the challenge, you can just hand them their container and they can start.

Teach Students to Follow the Design Process

Students will have a much easier time completing each STEM challenge if you first teach them the steps in the design process. To do this, I like to use the acronym B.U.I.L.D.:

  • Become familiar with the problem
  • Understand the requirements
  • Identify and gather materials
  • List out ideas and choose
  • Design and test
stem challenge steps

This will give students a clear process to follow while working on their project. As a result, students will be much more successful at STEM challenges due to having a solid plan.

Before starting the challenge, read the task together as a class. You may even want to specifically go over the problem and the requirements together, before having students start. Then, they can complete the remaining steps in their groups. This will help set them up for success.

For more information on teaching your students the design process, click here.

Give Students a Time Limit

STEM challenges can EASILY take all day if you let them! However, most can be completed successfully within about 20 minutes. It depends on the challenge, of course, but ideally somewhere between 10-20 minutes should be enough time for most challenges.

I like to use one of these fun classroom timers to display for my students so they can have a visual reminder of how much time they have left. This is one I like to use for Easter STEM challenges:

Save Your STEM Challenge for the End of the Day

Just a suggestion, but personally, I always saved my STEM challenges for the end of the day – and I typically did them on Fridays! It’s a fun way to end the day, but it might be hard to get students to refocus on work after finishing. Save the STEM challenges for when they are getting antsy to go home!

Ready to implement STEM challenges in your class?

If so, check out my monthly STEM challenges to start you out! As I mentioned before, I like to keep my challenges as low-prep and inexpensive as possible, so all the materials needed for each activity can be purchased at Dollar Tree!

This resource also includes printables for the design process, as well as a reflection sheet for students to complete following the challenge. You can check them out here, or by clicking the picture below!

Do you do STEM challenges? What’s your favorite one you’ve done? Share in the comments!


how to do a stem challenge

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