Building Bridges

What makes a STEM project worth doing?


I recently presented a session called Building Bridges at the Scobee Education Center. My goal was to inspire early educators to incorporate more engineering activities into their curriculum. When first beginning to incorporate engineering projects, it is important that students have a real problem to solve—one that they are willing to invest time and energy into. One way to “create” a relevant engineering problem is through children’s literature. During this training, we showed teachers how to use the natural structure of fiction (problem, solution) to create problems for students to solve using STEM skills. We chose to focus on picture books that would require a bridge to be built in order for the problem to be solved.


The STEM Sprouts Teaching Guide defines engineering as a way of doing. Engineering is solving problems, using a variety of materials, designing and creating, and building things that work. Children’s literature is a prefect bridge—making engineering more accessible to young children. Children become invested in the character’s problem and want to help solve it.


One of the most famous bridge picture books is The Three Billy Goats Gruff.  Teachers had the opportunity to construct a bridge using the materials constraints we designed as part of the challenge. The results were creative, varied, and developed off of previous builders’ ideas. Collaboration as a key in the iterative engineering process was experienced in real time.


We must remember, though, that another key is doing. Children should be allowed to grapple, make an attempt, test it, revise, test again, consult a neighbor, test again, and so forth. This iterative process of engineering develops a growth mindset and is the only way to achieve innovative thinking.  We were able to share real examples from a first grade class of several bridges designed, built, and tested by the students this year. Mrs. Campos, of Clearspring Elementary, joined us during the presentation. She shared her bridge challenges and described the growth in her students’ thinking as the year progressed. It is one thing to explain that adding STEM to your curriculum is worth doing. It is another to see the results of 6-7 year olds and hear how it is impacting all other subjects, as well as their willingness to try hard things. Mrs. Campos explained that students enter first grade often wanting step by step directions that will ensure success, not even wanting to try or think on their own. She explained that these challenges have empowered her students to take risks, think critically, question ideas, and transfer lessons learned to other subjects. Her goal is always to give her students enough of a challenge to create productive frustration that will lead to new ideas. As the teacher, her role is to scaffold so that no student ever feels helpless.


So what makes STEM project worth doing?

  1. A real, relevant problem

  2. Opportunities to collaborate

  3. Opportunities to DO, multiple times for improved design

  4. Enough of a challenge, creating productive struggle which leads to growth

And, it will be successful, if you as the teacher are supportive—allowing students to grapple with the problem, get uncomfortable, and begin to think; stepping in only if their thinking plateaus or they reach unproductive levels of frustration.


STEM Sprouts Teaching Guide (2013) Boston's Children's Museum

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Training Spotlight

1st-3rd grade educators worked together to learn engaging ways to develop number sense. Students will develop fact fluency while playing games that use their number sense strategies. By learning their facts in this way, students are not merely memorizing, but rather learning to work with numbers flexibly.  “Low achievers are often low achievers not because they know less but because they don’t use numbers flexibly – they have been set on the wrong path, often from an early age, of trying to memorize methods instead of interacting with numbers flexibly.” Jo Boaler,  Stanford University, 2009


April 8, 2019

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