Why STEM Should Be More Than Engineering Challenges

Hey my sweet teacher friends!

I have always worked very hard to keep up with current research, and to always find a happy medium between fun and intentional. In my district, like everywhere else, programs, approaches, and expectations are communicated while many of us feel the pressure to keep up with it all, while still keeping a positive attitude.
Sounds familiar?
Well, in all honesty, many times before I have felt the pressure and have rolled my eyes at the "new" thing to do. But it is also a fact, that every single time, I  have actually learned valuable things that I can implement in my classroom with my students in order to move them forward with intention and precision.
Every. Single. Time.

For a couple of years now, I have been implementing STEM in my classroom.
Well, or so I thought.
Last school year, around St. Patrick's Day I designed the typical "leprechaun trap" STEM challenge.
We also brought in supplies, read leprechaun books, had a leprechaun snack, and even had the time to show my students an educational clip about  the facts and traditions of the holiday.
My students had a wonderful day, they gave me hugs, told me I was the best teacher ever.
Oh, bliss!
Then I happened to ask one my students, who was hugging me, the million dollar question:
"Well and what did you learn today?"


As I was driving home I felt like a total failure. I couldn't help but think that there's got to be a happy medium between the fun of  engineering challenges and actual intentional, relevant, and rigorous content integration.

And many times before life has taught me that failure is the best teacher there is.

For a couple of weeks after that, I started critically looking for content or activities related to a more intentional way to STEM.  I bought a couple of books and after a lot of reading, reflecting, observing, and thinking, I started noticing that many of the  simple experiments that I found on the web were being called STEM.
What the what?
I even saw an origami craft being called STEM.
What in the world?
Doesn't STEM stand for Science, Technology, Engineering, Math?
Well, where is the Science in that?
Where is the Technology?
Where is the Math?
Or the actual Egineering?
I know what an engineer does, my sister is an engineer. Her husband is an engineer.
And I am sorry guys, but that doesn't seem like much engineering to me. It seems like basically anything can be called STEM for the sake of educational trends.
We need to stop mislabeling STEM. It is actually quite unfair, and we need to make sure that we are providing our students with genuine STEM experiences so that they can fill those STEM jobs.
Don't you think?
Let's turn our science lessons into projects that challenge our kids to build, explore, analyze, reflect, research, and actually solve a problem.

During the subsequent months, I started creating STEM and STEAM mats for different science and social studies content.
And I realized that when I gave my students an engineering challenge in which they had to use their knowledge of content area, they truly did deepen their connections with the standards.
And here is the truth:
Engineering challenges allowed my students to practice communication skills, true collaboration, critical thinking and creativity...
These traditional challenges did not allow my students to make actual connections with the curriculum, and even though those skills are critical, it was hard for me to ACCEPT and JUSTIFY doing just engineering challenges.

As a result, I had  the idea of creating Cross-Curricular STEAM mats aligned to content area standards.  They are project based and aligned to grade level content.


The first resource I have created is tied to  the science concept of matter, specially solids and liquids:

Each section in the  S-T-E-A-M is clearly explained and all the activities are high-order! Sometimes I ask my students to work with a partner, and sometimes they work on their own. It depends on if I use the STEAM mats for my fast finishers and high achievers, or if I use them for a core activity on a two-day span.


In the science section, I have provided posters, and QR codes with videos for students to listen, watch, and learn about solids and liquids. In my classroom, I normally allow my students to visit classroom approved sites like:
Pebble Go
BrainPop Jr
Discovery Streaming

All these websites require a paid membership, which  my school gets for our students. I also allow my students to check some books out of the classroom and school libraries. In the science section their goal is to be able to compare and contrast solids and liquids

In the science section you will also find these academic vocabulary cards, they are perfect for your English Language Learners!


I have always believed that technology should be used to complement awesome classroom instruction. It should never be used to replace you, the teacher. So I am always very careful to preview and make sure that whatever websites, apps, or devices, that I provide my students with, keep a high level of relevance and rigor.
In this technology section, students will create a video  with their partners. I normally use SeeSaw for this type of tasks, but you may use a different video app. SeeSaw can be used for free, but if you want all the McDaddy options, then payments needs to be made.  The free version is perfect, though!

Students will have to chat with their accountability partners using these:


The engineering challenge is so much fun! Students will have to create a  balance scale to measure some liquids and solids

They will also use these STEAM task cards to test their prototypes:


In this art project, students will create a collage and acrostic poem craftivity for solids OR liquids.
They will have to apply their knowledge acquired from the S  and E sections of the STEAM mat. I also encourage my students to use their academic vocabulary.


In the math section, students will organize their data from weighing the solids and liquids from the S section, they will also solve a couple of problems involving solids and liquids.


Well, the unavoidable.  You are probably taking deep breaths,
rolling your eyes,
shaking your head.

Believe me, I know. I hear you.
This is not the type of diagnostic assessment, or standardized thing. I am talking about good 'ol formative assessment. The type of thing that allows us to make sure that our students are making progress. We owe it to our students and their families to make sure that they are learning, and if they are not, we need to make sure to fill in any gaps. Right?

In the assessment section, you will find a STEAM Mat contract, a constructed response, and a rubric! The rubric allows for teacher and self-assessment.

Pretty neat, intentional, and so much fun!

How to Purchase the STEAM Mats

If you would like to elevate your STEM or STEAM routines, you may take a look at my STEAM Mats in my TPT store.

I will be back later this week with another STEAM - STEM  post.