When I worked at a children’s science center, my favorite time of the year was summer camp season. We ran seven weeks of summer camps every year for kids in first through eighth grade, with the goal of engaging students and igniting passions for STEM. One of my favorite camps was called STEM Through Stories. STEM Through Stories was inspired by the Tufts University project Novel Engineering, which is an approach to teaching that focuses on integrating engineering and literacy. The idea of novel engineering is that students read a story, discover problems the characters have within it, and then brainstorm, design, and prototype solutions to the characters’ problems.
Throughout this camp, I discovered that starting with a story seemed to set a clear purpose for students and engaged them in the activity right away. It also created a stronger sense of community throughout the week-long camp. This might be due to the type of students who signed up for the topic of summer camp, but I also think there is something special and unifying that comes from starting together with a good story.
To inspire you to integrate STEM with reading, let me share one of the challenges my students enjoyed.
Book: Penguin Problems by Jory John
This is a story of a very pessimistic penguin who feels that no one understands all the hardships that he endures each day. The penguin walks the reader through the problems he has until he is confronted by a wise walrus. The walrus tells him to consider the good things he has in his life to be grateful for instead. Although there are many books that novel engineering can be integrated with, this is a perfect story that offers students a chance to engineer solutions to tangible problems. Some of the problems the main character describes are that he doesn’t like being hunted, his beak is cold, he isn’t buoyant enough, and he can’t fly.
I used a thinking map to guide campers through the creative, problem-solving process. This kept them on track and focused, while still giving them the freedom to create any solution they wanted. The Design Cycle (below) is a great example of what you might consider using, although there are plenty to choose from! Download the Design Cycle here.
After reading the Penguin Problems to students, I had them work together to identify a list of the problems that the penguin mentioned throughout the book.
After students discussed the problems in groups, students chose the problems they were most interested in solving. Then, I had them try to understand the character’s problems a bit more from the penguin’s perspective. To help students brainstorm this, I modeled it using one of the problems he brought up. In the story, he states, “It’s too bright out here.” In order to solve this problem effectively, I demonstrated to students how I had to work to understand the problem from the penguin’s perspective. I considered what a solution might look like for a penguin. To help me brainstorm this, I explored questions like:
- What is causing the problem?
- What helps us when it is bright out? What helps to protect our eyes when it’s bright?
- What design features of a solution might be needed to solve this problem for a penguin?
Once students brainstormed and discussed this with their group members, they were ready to start the design stage of the challenge. To help facilitate the design process, I had students discuss general design ideas with their groups before trying to design and solve anything. Then, before they could get materials to start prototyping their design, the students had to agree on a design, label their drawings, and make lists of the materials they would need to prototype. Of course, the designs and material lists students came up with changed as they started creating, but the idea is to get them thinking through their solutions and clearly communicating with each other along the way.
Once I approved their design and material list, they were able to create and refine, or prototype, with their group. This is where the messy, FUN process of learning became the most visible. Students created their solution together based on their drawings and plans. Throughout this time, they also refined their designs as things failed to work as they planned.
When work time was over, we shared our creations.
We tested completed prototypes.
We discussed our thinking.
We asked questions.
We talked about what we learned, and what we were still curious about.
We celebrated our failures and our successes.
Taking time to share is how students make sense of their learning. It’s an imperative part of any challenge students work to solve. And when we give students time to discuss their discoveries, we learn more about their understanding and their growth.
This was an engaging challenge that gave students an opportunity to see the connections between content areas. This can empower students to leverage their knowledge from any subject to innovate, which is a more authentic way to practice solving problems.
For more ideas on integrating STEM in your classroom, check out the post I wrote with Dr. Kia Heise, on integrating STEM with social justice.