Launch into STEM – low prep and low cost projects to set up your students for success

I have a STEM class this year again. Yippee! The last time I had a STEM class was in 2019 and their first project was the cardboard games challenge, which I have previously blogged about. This year, my class is different (every class is different) and according to their pre-tests, needed more support in working effectively in teams and more guidance in designing fair investigations and communicating their findings. So we decided to dive into some mini challenges to launch into STEM, before settling into longer-term projects. The series of mini challenges are low prep, low cost, quick to do and are designed for students to consolidate the skills they need for more complex projects. The processes, scaffolds and success criteria are repeated with each mini challenge and are designed so there is a gradual release of responsibility.

This blog post contains an outline of each mini challenge and the resources I used. I used them with my Year 8 class, but they can be adapted to younger or older students. This post also contains a brief reflection on what worked well and what can be done differently.

Launch into STEM

Our project outline is shown in the graphic below.

Mini challenge one – rotocopters

The first mini challenge was rotocopters. This is a very easy challenge so students can focus on developing their skills to identify independent, dependent and controlled variables, selecting and using appropriate equipment to make measurements, using basic statistics to analyse results and writing an investigation report. When students have done this challenge once, they can start changing the design of the rotocopters to have it fall slower, spin faster, etc. To support students to brainstorm on ideas and negotiate on an agreed idea, we used a PMI chart.

I used the following scaffold and success criteria to help students design a fair investigation and to write an investigation report.

Mini challenge two – straw rockets

Our second mini challenge was straw rockets from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The NASA website has everything you and your students need, from written and video instructions on making the rockets to explanations on how rocket propulsion works. While this challenge seems easy, the extension opportunities are endless. We used the same scaffolds from the rotocopter challenge so students can get another go at improving their work. They can implement the feedback they got for the rotocopter challenge. For the air rockets, I introduced the following reflection questions for students to complete at the end of the challenge.

  • How much did you know about air rockets before this experiment?
  • What problems did you have with this experiment? This may include working in a team.What did you learn about yourself in this experiment? This may include working in a team.
  • Did you do your work the way other people did theirs? Explain.
  • What is one thing you would like to improve on if you did the experiment again?
  • If you were the teacher, what comments would you give to your work?

Mini challenge three – parachute challenge

Everything we did for the rotocopters and air rockets led to students being successful at this final challenge – to design a parachute for space exploration. Again, NASA has great resources for this. Check out their Eggstronaut Parachute Challenge.

We used the same processes, scaffolds and success criteria as the previous mini challenges. Students have done these processes twice and have received feedback twice. The parachute challenge is the time for them to become more independent learners. Instead of me pacing the students and releasing scaffolds as they are needed, students were given a project booklet and were allowed to pace themselves within a provided timeline.

Progress of learning – portfolio

When all three mini challenges were completed, each student had multiple samples of work from each challenge that showcase similar skills in designing fair investigations, communicating the results of investigations, and reflections on working in a team. Students can use these work samples to explain how they have grown over the term and how they implemented feedback to improve their work with each mini challenge.

So, what did the students think?

The class did an evaluation of the project. Here are some of their responses to what they liked most about the project.

I enjoy that we are given freedom in our projects to work creatively and not just writing in books.

I really love how our teacher is really understanding when it comes to our work because she does not pressure us like other teachers.

[I like] The rocket experiment, the parachute experiment and filling out the report.

What to do differently next time

Even though the project was designed so it accumulated to a portfolio in the end, many students ran out of time to document their learning progress. I also did not explicitly teach how to create a digital portfolio and articulate learning growth as well as I wanted to. Again the term got away from us.

Explanation texts is another aspect I would like to have taught more explicitly. Each mini challenge required students to explain the forces behind the rotocopter, air rocket and parachute and use forces to explain how their design changes worked. If I had my time again, I would have provided more scaffolding for students to express cause-and-effect relationships and how to move their writing from spoken-like to written-like.

3 drama games that all teachers can use

In NSW, Australia, teachers, children and young people are getting ready for another year of school. Like many teachers, I like to kick off the year with some ice breaker and team building games. I like to think of my classes as learning communities and for my students to learn how to effectively work with each other, they need to know each other (I’m a science and STEM teacher so many activities involve group work and group projects).

A few years ago, I did team teaching with a drama and dance teacher and was amazed at how well her classes worked together, in a level I have not experienced my science classroom. In these drama and dance classes, students worked productively together. They weren’t afraid to make mistakes in front of each other. They knew how to support each other. They were attuned to each other. I initially thought maybe these classes were just composed of students who were already good friends which is why the group dynamics were so good. But the drama/dance teacher assured me A LOT of work goes into building group dynamics. So I’ve been looking into drama games that would work well in non-drama classes as ALL classes would benefit from developing from students who work well with each other, who empathise with each other, who trust each other and respect each other.

Catch my name – This game helps the class learn each other’s names. Students sit in a circle and a soft object like a small bean bag is thrown to students. The thrower says their name and throws it to another student who says their name when they catch it and throw it to the next student. In subsequent rounds students will need to say their own name and the student’s name they throw the object to. I found this game on Drama Toolkit, where a more detailed description of the game can be found.

Group walks – These are activities that build students’ physical awareness. While such drama games are targeted at developing actors’ awareness of each other’s physical presence on stage, it can also be beneficial for non-drama classes. Being taught to be physically aware of each other’s presence can help students work and learn effectively in large spaces like science labs or open learning spaces. A simple version of this game is to have students walk around in a large space slowly doing various movements like hopping and they need to make sure they don’t bump into each other. Variations and progressions of this game can be found in this blog post.

Count to 20 – I really like this game. As a class, students have to start counting from 1 to 20. Only one student can speak at a time. Any student can start counting and any student can continue the following numbers. However, there is no verbal coordination of who speaks first or next. If two or more students end up saying a number then the class starts from 1 again. See here for a detailed description of the game.

I really like how these games intentionally teach students to work productively as a team. Almost all teachers and all subjects require students to work effectively as a class. These games can be one way of deliberately teaching these skills.

Using Ozobots in the science classroom

I’ve been interested in using Ozobots in my science lessons ever since I saw this tweet of Ozobots being used to model different types of eclipses.

I really liked how the Ozobots were being used to create a moving model of eclipses, which is quite difficult to do without coded robots that automatically move (I have never found children holding basketballs and moving around another child holding a torch work well).

This term our school got hold of some Ozobots through the STEMShare initiative and I was able to test out how Ozobots can be used to enhance students’ understanding of the nitrogen cycle. Matter cycles through ecosystems, particularly the nitrogen cycle, can be quite difficult to conceptualise. Common activities include showing students diagrams of the nitrogen cycle, videos and getting students to physically model the cycle by pretending to be nitrogen particles themselves. However, just like eclipses, Ozobots provide an opportunity for students to create an annotated moving model to better visualise the processes.

So last Friday, my Year 9s used Ozobots to create a narrated video explanation of the nitrogen cycle with the Ozobot acting as a nitrogen particle. Here’s one of the videos.

The videos were created in an 80 minute lesson. What I really liked about using the  Ozobots was that it gave students the opportunity to work in teams and talk to each other about the nitrogen cycle. They worked in teams of 2 to 3 students draw the map, negotiate the narration and film the video. The activity gave them an opportunity to test and clarify their understanding of the nitrogen cycle with each other. The activity allowed students to determine if they really understand the nitrogen cycle. Prior to this, we had already done many other activities of the nitrogen cycle (worksheets, question and answer sessions, quizzes) and many students were confident they understood the nitrogen cycle. However, when it came to creating the narrated video with the Ozobots, many found that they didn’t know the nitrogen cycle as well as they thought they did.

Next time, I would also ask students to create a map so that the Ozobot wouldn’t be travelling in a nice unidirectional cycle but back-and-forth through different components of the ecosystem.

STEM in Australia – some teachers’ perspectives of STEM education


Last Sunday I had the privilege of hosting the weekly #aussieED chat on Twitter. The focus was on STEM. I wanted to dig deep into what Australian teachers thought on STEM education.
For those who don’t know, STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and maths. A focus on STEM isn’t new and has been a focus on-and-off since the 1980s.However in the past 5 years, there has been a large focus on STEM in primary, secondary and tertiary education as well as being emphasised in government policies. So for the #aussieED chat I wanted to find out what teachers felt was happening with STEM education in their schools. These are some of the themes:

 1. STEM education has come a long way and still has a long way to go.

Some teachers indicated that their schools have implemented STEM as cross-curricular project based learning experiences and have moved from a few innovators and early adopters trailing STEM programs to whole school approaches. These schools are now supporting other schools who are starting their STEM journeys. A good example of this is the STEM Action Schools project in NSW public schools. It will be interesting to see how different schools and teachers evolve their STEM teaching approaches as they gain more experience and reflect upon them.

2. STEM education needs more than passionate teachers; it needs enabling conditions.

Many teachers agreed that STEM is a way of teaching; a way of teaching that involves the integration of traditional subjects with a real-world context and driven by real-life solutions. This approach is enabled and sustained when structural systems like timetables, flexible learning spaces and a school culture that encourages teachers to take risks with different teaching approaches are in place. Otherwise it can become isolated pockets of excellence in STEM education, accessible to some students only. Some teachers mentioned dedicated time in timetables to work as a team so authentic cross-curricular collaboration can be created and sustained. Other teachers mentioned time to explore practical resources, opportunities to team teach with exemplary STEM teachers and time to reflect, evaluate and improve in their own practice.

3. How can educators and systems ensure promising practices in STEM are scaled and make an impact?

Is STEM an educational fad? Do we even need STEM to be an integrated, cross-curricular approach? Should we focus on teaching science, technology and maths separately but make sure we teach it well? What are the goals of STEM education? Is it just purely to make students “future job ready”? Is it to create scientifically and digitally literate citizens? Does everyone need to learn coding? How do we measure the impact of STEM? What is an appropriate timeframe to expect impact? These were some of the issues raised throughout the #aussieED chat. We didn’t come up with answers as they are highly complex issues that can be highly dependent on context. Personally I think STEM education is vital to the future of students on a personal, societal and economic level. To make STEM education a sustainable practice, that is day-to-day teaching practice, the enabling conditions of quality STEM education needs to be in place. We also need to be clear on the purpose of STEM education for our students. Otherwise it can easily become a fad.

What are your thoughts and experiences of STEM education?