Is STEM Important? and What Makes a Great STEM Project?

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) has grown in popularity in recent years. It’s an interdisciplinary approach to learning which combines these four subject areas. When leveraged to its fullest, STEM learning presents an incredibly powerful method for addressing challenges and acquiring new knowledge. It’s easy to see why STEM has become so popular in education.

It often has a strong emphasis on hands-on, project-based learning. It involves a real-world approach to problem solving which allows students to explore the practical applications of the four disciplines.

STEM is important because it provides an opportunity for students to pursue different lines of enquiry by asking questions. It nurtures critical thinking as an approach to addressing challenging problems.

Above all, it has the potential to provide incredibly engaging and fulfilling educational experiences for students!

What are the ingredients for a good STEM project?

There are many variables which can contribute to the success (or failure) of STEM-based learning. The following paragraphs will go over some of the ideas you may want to consider before starting a STEM project.

STEM doodle

Define the task

Having a clear understanding of your desired goal from the outset is crucial. 

  • What do you want to achieve? 
  • What are your desired learning outcomes? 
  • Which problems are you attempting to solve? 
  • Do you have any budgetary or time restraints?

The open-ended nature of STEM learning allows for a degree of flexibility during the project, but clearly defining the task at the outset helps to create a framework and structure upon which to build.

Creativity

Purely theoretical study has its uses and can be beneficial for forming an understanding of a subject. It does have limitations though. If information is not associated with real-world applications it can become abstract and harder to comprehend. 

STEM, however, encourages critical thinking. Thinking critically about information allows us to form a mental prototype. We can creatively explore potential applications of knowledge to a range of situations. 

When choosing a project, consider how you might incorporate creative expression as a key component of the task. 

Iteration

STEM learning is an iterative process (There is no ‘Right Answer’).

A major difference between STEM and more traditional forms of learning is that we can use questioning as a tool for reaching our desired outcome. Iteration is often a fundamental aspect of many STEM-based activities. We might think of STEM activities as following a process similar to this:

  • Hypothesis.
  • Conduct experiment / start building.
  • Test and collect data.
  • Analyse results/draw conclusions.
  • Ask questions based on results.
  • Propose revisions and implement changes.
  • Repeat the process.

Students are able to continue iterating until a satisfactory outcome is achieved. This process promotes a cycle of continuous learning and improvement. It demonstrates to students that with persistence and critical thinking, they are able to approach problems creatively to achieve a desired outcome. 

Embracing ‘mistakes’

Traditional forms of learning sometimes have a tendency towards binary outcomes. Things are often considered ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. STEM allows us to explore this gap between knowledge and application in a way that allows us to make mistakes freely. These mistakes give crucial feedback for how we might adjust and revise to get closer to our goals. It essentially creates a win-win situation whereby we either reach an outcome we’re happy with or we’re presented with information on how to improve. In this sense, every ‘failure’ presents an opportunity to deepen our understanding and build practical knowledge.

The power of questions

When presented with mistakes or shortcomings in our project, our ability to move forward is determined by the questions we ask.

  • Why didn’t that work?
  • What would happen if we changed this aspect of our project?
  • Can we make it faster / stronger?
  • How can we make it more sustainable?
  • Is there another way we can approach this?
  • What if we swapped this component with that one?

Students can see how their questions translate into physical results and that by refining their questions, they can alter the results.

Background research

Some more complex STEM projects will inevitably call for some form of supporting background knowledge. A student might need to investigate certain physics laws, mathematical formulas or engineering concepts for example in order to complete a STEM project successfully. Investigations are often stimulated by the project itself which can provide a impetus for self-led learning and increased engagement with a topic.

Beware of following recipes

There are countless examples of STEM projects which you can follow along with online. These can be great activities to introduce students to hands-on learning and crafts and they absolutely can have educational benefits. They can introduce topics in a fun way, provide fine motor skills workouts and be rewarding group activities. One potential drawback though is that many activities follow a prescribed step-by-step process in which you work toward building an end product.

One of the things which makes STEM learning so appealing is the way it encourages questions and critical thought. In following a strict step-by-step process to create a finished product, the inherent value of STEM as a learning process can diminish. An open-ended approach can be a more valuable experience for students.

The purpose of a great STEM activity should not be solely focused on creating a polished end product if the main objective is skill and knowledge acquisition.

Collaborative learning & diversity

As STEM projects lend themselves collaborative exploration of ideas, they offer a great opportunity to embrace diversity. In collaborating with others from different backgrounds, cultures and viewpoints, students can investigate problems from a range of different angles during the development process. This can lead to some interesting and even unexpected outcomes which may not have occurred during a solo project. This can create a vibrant atmosphere of empathy, respect and creativity.

STEM education should be accessible to everyone. Discussions around some champions of STEM from different cultural, ethnic and gender backgrounds can provide inspiring role models for students.

STEM ‘challenges’ can be a fun way of engaging students either individually or part of a team. Who’s is the fastest/strongest/tallest etc.

What next?

You may also want to consider some of the following ideas as starting points to further explore opportunities available in STEM learning:

  • STEM events and community projects.
  • Collaboration with industry or local businesses.
  • Community library activities.
  • Partnerships with schools and educational organisations.
  • Engagement of families, parents and caregivers.
  • Initiate class discussions around STEM-based career opportunities.
  • Online resources and networks.
  • Professional development opportunities (workshops & conferences).