Tag Archives: projects

6 Ways to Strengthen Rigor in Your STEM Classroom

In recapping this series on Strengthening Rigor in STEM, we’ve talked about how to define rigor in the classroom.   We’ve discussed that rigor is not making the work harder or assigning more problems.

We’ve also outlined the basics on tools such as the Rigor/Relevance Framework that we can use to guide our planning and instruction to establish and maintain rigor in the classroom.

This list generated by this series is by no means exhaustive, but is a tangible list of strategies you can use to begin to building rigor into your classroom:

By using or reintroducing these strategies into your classroom,  students can begin to stretch their thinking and begin to perform in ways that will help them to grow them academically as well as help them achieve mastery and beyond.


Strengthening Rigor in STEM- Student Choice Menus

Student Choice Menus a very useful way to both differentiate student learning and strengthen rigor in the classroom.  Recall that rigor is for ALL students, not just our high performers or our gifted students, so all students can benefit from this model.

Since all students have different ability types, it sometimes becomes difficult to create a project that will force all students to stretch their thinking but not lose or confuse anyone.  Student Choice Menus are a viable solution because they can allows student choice yet meet each student where they are. They are great for easing students into STEM projects too because they allow students to “practice” having latitude in projects and “practice” students each working on different things.

Student Choice Menus can be created in a couple of ways:

Students are given a a tic-tac-toe board containing different tasks or explorations in each block.  Students will then choose a “path” to complete.

Restaurant Menu
Students are provided a list of choices in each category (Appetizers, Entrees and Desserts).  Students are then asked to choose to complete a set number of labs, tasks, etc. in each category.  The restaurant menu concept works well for younger students, but you might consider naming the categories differently for older students.

List Menu
Students are provided with a lists of explorations, experiments, tasks, etc.  Each one is assigned a point value based on its difficulty level.  Students will choose enough items to meet the point requirement determined by their teacher. (This is a great way to differentiate by assigning different point requirements to students.)

Even though Student Choice Menus are more rigid than how we would normally teach a STEM unit, they are a great introduction to STEM units and projects as they provide a small bit of choice and latitude in comparison to the choice and latitude in a normal STEM unit.


Strengthening Rigor in STEM- PBL Elements

Another way to strengthen rigor in the classroom is through the use of PBL (Project Based Learning) elements.  PBL and STEM have a great deal in common and many believe that PBL is one of STEM’s predecessors.

Although PBL lacks some elements of STEM, it has a similar goal- to teach the whole student and to focus on life skills like the 4C’s (communication, collaboration, creativity, creative thinking).

Making sure that these PBL elements are included in your STEM lessons and units will help to maintain rigor and keep students performing on a higher level and applying their knowledge.

An Essential Question
In STEM units, our essential question is focused on a real life problem or issue that needs to be solved. Constructing this question carefully is paramount as it will guide the student’s learning.  A well-defined question will be tight enough to identify a relevant problem to be solved but loose enough to allow students to explore and find their own solutions.

White Space
The essential questions in our STEM units usually provide some design requirements, but for the most part allow the students to use inquiry, innovation and the 4C’s to research and construct a viable solution to the problem.  Enough guidance is provided to lightly steer students, but students are expected and encouraged to drive their own learning.

21st century skills
STEM units stress 21st century skills and aim to groom students to mastering the 4C’s.  In addition to content mastery and knowledge application of science, technology, engineering, and math, students polish additional skills like team building and brainstorming.

Inquiry is probably the most difficult element to teach.  Too much guidance and all students are coming up with the same solution.  Too little guidance and students are lost.  When students conduct inquiry, they are, essentially, playing the part of the detective and following the trail of where their research leads them.  It is the part of the skilled teacher (facilitator) to help guide students in their problem solving so that they don’t get too far off track.

By incorporating or ensuring that these components are present in your STEM units, both you and your students can work toward building and maintaining rigor in the classroom.


Strengthening Rigor in STEM- Defining Rigor in the Classroom

Merriam Webster has many definitions for rigor.  Among the most relevant are:

1: a (2) :  the quality of being unyielding or inflexible   b :  an act or instance of strictness, severity, or cruelty  3:  a condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable

Yuck! That doesn’t really sound like how we want our children to learn- unyielding or inflexible- or become contributing members of society.  So, in the sense of education, what does rigor actually mean?
According to Barbara Blackburn, author of Rigor is not a Four Letter Word, rigor is:
creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, and each is supported so that he or she can learn at a high level, and each student demonstrates learning at a high level.

Achieving this definition in the classroom then consists of three basic parts- the content, the instruction, and the achievement.  Most teachers have little to no control over the curriculum, but we try to make each standard as engaging as possible through instruction.  The high-quality instruction that students participate in helps them to take charge of their learning through collaboration and reflection.  When these basic parts intersect, students excel.

Now that we’ve defined rigor, it is probably becoming clearer how rigor looks in the classroom.  Before we talk about what rigor looks like, we should talk about what it isn’t.  Rigor is not:

  • more homework
  • “doing” more
  • only for accelerated students
  • something else on top of everything else

So how does rigor look in the classroom?  Rigor is:

By establishing and strengthening rigor in the classroom, students will become stronger and more critical thinkers and will become better collaborators and learners.


STEM Skills Challenge- Newspaper Table

 Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been sharing the importance of teaching STEM skills and weaving them through your curriculum.  They teach our students how to be persistent problem solvers, how to deepen 21st century skills and how to become leading contenders in the workforce.

Forbes Magazine researched the 10 most critical skills that employers are looking for in candidates and found that the majority of these critical skills are STEM skills. The top three skills? Critical Thinking, Complex Problem Solving, and Judgement and Decision Making.

This week, students will get to practice all three of those skills as they work on this week’s Skills Challenge.  Students will work with a team to build a sturdy table out of nothing more than newspaper and masking tape that will hold the most weight.  Much like the real world, teams will be challenged to use only the resources provided and work within design and time requirements.  May the best team of designers win!

Get the STEM Skills Bundle Pack with 10 Design Challenges including the Newspaper Table Engineering Challenge!



STEM Skills Challenge- Gumdrop Bridge

Employers today are looking for students who have learned how to think and how to problem-solve.  With the adoption of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), we are getting closer to making that a reality, but so many states and districts are still focused on standardized testing (which- surprise-  did not make the list of qualities that employers are looking for in qualified candidates.)

This series focuses on those skills as well as the other “soft-skills” that aren’t necessarily spelled our in the curriculum, but make students well-rounded problem solvers.

This week’s challenge is the Gumdrop Bridge.  In  this challenge, students work in teams to design and build a bridge that will span a specific distance.  Sounds like a pretty easy challenge, but as students start experimenting with their materials, they will find that there is more there than beats the eye.

This fun little challenge encourages students to work on team building, collaboration and communication skills- more of those soft skills- that help students become successful in a workplace environment.

Get the STEM Skills Bundle Pack with 10 Design Challenges including the Gumdrop Bridge Engineering Challenge!



STEM Skills Challenge Series

What if STEM stood for something different? As you know, the actual acronym stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, but aside from content, the concept encompasses many more essential skills like: problem solving, critical thinking, team-building, self-esteem, self-motivation and more.

At a recent symposium in the Seattle area, business leaders were surveyed regarding the skills, attitudes, attributes, and aspirations that they feel are the most important to the success of students in the future. Among the results?

  • Critical thinking, learning, and analytical problem solving
  • Communication
  • Adaptability
  • Collaboration and teamwork
  • Self-direction and self-awareness
  • Technical skills and computer literacy
  • Fundamentals of education including math, science, and English
  • Creativity
  • Cultural competence and global awareness
  • Emotional intelligence

This series on STEM Skills Challenges will harness the power of STEM challenges and focus on these essential success skills that our students need to be effective in the STEM workforce.

Get the STEM Skills Challenge Bundle Pack with all 10 Design Challenges!



STEM Essentials- Developing Effective STEM Units

In this series we have learned how to plan and develop an effective STEM unit.  Planning a unit like this is very time-consuming if done right, but the outcomes and student progress will be well worth the effort!

Here are the basic steps in the process:

Each step contains a basic explanation…and resources to help you plan an effective STEM unit!

Get the STEM Essentials Bundle Pack to help plan your STEM Units!



STEM Essentials- Redesigning and Debriefing

In this series, we’re learning how to plan a proper STEM unit.  If you’ve been following along, you’ll note that there are many moving parts!  So far, we have discussed how to develop a plan, craft different types of assessments, create a rubric, use the Engineering Design Process to plan the remaining lessons, and how to communicate results.

The last two steps that we’ll talk about is Redesigning and Debriefing.  These are separate steps focusing on different goals, but because they share some common elements and they both NEED to take place at the end of the unit, we’ll talk about them together.

After students have communicated their results and shared them with the class, it’s important for students to have time to redesign.  This doesn’t need to be a whole unit withing itself, but they should at least have an hour or so to work on improvements to their design.  This allows for a couple of things.  It allows:

  • Students to process what other teams have shared and leverage that new information into the redesign of their own product.
  • Any team that was unsuccessful to implement a workable solution based on new information shared (and thus generate some success)
  • Students a chance to take some risks that they wouldn’t have taken prior to presenting the project to the class.  They can push the envelope without any ramifications.  (This is where some GREAT learning can take place.)

And as a side benefit, giving students the opportunity to redesign their products shows the importance of collaboration and communication amongst the different teams (and also usually sparks more creativity!)

Debriefing shares some of these same elements, but it is not the same.  Debriefing takes place at the end of the project and allows the teacher to pull everyone together to talk turkey.  This is an opportunity for students to:

  • Share any new information that they have learned and discuss how it relates to the project
  • Ask clarifying questions that may help them further their learning or connect the dots
  • Discuss possible next steps or extensions of the project

This is an opportunity for teachers to:

  • Review key findings and objectives for the project
  • Clarify any misunderstandings that still may exist
  • Further tie the learning to real-life (I like to talk about STEM careers that would contribute to a project like the one just completed)

As an aside, the debriefing can provide the teacher with key information such as insight on how to make the project better the next time and informal assessment based on discussion.

Get the STEM Essentials Bundle Pack including Debriefing Strategies and the STEM Project Rubric Template!



STEM Essentials- Communicating Results

In working to create a comprehensive STEM unit plan, we’ve talked about how to develop a plan, craft different types of assessments, create a rubric, and use the Engineering Design Process to plan the remaining lessons.

One of the last components to is a mechanism for students to communicate their findings.  Although it’s last on outr planning list, expectations need to be communicated to students early on in the unit. It’s important for students to investigate and record their daily notes and data as well as create formal reports of their discoveries.

For this component, there are many options. Teachers who are techie can use a high-tech mechanism and set up a Moodle Site or a Wikispaces workspace for students that will allow them to develop and refine 21st century skills.

Teachers can also use a low-tech mechanism and ask students to communicate their results through Interactive STEM Notebooks that will allows students to focus more in effective communication. For those who k now me, I am a huge fan of Interactive STEM Notebooks!  They are incredibly authentic and that students can easily take ownership of them rather than to copy notes from the board.

Because of the many options available, the teacher should choose the best method of delivery, factoring in the age-appropriate skill level of students and the curriculum/ skills that will be the main focus of the project.

In addition to written communication, it’s a good idea to  have an oral component like a presentation, interview, or skit as well.  Combining written and oral reporting helps students to enhance their communication skills and make them more relevant as presenting and public speaking are important skills students need when preparing for the workforce.

Get the STEM Essentials Bundle Pack including General-Use Interactive Notebook Pages!



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