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Middle School Course Emphasizes Wonders of STEM

Matt Cieslik

Inspired by the recent nationwide attention on science, technology, engineering, and math education, Rosa International Middle School in Cherry Hill, N.J., instituted a unique course, simply called STEM, for all our 6th through 8th graders. Students attend STEM in addition to their regular science and math classes for one marking period, which amounts to 23 class periods over 10 weeks.

The STEM course, however, is not an add-on math, science, or technology course. The goal of STEM is to foster a learning environment in which students are guided to produce original ideas, objects, and structures according to certain specifications using concepts and skills from math, science, and technology.

However, although students make the math, science, and technology connections, those are still not the main focus of the course. Rather, the mission of the course is to grow students' capacity for creativity, fun, and back-loaded learning in a STEM context.

This past year, 6th grade students discovered principles of flight by designing their own kites using materials such as straws, newspaper, and glue. Students in 7th grade pondered Newton's laws and the concept of force as they designed and created a course for a game that is similar to golf but requires bouncing ping-pong balls to navigate the course. And 8th graders considered basic principles of architecture as they constructed buildings using oversized wooden blocks to examine how forces act on buildings during an earthquake. Students speculated what architects can do to protect buildings from these dangerous forces and tested their ideas. Each project required students to generate original ideas because they constructed products without the use of directions and kits.

Igniting Creativity

Rosa International Middle School piloted the STEM program in the belief that creativity is not only a valuable academic tool but also a life skill that can serve students in many aspects of their lives. Like all skills, creativity can be developed with practice. To help students develop creativity, educators emphasized innovative, original solutions and products.

A typical STEM class encourages creativity by presenting students with a problem or challenge that has many potential avenues, none of which are obviously superior to others. Students contemplate, design, build, and later explain a solution that complies with specifications. For example, in one project students design and drop parachutes, which they construct from cheap trash bags and yarn, that have miniature action figures attached.

Students build the parachutes using certain initial specifications, such as dropping it from 20 feet and having it hit the ground between 4 and 6 seconds later. Once successful, students can use this data to determine how changes in height will affect the duration of the flight. Concepts such as friction, air resistance, and areas of various shapes are also incorporated into this lesson and, as always, the components of a controlled experiment are reinforced. The real-world connection occurs as students consider why parachutes are designed in various shapes and sizes.

Originality is extended to available materials as well. The STEM room is a small, converted science classroom with an area of approximately 700 square feet. The perimeter of the room has shelves that are well-stocked with everything from arts and crafts materials (string, glue, and scissors) to toys (Legos, blocks, boats, and planes) to materials that one would expect to find in such a classroom (pulleys, ramps, and calculators). Materials are within easy reach, and students are encouraged to choose materials that match their strategy and not be afraid to use original materials to support their original designs.

Making Mistakes Can Be Fun

Most educators would agree that students who are having fun are more likely to be actively engaged. When prompted, students often refer to the freedom to explore, investigate, and create as reasons why STEM is fun. Another possible explanation for the fun that students describe could be the freedom to make mistakes.

Because grading in the STEM course is entirely dependent on the process rather than the outcome, students become comfortable making mistakes and eventually learn to view the freedom to make mistakes as opportunities for learning. Success in the outcome of a project may help students win a contest, such as for building the fastest model boat or the most efficient airplane, but it has no effect on their course grade, so students tend to try ideas in their STEM class that might otherwise be stymied.

Each project has minimum requirements that act as standards and guide students. However, with encouragement, students often reach beyond these standards, which increases both motivation and fun. For example, records and results from previous classes are shared to motivate students to discover a design that exceeds what others have previously accomplished. As a result, students often set personal goals, which helps differentiate their learning.

Back-Loaded Learning

Introducing and reinforcing concepts and skills up front can inhibit original thinking and increase the likelihood that students will only incorporate these concepts or skills into their final products. Our STEM course adopts a nontraditional approach: All teacher-led class discussions regarding concepts and skills occur near the completion of a unit. Throughout a project, students are given time to explore strategies for modifying and improving their original ideas. Students are guided to discover which concepts and skills are relevant and how they can incorporate this information into the project.

Each grade level explores mini-units that are unique to that grade level and will not be repeated the following year. In 6th grade, the units include kites, making patterns from dominos, index card towers, an inventor's convention (students are given one material, such as wooden blocks, and asked to make a model or prototype of anything they want), ramps, and "does it float?" challenges. In 7th grade, the units include flying objects, slingshots, catapults, parachutes, a ping-pong challenge, and toilet paper rope. In 8th grade, the units include boats, bridges, duct tape (human ingenuity), electricity (build a flashlight), Rube Goldberg machines, and rockets. Students also complete an additional unit each year that involves estimation and another unit that explores the school's nature trail.

At the completion of a project, students reflect on the math, science, and technology connections that occurred. Students share connections to other subject areas, previous projects, and the world outside the classroom. After completing a unit on flying objects, where students designed paper airplanes for distance and for time spent in the air, 7th grade students shared their results and explained which features and modifications of the paper airplane contributed to aerodynamics. Students observed how specific models resembled airplanes (or birds) and speculated on how engineers (or evolution) have affected the structural design of planes and birds that we observe today. Listening to the strategies incorporated by other students reinforces not only those concepts and skills but also the idea that there are many possible solutions to any problem.

The Learning Continues

Even after the marking period is over, it is not uncommon for students to continue to visit the STEM classroom to share ideas or borrow materials for projects that they have continued. In my classroom, I display various items that were created by inspired students, such as a catapult; a model sailboat made from duct tape; and a giant kite made entirely of tissue paper, ice-pop sticks, and tape.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of a STEM program is not the content or skills, but rather the ability of a STEM course to spur students to think and inquire.

Matt Cieslik is the STEM teacher at Rosa International Middle School in Cherry Hill, N.J. He previously taught the school's 8th grade science course for 10 years.


ASCD Express, Vol. 6, No. 24. Copyright 2011 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit


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