What’s Your STEM Story?

How do we inspire the next generation of leaders and innovators around STEM? This is the question that everyone is trying to answer. There is no one answer or silver bullet. Everyone is inspired by different things, ideas, topics, passions, experience… however almost all of them do have one thing in common – a story. A narrative is a powerful tool, even more powerful than data and statistics. We rarely connect or remember numbers, however stories touch us and connect to our emotions and dreams.

As an Einstein Fellow in the U.S. Senate years ago, I worked for Sen. Michael Bennet from Colorado and he shared with me a thought that has stayed with me. He never would speak on the floor of the senate or discuss data without a story attached. The idea that no one would listen to data, that personal stories bring on personal connections; which is what we all remember. There could be data that part of the continent was about to split off and sink into the ocean; and without a story connecting the “who cares” – he wouldn’t speak about it. No one would be moved to act unless there was a narrative. A narrative can inspire.

Growing up a child of the 80’s, there were inspiring narratives all around me in pop culture. From astronauts taking off in the space shuttle to Top Gun & Space Camp in theatres, STEM was part of life; and an exciting one at that. Video games and computers were just becoming “the thing” and finding Carmen Sandiego was on the to do list of every kid. Inspiration for creativity, critical thinking, and going into STEM was endless. Then, something changed; I can’t pinpoint the exact time, but our culture evolved. Well maybe not “evolved,” but definitely changed.

The shuttle program was retired, and astronauts became unknowns to kids. Look at some of the top “STEM” movies of the last few years; Gravity, The Martian, and Interstellar; and tell me which one inspires you to be an astronaut. Granted Hidden Figures was a gem in a swathe of negative films about space. Hidden Figures was powerful and moving and provided a look at minorities (especially women) making an impact in our history through STEM.

People connected to Hidden Figures because of the narrative. It was a moving and powerful story…. And that story made more of an impact than all the collective of data showing the critical need of minorities and women in STEM fields. The problem is that this narrative only takes students to inspiration, not past. It doesn’t help our students move past the initial inspiration. Unfortunately, the pathways towards a career in STEM is out of date.

This is where we all need to pick up the mantle and “complete the equation” per-say. The current world our students live in cannot be counted on to create the innovators needed for the future. Even if our students become inspired by a movie or story, rarely does it highlight the pathways to follow in order to make the idea real and tangible for a students future. We have a heavy focus on “STEM Heros” (which is great) but very little focus on removing the pedestal and replacing it with steps. The STEM Heros (which includes educators) of today need to share their stories, not just their accomplishments.

When I started to develop my own STEM story I looked for examples and found there are some great templates and examples already created. Pixar has mastered the art of the narrative and created “22 Tips on Storytelling” including ones like “You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.” One of my favorite articles on telling a story is on Sparkol titled “8 Classic Storytelling Techniques for Engaging Presentations” which helps think through and actually plan your narrative.

I challenge you to begin to think, plan and tell your own STEM story. What brought you to this point in your career? Why STEM for you? What pathway did you follow to get here? What pathways are available for the students of today? We won’t inspire students to be the innovators of the future if we don’t being the giants of today and help our future climb onto our backs.

Link: Blank STEM Story Template

Deconstructing a STEM Classroom

STEM has moved beyond a siloed approach to content and towards a pedagogy of how we interact with the world. To prepare our students to be the leaders and innovators of tomorrow, we must allow STEM to evolve to include the multiple elements that transform it into a culture. Integrating these elements into everyday instruction and supporting instruction with connected experiences will solidify a high-quality STEM experience for all students.

What does a STEM Classroom look like though? How do you create a culture of STEM in your classroom or school?

Some great starting reference points are the S²TEM Centers SC & the University of Chicago: Outlier Research & Evaluation. The S²TEM Centers SC created an in depth STEM Theory of Action for districts and schools who are looking to analyze, reflect, and dig deep into developing multidimensional inclusion practices around STEM. Outlier Research conducted a National Science Foundation study called the STEM School Study (S3) which sought to understand the landscape of inclusive STEM high schools across the United States. S3 examined how the most successful STEM schools defined themselves, the strategies they used, and their student experiences.

Below you will find an infographic to give an abridged version of the ideas and elements that are needed to develop a highly effective STEM classroom.


Random Acts of STEM: Breaking Away From the Unconnected Experiences

“We can’t have episodic STEM. It can’t be for some students – it is for all students.”

–  Dr. Vince Bertram, President and CEO PLTW

How many students have ever uttered the question, “Why do I need to know this?” or “When will I ever use this?” These questions sum up the thoughts of many when it comes to education as a whole. The disconnect between school content, skills, and the real world is great within our education systems. Many, if not most, students don’t connect the content and lessons from the classroom to the world outside their schools.

STEM has been a beacon of hope for many educators and leaders; a pathway to help connect the synapses between classroom content and our students real lives. However, STEM has fallen quite short of that goal thus far. In a Pinterest age where the prevailing thought of something being hands-on equating automatically to being effective instruction; students are still experiencing the disconnect. Yes, hands-on learning is a STEP in the right direction, but we can’t stop there.

STEM Fridays, STEM Challenges, and STEM bulletin boards are fantastic first steps, but they are just that; first steps. If we pull STEM out of our instruction for “special” time, we are just taking the 4 silos approach to STEM we worked hard to evolve and creating one bigger silo; disconnected from everyday standard-driven instruction. STEM needs to happen within context. Phillip Bell states in Designing Learning Environments for Equitable Disciplinary Identification, “learning is a social endeavor and unfolds within context.”

Random Acts of STEM

Take the next step in your instructional practice. Instead of doing a Random Act of STEM activity, build a STEM challenge or activity into your everyday instruction. By helping build the connections between STEM learning, standards based content, and the real world, students will stop asking the “Why?” and “When?” questions and start sharing the answers to these questions with everyone.

10 Ways to Start the Year with STEM Culture in the Classroom

Every start of the school year equates to a new opportunity to change our future. The students in our classrooms are destined to be our leaders, innovators, and changemakers; we just need to provide them the tools to grow. Developing a STEM culture is about creating an environment for learning to flourish. A classroom where curiosity is encouraged, grit and perseverance are valued, and creative solutions are second nature. With a STEM culture comes engaged learner, eager volunteers, and global high expectations. A STEM culture closes the opportunity gap that plagues our students and provides the experiences necessary for every student in the classroom to bloom into a STEM skilled citizen.

How do we build that STEM Culture? Developing the 4C’s is one layer of the foundation (here is a link to my latest Implementing 4C’s: Creativity post) and building student understanding of the STEM Dispositions are great to develop throughout the year. Below are some simple starting points and great FREE resources to use in taking steps towards a STEM culture.

Build Wonder

Developing a culture of wonder in the classroom helps students build their creativity and opens doors and windows to experiences, places, and connections not typically thought to be in course content. Wonder helps engage learners in content that excites and interests them; and as we know the more interested a student is in a topic, the more engaged and the greater retention of knowledge takes place.


Wonderopolis is a site and resource I have been sharing for years now and it only continues to get better. The Wonder of the Day is a great starting point and can help draw connections for students from content to the real life. Interactive text, wonder word vocabulary, and experiential ideas and resources provide a wealth of content. The Wonder Ground, and inquiry based lesson plan resource, has been developed just for teachers connects content standards to wonders and provides a network to share ideas of other Wonder Ground users.

http://wg.wonderopolis.org and https://wonderopolis.org

Establish Challenges

Students love competition and many teachers do as well. However, competition can have an adverse effect on creativity and student self perceptions. Instead of having students compete against each other, have them collaborate on a challenge that brings competition and altruistic impact together. By challenging students in longer term experiences instead of one-off activities, collaborative skills are built, used, and engrained in for the long term.


Using experiences such as The Paradigm Challenge, students can collaborate on ideas that connect to course/grade level content and work towards solving a greater global problem. The Paradigm Challenge is an annual competition that invites students aged 4 to 18 around the world to use kindness, creativity, and collaboration to help solve real-life problems and make a difference. The Grand Prize is $100,000; however many students can win and the experience can change a students life. Educator lesson plans, resources, and community activities are provided to help make the experience bigger than just that of a few students.


Spark Interest

Helping students see the “Why?” behind content is tricky at times. Giving purpose and helping students see how the content and skills they are learning impact them now and in the future is the difference between students caring and not. Many educators have not worked in factory or industry settings. Many localities don’t have access to all industries.


Connect content from the classroom to the problems and solutions found in real industry situations with interactive video performance tasks developed by Spark 101. Engage students in authentic STEM problem solving featuring real “on-the-job” professional challenges.


Students learn how real challenges are addressed in business, government, nonprofits, and academic institutions. Professionals from industry, non-profit, academic, and governmental partners guide students in developing solutions and understand the relevancy of content within careers.


Augment Reality

In education we often get caught up in the hottest new trends that are flashy and “cool-looking”. Often those trends are missing the rigor that is critical to developing students for the future. Technology just for technologies sake is not impactful to student learning. Augmented and virtual reality have at times fallen into this category as the experience is truly amazing, but has often lacked connection to rigorous student learning targets.


EON Reality looks to change that with new software that places the creation of AR and VR into the hands of educators. Don’t have a degree in coding? That’s fine! Their intuitive software, Creator AVR, has been developed to be used by those without coding or computer science degrees. Develop your own easy to create augmented and virtual reality lessons and experiences that will take blended learning and flipped classrooms to the future. Don’t have time or ability to create your own? There is an expansive library of prebuilt lessons and experiences available already.


Instill Computational Thinking

Much like critical thinking, computational thinking is a higher-level process whereby students can decipher problems and form innovative solutions. Computer science often focuses solely on coding, however computational thinking is even more important in the computer science field. Computational thinking takes into account technology and overlaps it with key thinking strategies to solve challenges. By teaching students to solve problems using the same processes as a computer, we prepare them for bright futures where they can combine creativity with computational thinking to be the leaders in innovation.


Ignite My Future in School focuses on integrating computational thinking in ALL content areas to help students see how computer science skills are relevant in all areas of life. Inquiry based interactive lessons plans, family activities, and career vignettes to support computer science are provided to educators to help implement computer science for all.


Effective 3D Printing

3D printing falls into the same category as AR and VR as trendy STEM resources that often lack rigor and content connections with implementation. We strive for students to become active participants in learning and content creators, however with 3D printing often students are neither. We need to shift away from students watching teachers print things and away from students printing pre-designed trinkets.


Thingiverse has taken it upon themselves to help lead the charge in shifting the dynamics of 3D printing in schools. They have created content driven inquiry based lessons & challenges for students to engage in purposeful 3D printing. Students create or find designs to solve problems. Sometimes it may be creating their own design, while other times it may be piecing 3 or 4 remade designs together to solve a problem. Change the way you utilize 3D printers in your fab-lab, Makerspace, or classroom.


“Make” Purposeful Lessons

Open inquiry time is great to allow students to explore their own passions and ideas. Makerspace’s utilize this model and build creativity, when used effectively. However, you can’t just open up a Makerspace and expect students know how to use the space effectively. Just like with any new structure in instruction, we have to model and provide examples of how to explore, create, and ideate. Students need to be shown that collaboration in Makerspace’s is normal and what the ideation process looks like in practice. Gradual release of control allows students to thrive when open inquiry is reached.


LEGO Education is helping educators with this gradual release through some targeted lesson plans and resources to help develop a maker culture in your school/classroom Makerspace. Shift your Makerspace from chaos/wandering/uncertainty to inquiry based purposeful exploration and then to open inquiry with some strategic lessons. LEGO Education Maker Lessons help every student become a maker and possibly a master builder.


Find a STEM Role Model

There is an incredible amount of research out there connecting the impact of positive role models in STEM to a future career pathway in STEM. If 90% of jobs in the future are going to utilize at least one STEM skill, then all our students need access to STEM role models. Instead of adults in STEM fields, consider connecting your students to STEM student role models; students who look like them doing amazing things in reshaping the world today.


The Mars Generation was created in 2015 by then 18 year old Abby the Astronaut (Abigail Harrison) who wanted to inspire a generation, her own generation, to be ready to go to Mars. Today, the organization does outreach, runs TrainLikeAMartian, and develops student ambassadors.


The STEAM Squad is a brand new group of young changemakers who know that together they can make a larger impact than they would alone. An aspiring 14 year old astrophysicist who runs a youtube channel call Supernova Style Science News, an aspiring 13 year old engineer who is a maker advocate and on Mythbusters Jr., a 15 year old aspiring astronaut who has raised over $100K for girls in the US and in Ghana to experience STEM role models, and a 12 year old girl leading the development of prosthetics for kids are sharing their stories, adventures, and passions to change the world.

https://www.themarsgeneration.org and http://www.thesteamsquad.org

STEM and Service Learning

Social Impact and STEM truly go hand in hand. Most STEM advocates, innovators, and inventors began with altruistic goals. Changing the world, making the world a better place, and making life better for people is intrinsic in most of us, especially with kids. Local impact is a great place to start, however wouldn’t it be great if students could learn STEM skills, engineering content, make a local impact, and make a global impact?


We Help Two set out to help students make a glocal impact. Students can provide a prosthetic leg to a student in a 3rd world nation or fund a water/sanitation/health project for a partnering school in a developing nation all by raising money selling socks. 90 packs of socks equals one prosthetic limb and 500 packs of socks equals one water/sanitation project. However the impact isn’t just felt across the world, the students also support local homeless shelters as for every pack of socks that are sold, students will also receive 1 pair of warm socks that you can be donated to people in your community who need it most. Educators also get access to lessons on water sanitation, water filtration challenges, engineering activities to create prosthetic limbs at school, and a number of resources to support content.


STEM Shared Resources

How often do educators go out and buy resources for the classroom? Pause and check out these STEMazing content kit loan programs! These programs ask that you schedule the checkout of their materials and send them back so others can use them as well.


The James Dyson Foundation has two different kits you can check out, the Design Process Kit (grades 2-6) involves dissecting a Dyson Air Multiplier Fan and the Engineering Kit (grades  7-12) which includes a Dyson Vacuum machine to reverse engineer. Lesson plans and additional challenges are provided to build your intrigue and interest in design.  http://www.jamesdysonfoundation.com/resources/


The Finch Robot Loan Program is one way Birdbrain Technologies diversifies the reach of their robots and inspires young programmers across the country. Their goal is to catalyze computational thinking and coding experiences for all students who might not ordinarily have the opportunity to program a robot as part of their typical classroom experience.  https://www.finchrobot.com/finch-robot-loan-program


Rubik’s cube lessons alligned to Common Core and State Standards to help problem solving, critical thinking, perseverance and logical thinking as well as math and art content. Borrow an Educational Set (12, 24, or 36 cubes), or a Mosaic Set (up to 600 cubes) for 6 weeks and only pay return shipping. Educational Sets arrive complete with cubes, guides, Learn-To-Solve curriculum and more. Mosaic Sets arrive with cubes and guides. Content for all grade levels that include cross-curricular units with multiple lessons focusing on the geometry of the Rubik’s Cube, writing algorithms, creating mosaic art, and more.  https://www.youcandothecube.com/educators


Even the Hess Truck is involved in supporting STEM! Committed to helping prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow, HESS STEM engages students in practical experiences that demonstrate how engineering, math, and science concepts apply in the real world. With new content every year, in the past content has focused on simple and compound machines, force, motion, friction, and energy.  https://hesstoytruck.com/stem/

Download the free infographic here: 

10 Ways to Start the Year with STEM Culture in the Classroom HD

8 STEM Thinking Dispositions

STEM is like an onion… It has layers and by just addressing one layer of STEM, we are not truly preparing our students to be leaders and innovators. Building STEM skills and imparting STEM content are not enough to help our students be successful in their future careers. How we think about the world, other people, and situations can impact effectiveness and the ability to innovate. Helping students think about how they apply the skills and knowledge is just as important as having them.

Explore these 8 STEM Thinking Dispositions and share them with your students. Post the graphic in your classroom to empower students to innovate and lead. To develop the thinkers, innovators, and do-ers of the future, we need to help shape their thinking now.

8 STEM Thinking DispositionsHD

Download the PDF of this infographic here: http://bit.ly/8STEMDispositions