Maximizing the M in STEM

In many schools and classrooms, STEM is simply the new science. In many of our workshops and site visits, we deal with science teachers who seem to have become responsible for the STEM initiatives in their schools. At ProjectEngin, we remain committed to the idea that the E is the key to connecting many subjects. But we always try to include as many disciplines as possible in our curriculum materials. Here are a few ideas for developing some Engineering projects that lead from the other end of the acronym. They start with math and connect to science through Engineering Design projects and activities.

  1. Packaging Design – volume, geometry, 2D to 3D spatial awareness, artistic design, costing, environmental impacts, forces

Packaging is all around us and, in many cases, it has an enormous environmental and economic impact. We have projects for grades 4-12, ranging from 3 -10 classes in length. Most of them challenge students to design more environmentally friendly and cost efficient packaging.  In addition, they provide a platform to work on the spatial reasoning skills that have been found to be so critical in supporting success in math. Here are a few resources to get you started thinking about an M-based Engineering project.packagings

Impacts of some types of packaging

Plastic Packaging- from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation


  1. Assembly Lines and Rate Studiesrates, planning, optimization, human factors, product design

We use assembly line projects for a variety of reasons, ranging from the study of rates in math classes to developing an understanding of protein synthesis in biology. Setting up a mini-assembly line requires thinking about production rates of various operations and consideration of possible bottlenecks. It also involves a lot of collaboration and communication.  Finding the optimum production plan with limited resources provides options for a range of graphing and data analysis activities. We also use this project for more social studies-oriented activities related to the Industrial Revolution and current issues involving manufacturing conditions throughout the world. We like to start our projects out with a fun video, like this classic: Lucy in the Chocolate Factory !



  1.    The Power of Graphs – data analysis, visualization, artistic design, wide range of        science and social studies issues

Numbers and images are universal ways of communicating.  This is a skill that has become increasingly relevant in the age of Big Data. Our projects focus on the idea of using the Engineering Design Process to create a mathematically-based platform for creating awareness of a topic or issue.


Asking students to engineer an infographic or a bubble chart, reflective of the work of Hans Rosling, provides the basis for a great STEAM challenge. By selecting a topic related to science, such as health or climate issues, you can truly connect all of the letters in the acronym.

Embracing a STEM culture in your school offers amazing potential. But if you hope to realize its true value in creating a new learning experience, it needs to be more than the “new science”. You can start by maximizing the M. And remember, as we like to say, “E is the key” to content-rich, skills-based learning!



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What Does it Really Mean to be a STEM School?

At ProjectEngin, we deal with schools, teachers, and classrooms in various stages of defining themselves as “STEM” or sometimes “STEAM”. It can range from one teacher “doing STEM” for 20-30 minutes per week to an entire school claiming to be “certified in STEM”.  Somehow the acronym has created a noun that stands for yet another trend in education. In many schools, making popsicle stick bridges and gum-drop DNA is called STEM.  Others seem to feel that having a computer science or robotics course is the epitome of STEM. In reality, without connections, these things are simply tools, not unlike basic spelling and arithmetic. While many of these activities have value, they do not define a new vision for education.

So just what does it really mean to be a STEM school? Many of our workshops are designed to tackle that topic. We urge educators to begin with a vision and to value the process more than the product, just as we do when designing curriculum. In a sense, we help them to engineer what STEM means for their learning community.  Our work has convinced us that unless it begins with knowing who you teach, how they learn, and the real connections that matter to them, the label “STEM” is just that – a label for another trend.

In many of our workshops, we practice what we preach by urging educators to follow the Engineering Design Process to develop a new culture in their schools and classrooms. It begins with clearly understanding the challenge before you and by identifying the constraints you face and the goals or criteria that matter to you as a learning community. All schools face real limitations in terms of resources, time, and talent. Failing to acknowledge those constraints will result in failure to launch meaningful change. Our advice is to start with what you have and evolve, growing organically in order to value every resource and talent that is already in place. The next step is really the secret sauce to a strong “STEM” vision – determining the criteria that are important to your community. This is where a school creates a STEM identity and vision and this is what creates the value proposition that helps them to realize a unique educational experience. Finally, just as in Engineering, once a challenge is fully defined and delimited, you can begin to generate solutions, prototype, test, reflect, and modify to create a lasting product. This is an ongoing, evolutionary process that should be guided by your constraints, criteria, and vision.

When establishing the criteria that are important to you, resist the tendency to view STEM as a new label that defines something that your school does. Educating young people for the future needs to be defined by “how” not “what”; by skills not by content. Your STEM vision should be about more than uniting 3 or 4 disciplines. It should define the culture of learning at your school. And it needs to be Sustainable, Transdisciplinary, Experiential, and Meaningful if you hope to create lasting and impactful change. Saying that you are going to connect projects to Science and Math, defining Engineering as making things, and seeing Technology as coding and robotics does no more than create yet another discipline, often housed in the confines of the Science department.

Sustainable STEM means that you are going to avoid the trends in order to support a new way of doing things versus just embracing new things. Adding courses and units in coding, computer science, and robotics has value for some students and for certain time frames but they are just new courses and topics. A sustainable STEM vision is based on the value of process over product, skills over specific content. Those of us who were students in the second half of the 20th century can remember spending hours learning how to key punch cards in Fortran IV or program in Basic. Replacing that with the programming skills of the 21st century will not create a sustainable STEM culture in your school.

Transdisciplinary STEM literally and figuratively breaks down the walls, not just encouraging thinking outside of the box, but getting rid of the box. Schools become increasingly siloed places as students move through grade levels. STEM should never be one more of those silos. And it should never be limited to a few disciplines. No big challenge or “wicked” problem is ever solved by examining one aspect or employing one point of view; students need to be taught to think in terms of systems and big, connected pictures. And that needs to be modeled by teachers who are willing to cross classrooms, walls, and halls.

Experiential STEM needs to focus on learning by doing and on the idea that time for reflection, revision, and communication is critical to the process. In our work, we embrace the Engineering Design Process as a framework for meeting challenges by applying and discovering knowledge to craft solutions. We would never expect baseball players to learn how to hit by just reading a book, yet we seem to think that is how formal education should work.  And we don’t necessarily learn well just by doing; we learn when we reflect on what we have done and the effects we have seen due to our actions. Time for analyzing failures, reflecting on impacts, and modifying actions is how we use mistakes to “fail forward”. True experiential learning makes connections backwards and forwards, by applying what has been taught and optimizing understanding through reflecting on the process.

Meaningful STEM should always answer the question “What do I need to learn this? What am I ever going to do with this?” The world is full of challenges, large and small, that will increasingly demand solutions and innovation. Facts are often not valuable in isolation, but they can create countless impacts when applied. We live primarily in a world that we have created in a little over 100 years. Information multiplies at a rate that no one can keep up with, but we insist on transmitting many of the same facts taught in schools decades ago. Learning what to do with that knowledge is the only way to move forward. Innovation rests on engagement and imagination. Replace the popsicle bridge with infrastructure challenges. Connect coding and gum drop DNA to each other and to the amazing lessons we can learn about assembly operations by observing nature. What students do for 6 to 8 hours every day must be meaningful!

Henry Mintzberg, a world-renown business management and strategy expert has been quoted as saying “When the world is predictable you need smart people. When the world is unpredictable you need adaptable people.” The future of the world is in our classrooms today – we owe them a framework for learning and a way of problem-solving, not another label.

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Easy Entry, Sky High, and a Mile Wide

What makes a great Engineering Design project? What creates the magic promised by project-based learning? The range and variety of possible projects is overwhelming. At ProjectEngin we focus on three key principles when developing projects for teachers to use.  In our experience working with teachers and students in grades K-12, the best learning happens when there are few barriers to entry, no limits on possibilities, and a chance to make things uniquely your own. It all leads to student-driven learning and increased engagement.

Easy Entry – All of our projects have a decidedly low-tech entry point. Asking teachers and students to learn differently, investigate new ideas, and focus on skills is already a significant challenge. Layering on technology creates too high of a wall and, at times, too much expense. We use simple materials and initial challenges that create easy identification with the end-user. We use basic craft materials to help students tap into their inner engineer. Our projects focus on process and creativity. Expensive “stuff”, complex algorithms, and steep learning curves are decidedly absent from our projects and curriculum. Beginning engineers don’t need 3-D printers to create prosthetic hands; they can learn more about how to design a functioning hand by using simple materials like balsa wood, wire, straws, elastic bands, string, and hooks. Easy entry creates early empowerment!

Sky High – Always leave room for modification and optimization. Engineering is essentially limitless; everything can be engineered better. Initial development and testing should always be followed by time to modify and improve designs. That is a key difference between a science lab activity and an engineering project. There is no one, right answer. The sky is the limit. Students should always have the opportunity to reach as far as possible and to recognize that we can all always do better.  Encourage students to look for both incremental and moonshot improvements. Continuous improvement is contagious. Sky high means no limits!

A Mile Wide – Never discourage customization. One of the ideas we stress is that students should have the ability to pick the end-user for their product or process. Good design is based on empathy and addressing someone’s needs. Student choice leads to student engagement. And it showcases the amazing talent in your classroom. Going wide lets everyone start from the same place and reach very different end products. Give students room to follow their own path and to explore those creative edges. Going a mile wide goes beyond thinking outside the box – it knocks down the walls!


We always encourage teachers to think of the design space as being framed by constraints and criteria. It is just as important to think of the learning space as having low floors, high ceilings, and wide walls. When students are comfortable beginning new projects, willing to reach high goals, and engaged in exploring their own path … magic happens!

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5 Easy Ways to include Engineering in Your Classroom

At ProjectEngin, we focus on some core skills when encouraging teachers to think of Engineering Design as a powerful pedagogical tool. Before jumping into a full blown Engineering Design project, we help teachers to think about changing their classroom culture from passive to active, from individuals to collaborative groups, from routine to innovative, and from perfect to failure. Here are some ideas to try in your classroom in order to disrupt practices that have been in place for decades. We are convinced that once you see how your students respond, you will make the leap to engineering a whole new kind of learning experience.

  1. Focus on creativity and innovation. Give pairs of students cards with two very different items on them. Challenge them to design something (s) by combining both. Think telephone plus computer equals smart phone. A combination that seemed impossible and unwieldy less than 40 years ago is commonplace today. Think big, think crazy, innovate, and invent.
  2. Focus on failure as a learning experience. Have groups of 2 or 3 students build towers out of newspaper and a limited amount of Scotch tape. Load them with books or other objects and film the failure. Did they tip, twist, or crumple? Based on what you saw happening, could you improve your building?
  3. skillsDevelop empathy. Have students learn what it means to function differently. Have them hold one hand behind their backs and complete simple tasks or close their eyes and cross part of the room. What simple technologies (tools or ideas) can help to make things easier for someone who functions differently? The best engineering starts with understanding the needs of your end-user.
  4. Find their inner engineer. Give students a selection of appropriate objects (photos or images work well) and ask them to engineer a solution based on limitations (constraints) and criteria (goals). For example make a tasty (criteria) lunch out of the ingredients in a refrigerator (constraints). Or put together an outfit for school or some other specific event. You are limited by the clothes you have (constraints) and your sense of style (criteria). Can students think of other situations in which they “engineer” solutions?classroom
  5. Focus on improvement of current products or processes. Give students chart paper or white boards and ask team to re-design the classroom for students in 2030. You will learn a lot about how they view learning and what makes them comfortable. You may even get some ideas of what you can do now. Explain that everything can be engineered better. What stops us?
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The Top 5 Reasons to Include Engineering in Your School

At ProjectEngin we firmly believe that Engineering is the “secret sauce” in your STEM/STEAM program. And we spend a lot of time working with teachers and schools to convince them that it can plan a role in classes from K-12. Read on to find out what some of our clients find to be the most compelling reasons to include more Engineering in the curriculum.

  1. We live in an “engineered” world. Basically, if something doesn’t grow on trees, begin life as an embryo or seed, or evolve over millenia – it is  engineered. The young people in our classrooms are and will be citizens of a highly designed world. As educators, we are all committed to preparing our students to be knowledgeable, involved citizens of the future. Basic literacy about the products and processes of the designed world need to be a part of every young person’s education. The ease of access to information has freed educators from simple transmission of information. Including the process of design lets you introduce the skills that underlie the creation and the evolution of the built environment.gardens.jpg
  2. Engineering is a way to bring that “real world” into your classroom. There are big challenges facing us now and in the future. Many of those challenges will require engineered solutions and the development of technologies that we can barely imagine. Teaching the same material the same way it was taught 50 years ago is a disservice to the young people we have such an opportunity to impact. Teaching facts in isolation is not realistic. Energy solutions impact climate and resources. Technologies designed to provide clean water for all can have high energy costs and create the need for new agricultural technologies. Many of the decisions that need to be in health care technologies have significant ethical impacts. One can’t consider any one of the UN Global Goals as being totally unrelated to any of the others.sdg Nothing in the modern world exists in an isolated, siloed environment. Except for our classrooms. Engineers have to be systems thinkers, weighing all inputs and outcomes. They have to optimize, finding the solutions with more positive impacts than negative consequences. They need to understand the economic, political, and cultural factors surrounding a problem. And they need to know their end-user. That is the real world. Very few of the learning challenges in most classrooms encourage such holistic thinking. All of our Engineering projects are based on  “real world” challenges that require synergetic, systems-based solutions.IMG_2290
  3. We are all natural engineers. Many of the teachers we work with are initially “terrified” of teaching  Engineering. They share a common public misconception that all engineers are socially inept math and science geeks. As a result, teachers do not feel that they are qualified to even discuss Engineering, let alone actively include it in their curriculum. Engineers solve problems by designing helpful products and processes. You actually engineer every day. You engineer your chosen outfit by thinking about what you need to do and how you want to look (criteria). You then look in your closet to see what you have (constraints) and follow a process to create a preliminary “look”. Depending on your age level and social life (think teenage girl), you modify and optimize your outfit. You had a problem, defined your design space, considered the possible solutions, prototyped the best option and solved the problem as best as you could. That is the Engineering Design Process. We are all engineers on a daily basis. So why isn’t that a part of what we teach?
  4. Engineering is the “secret sauce” that you need to really have STEM curriculum. We view Engineering as the linking verb in STEM or STEAM. Engineers use Science and Math to design and build Technolgies to solve problems and to meet human needs. A good Engineering project brings project-based learning into your curriculum with a platform that enables you to clearly connect math and science concepts. Well-designed Engineering curriculum creates a “need to know” for students, leading them to develop a better understanding of concepts in order to apply them to achieve the desired results. In post-interviews, we have actually had a significant number of students express surprise that any of the science knowledge they had been taught “actually made something work”.  More proof that we need to stop teaching concepts in isolation.IMG_0201 (1) (2)
  5. Engineering is fun and creative. Try it! We can almost promise that your students will want more. A well-planned Engineering activity or project has room for all learners, not just the ones who can find the right answer on a test. One of the main reasons that ProjectEngin began was the number of students who reported that their senior year Engineering course was the first time they had fun in science since the primary grades. How can we hope to attract creative and innovative thinkers to STEM fields when we teach science in a rote, fact-focused manner? Learning should be messy, not linear. Constructing a cognitive model is creative and it is a process. It should always be about the questions, challenges, and possibilities,  not just the answers.



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Embracing the E: Why Engineering Should be Part of Your Classroom


The Top 5 E-Reasons


Engineering is the process that brings the built world into existence. And that is very much the world that our students live in. Activities that challenge young people to do things differently and better are far more engaging than traditional verification labs and routine problem sets. In lieu of a traditional lab to study projectile motion, teachers can cover the same topics by challenging students to design a safe model of a water slide. Additional real-world considerations such as aesthetics, cost, safety factors, and capacity can also be incorporated. The grand finale of seeing objects crash into a basin of water is a lot more fun and engaging than collecting sets of data for the range of a marble rolled off a table or launched with a lab device.



If we ever hope to develop mastery, application is needed. “Doing” helps us adjust our mental models and brings forth misconceptions, fostering a much deeper understanding. Students working on mousetrap cars develop a much clearer understanding of the role of friction once they realize the car can’t move on the ground without it. They also begin to understand how it is a resistive, non-conservative force capable of slowing their car down if the moving parts experience too much friction at contact points. All of the words in a textbook or lecture will never make those simple ideas as real to them. Countless problem sets focused on finding the coefficient of friction will never be as effective in developing an understanding of real effects.



In a world that is constantly evolving, the principles of entrepreneurship can give students a strong foundation.  Gen Y and Gen Z-ers are constantly connected and want to be heard. They live in a 24/7 world that is becoming increasing entrepreneurial. The solo and siloed nature of most educational activities is contrary to providing the skills that they will need to succeed. They need to be collaborative and creative thinkers. A well-constructed Engineering challenge supports that model far better than any multiple choice test or repetitive lab. Engineering embraces failure as a learning activity and strives to always move forward to improve the solution. It reinforces resilience, systems thinking, and divergent thinking. Much of that is missing in our one size-fits-all education model that is so focused on the quest for that one right answer.



Good Engineering Design puts the needs of the end user in the forefront. Products and processes are engineered to solve human problems and to make our lives easier. Students are capable of amazing amounts of empathy, particularly when solving a problem for someone close to them or for other children. We have all read stories about classes and students who have used 3-D printers to make prosthetics and other assistive devices. They are driven by empathy and the idea that they can help someone. Many of the projects we work on ask students to take a global view and focus on the needs of children living in other, less affluent parts of the world. They truly move out of their classrooms as they take what they have learned about electrical circuits and design small pico-PV devices to help children have light to in order to read and play in the evenings. The idea that children their own age have been uprooted and live in refugee camps gives enormous importance to the challenge of using what they have learned about structures and energy to design simple toys. Applications with meaning, clear impact, and a focus on others help reinforce the empathy present in most young people.



The world is a challenging place and statistics are often discouraging. All of our work focuses on developing activities and curriculum meant to empower young people to believe in the promises and possibilities of technology and engineering. There is no doubt that much of the current world condition is due to the technologies and rapid changes we have created in the past. But we are learning and most experts agree that we have the creativity and knowledge to develop solutions to the challenges we face now and in the future. That future is in your classrooms today and change can only happen if we work to develop our students’ confidence that they can make a difference. Young people can engineer a better world for all and they deserve an education that makes that goal real and attainable.

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A STEAM Experience

Take a minute to read about an amazing teacher that we worked with this year. During the 2015-16 school year, Abby Paon piloted a biomimicry based STEAM enrichment course that we designed. Her reflection on the experience follows.

“This school year, I have had the opportunity to implement a STEAM enrichment course for our 8th grade students that emphasizes the Engineering Design Process while focusing on life science disciplinary core ideas as well as the practices and crosscutting concepts in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).   This course also has a strong emphasis on the 21st century skills of communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking.  The 30 day course curriculum was developed by Ann Kaiser of ProjectEngin and was designed to encourage innovative thinking in developing solutions to problems, and highlight the connections, creativity, and collaboration young people need to move forward in the 21st century.

During the introductory unit, students engage in several engineering design challenges as they begin to think and work like engineers.  The first challenge that they are given is to design a newspaper tower that is free standing, at least 18 inches tall, able to support the weight of a tennis ball, and stand up to the force of wind (from a hair dryer).  The students must work together in groups to complete the challenge; however, they are given very limited materials (5 sheets of newspaper, 12 inches of scotch tape, scissors and a ruler) and have only 15 minutes to build their towers.  Most groups struggle to find success with this challenge and some students even ask if they are going to fail the assignment because their tower did not meet the requirements.  After testing their tower, students must complete a failure analysis and identify what went wrong with their design and then plan for possible modifications that they could make to create a more successful tower.  This is where the most important learning occurs for students – when they are asked to analyze their mistakes and design innovative solutions based on their new knowledge.  Throughout the course, students work through a variety of engineering design challenges and they quickly realize that failure is an essential part of the Engineering Design Process.  As students become more comfortable with failure, they begin to take risks within the classroom and approach design challenges with excitement and creativity.  This creates an energy in the classroom that is contagious and ignites learning.  I believe that Curt Richardson said it best, “Failure is a part of innovation – perhaps the most important part.”


The Engineering Design Process

After completing the unit on Engineering Design, we begin to look at nature as an engineer.  Through the lens of biomimicry, students investigate camouflage as nature’s way of engineering survivability.  As students learn about natural selection, adaptation as a design process and the various types of camouflage found in the natural world, they are working towards the completion of their final design challenge for the course – to develop a camouflage outfit for a wildlife photographer working in a specific environment.  Students work collaboratively as scientists and engineers to research their environment, identify the constraints and criteria that will frame their work, and generate multiple design solutions that could meet the needs of the photographer.  As they work together, students are required to document their findings and use this information to inform their final design.


Camo 4Camo 3 Camo 2 camo 1

                                Student Designs

This school year has been an incredible learning experience for me as an educator.  As I have observed my students embrace failure and work collaboratively to tackle each design challenge, I have been amazed at their level of engagement, creativity and ownership over their “engineered” solutions. It is clear that they have not only learned about the Engineering Design Process and biomimicry throughout this course; they have also learned to take risks, ask questions, work creatively together, investigate ideas, design innovative solutions to real world problems, and communicate results with one another.  If we hope to produce the future leaders and innovators of the world, then we must provide our students with opportunities to develop the 21st Century Skills of communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity that will provide them with the foundation they need to be successful in college and the workplace.  As adults, they will be expected to think creatively, communicate clearly, work collaboratively with others, and make judgements and decisions to solve problems.  It is our responsibility, as educators, to provide these types of learning opportunities for all students in an effort to help them become successful members of a global community in the 21st century.  I truly believe that we, as educators, have the most important job – we help shape the future!”

Abby Paon, 2016 Coventry Teacher of the Year

STEAM Teacher & Science Curriculum Coordinator

Alan Shawn Feinstein Middle School

14 years of experience in education





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