Why STEM Challenges and Makerspaces Might Just Be a Fad

Why STEM Challenges and Makerspaces Might Just Be a Fad

Teaching is just like any other industry, with trends and fads that come and go. What about the new push towards STEM and STEAM though? Are they here to stay? Are they best practice? How can we use STEM and STEAM to help further our students' learning?

Makerspaces are stations in the classroom where students get to create whatever they want. STEM (an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math) challenges are usually classroom activities in which students are given manipulatives such as building blocks, popsicle sticks, notecards and tape, etc., and asked to create something specific. For example, students might be given the task of building a windmill with popsicle sticks. These are great tools in theory, but in practice, are not usually used efficiently in the classroom.

Before I continue, here is what this post is not:

  • This post is not bashing integration. Integration is an amazing tool for allowing authentic learning across subject areas.
  • This post is not discouraging teachers from allowing open-ended experiences in the classroom.
  • This post is not against using art and creation in the classroom. I am an art teacher for Pete's sake! Students should absolutely be given chances to create every single day.
  • This post does not condemn the ideas behind makerspaces and STEM challenges, only the current mindset and practices around these tools.
  • This post is not encouraging individuals to remove makerspaces and STEM challenges completely from their classrooms. Instead, my intention is to encourage more consideration as to their use and function in the classroom.

I constantly see teachers looking for ideas on how to use STEM challenges and makerspaces. They're one of those things teachers feel like they need to be doing in their classroom, even if they don't have the time or money to create them. Fortunately, STEM challenges and makerspaces tend to be more of a fad than a necessity, and here's why:

  • Ironically, STEM challenges often have very little to do with STEM. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Unless students are engaging in the scientific method for each project, they probably are not doing science. Unless students are creating on a computer or other device, it's not technology. Engineering, as defined by Webster's Dictionary, is "the application of science and mathematics by which the properties of matter and the sources of energy in nature are made useful to people." Unless a makerspace or STEM challenge is encouraging students to solve a specific, real-life problem, it's really not engineering. Finally, math is hardly ever used in STEM challenges and makerspaces. Granted, students are using shapes, both two and three-dimensional, but beyond that students are not having to use math in their creations.
  • They are not true integration. STEM challenges usually are not true integration. Generally, teachers give students a task of something specific to build. While this is a great way to teach critical thinking and creativity, it is not integration. Integration is bringing together more than one content area to teach both more authentically. However, if teachers asked students not just to build a windmill from popsicle sticks, but to build a structure to demonstrate the movement and direction of wind, showing their understanding of the previous unit about weather, wind, and air movement patterns, this would be a fantastic way to integrate with STEM!
  • They are not authentic means of creation. Although creativity and versatility are important skills, using toothpicks and gumdrops to build a house is not in any way authentic. Both Montessori and Reggio-Emilia approaches encourage teachers and parents to give students real, but child-sized and developmentally appropriate, tools. We should try to give students an opportunity to use authentic tools and use them in authentic situations. There is a world of difference between building with toothpicks and gumdrops and building with brick and mortar. Now, I'm not suggesting we go out and give students buckets of bricks, but we should consider the materials we give them, and how well they simulate real life materials for the purpose you intend.
  • They usually end up being playtime. Students should absolutely be given time to play, but STEM challenges often are just that, play. If teachers want to use them as play, great! However, don't parade them as using science in the classroom unless you have specific standards or content in mind. As fun as building structures with spaghetti and marshmallows is, at the end of the day it usually isn't science. We can make it science by giving students a real-life goal, such as creating a bridge that can hold the most weight. Here students are learning about structures and shapes that are better at resisting force, allowing them to draw their own conclusions about the connection between the project and the physical science concepts.

As teachers, we need to be constantly evaluating trends against what we know are best practices. Unfortunately, sometimes we see what is going on in the classroom next door or on Instagram and elect to use that in our classroom because it looks cute or fun. Sometimes we really want to take that picture book we love and create an adorable "STEM" craft based off it. Fun and cute have their time and place, but they aren't STEM.

STEM challenges and makerspaces can be great tools to teach students science, technology, engineering, math, and more, but we need to be careful that we are giving students authentically integrated projects. When we do, we allow students to make their own meaningful connections within and between disciplines, giving them opportunities for higher level learning and deeper thinking. If we can't do this, STEM challenges and makerspaces will fade into the background as just another fad that, at the end of the day, did not improve student learning.

What do you think? Can we modify STEM challenges and makerspaces to keep them from being a fad? Comment your thoughts below.

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