Student Engagement Through Competitions Like The STEM Challenge

STEMulate Learning focuses on exploring inexpensive tools educators can use to introduce their students to STEM subjects. STEM refers to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – the so-called “hard sciences” that are fundamental to innovation and key to economic development. Some argue that the acronym should be STEAM (STEM + Arts) but our public schools already have many options for instruction in the arts, so I have focused on the STEM subjects to find technologies and capabilities that teachers can integrate into their planned coursework without having to break the school budget during these tough economic times.

Arduino roll-up case with pinboard and drawers to hold under-test circuits and components.

Anyone who has attended one of the STEMulate Learning workshops will recognize the Arduino microcontroller I have been using for years to instruct in programming, electronics and even topics such as horticulture and robotics using Arduino control systems. In the past year, I started adding in the Raspberry Pi single-chip computer to allow exploration into computer science, web development, networking, and more complex programming techniques. My students work with Python and the popular Scratch programming interface, which allows younger or more inexperienced students to learn programming techniques using a graphical interface where they can drag-and-drop new functions such as mathematical operations or looping structures without having to first learn the base code-level interaction we use in Processing (Arduino) or Python (RasPi).


Technologies like these, mostly open source hardware and software, are available for teachers to download and employ in their classrooms – but for some students, the joy of creation is not enough alone to encourage them to take an interest in STEM. However, the web also offers many different contests and competitions for students to participate in, whether they are in middle school, junior high or even high school. By allowing students to compete with educational peers in the same educational level, they are spurred on to develop their understanding and improve their techniques towards later STEM learning in higher-educational settings, or to prepare themselves to enter the technologically-driven workplace at the end of high school.


An excellent example of this type of educational competition is the STEM Challenge, which provides educational mentors with toolkits and pre-developed curricular elements that can be downloaded and integrated into their classes, where students can develop video games using many of the same technologies I speak about regularly in our educators workshops including programming languages such as Scratch, Alice and Kodu. Video game programming helps to interest students with technical as well as artistic talents, and also helps to enhance the inclusion of historically underrepresented populations such as girls, minorities and students from underserved backgrounds.


The STEM Challenge is a great resource to run across for teachers because the developers provide access to a wide range of online resources and downloadable open tools that educators and students can take advantage of in order to develop learning programs that can be customized to each student. I have found customization to be tremendously successful in student engagement, like the Lilypad Arduino eTextiles some young women prefer to create during our Arduino classes, or the SOLID Learning program’s pilot course testing different types of robots created by 3D printing the body design and then using a standard set of basic electronic components. By allowing students the freedom to select ideas and designs that are personally interesting drawing from options within the same track, teachers can allow each student to become a participant in their own learning environment and more successful in develop social and “soft” skills along with their technical capabilities as they lead class project teams and develop communication and management skills as a second order component of the activities in class. By developing skills and creating personalized interesting designs they can share with their peers and engage in competition with their fellows, students are provided an exceptional start preparing them for greater expression and lifelong learning opportunities long after they depart our care in the schools.

STEM Mentoring photo from NYAS

I encourage anyone with spare time to volunteer to mentor our young men and ladies, to teach a workshop or class, or simply to share what is amazing in each of our own fields with those who will follow into the same trades in the years ahead!

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