STEM Projects That Tackle Real-World Problems
STEM learning is largely about designing creative solutions for real-world problems. When students learn within the context of authentic, problem-based STEM design, they can more clearly see the genuine impact of their learning. That kind of authenticity builds engagement, taking students from groans of “When will I ever use this?” to a genuine connection between skills and application.
Using STEM to promote critical thinking and innovation
“Educational outcomes in traditional settings focus on how many answers a student knows. We want students to learn how to develop a critical stance with their work: inquiring, editing, thinking flexibly, and learning from another person’s perspective,” says Arthur L. Costa in his book Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind. “The critical attribute of intelligent human beings is not only having information but also knowing how to act on it.”
Invention and problem-solving aren’t just for laboratory thinkers hunkered down away from the classroom. Students from elementary to high school can wonder, design, and invent a real product that solves real problems. “Problem-solving involves finding answers to questions and solutions for undesired effects. STEM lessons revolve around the engineering design process (EDP) — an organized, open-ended approach to investigation that promotes creativity, invention, and prototype design, along with testing and analysis,” says Ann Jolly in her book STEM by Design. “These iterative steps will involve your students in asking critical questions about the problem, and guide them through creating and testing actual prototypes to solve that problem.”
STEM projects that use real-world problems
Here are some engaging projects that get your students thinking about how to solve real-world problems.
Preventing soil erosion
In this project, meant for sixth – 12th grade, students learn to build a seawall to protest a coastline from erosion, calculating wave energy to determine the best materials for the job. See the project.
Growing food during a flood
A natural disaster that often devastates communities, floods can make it difficult to grow food. In this project, students explore “a problem faced by farmers in Bangladesh and how to grow food even when the land floods.” See the project.
Solving a city’s design needs
Get your middle or high school students involved in some urban planning. Students can identify a city’s issues, relating to things like transportation, the environment, or overcrowding — and design solutions. See the project here or this Lego version for younger learners.
Creating clean water
Too many areas of the world — including cities in our own country — do not have access to clean water. In this STEM project, teens will learn how to build and test their own water filtration systems. See the project here.
Improving the lives of those with disabilities
How can someone with crutches or a wheelchair carry what they need? Through some crafty designs! This project encourages middle school students to think creatively and to participate in civic engagement. See the project here.
Cleaning up an oil spill
We’ve all seen images of beaches and wildlife covered in oil after a disastrous spill. This project gets elementary to middle school students designing and testing oil spill clean-up kits. See the project here.
Building earthquake-resistant structures
With the ever-increasing amount of devastating earthquakes around the world, this project solves some major problems. Elementary students can learn to create earthquake resistant structures in their classroom. See the project here.
Constructing solar ovens
In remote places or impoverished areas, it’s possible to make solar ovens to safely cook food. In this project, elementary students construct solar ovens to learn all about how they work and their environmental and societal impact. See the project here.
Stopping apple oxidization
Stop those apples from turning brown with this oxidation-based project. Perfect for younger learners, students can predict, label, count, and experiment! See the project here.
Advancing as a STEAM educator
The push for STEM has evolved into the STEAM movement, adding the arts for further enrichment and engagement. There are so many ways to embed STEM or STEAM lessons in your curriculum, but doing it well requires foundational knowledge and professional development. Imagine what type of impact you could have on your students and your community if you were supported by a theoretical framework, a variety of strategies, and a wealth of ideas and resources. Concordia University-Portland’s MEd in Curriculum & Instruction: STEAM helps educators advance their practice by learning about STEAM integration, how to become a STEAM program leader, and more. Graduates of the program have created makerspaces and all kinds of problem-based projects where students examine topics like water quality and our carbon footprint. Recent graduate Arwyn says, “I have helped run a STEAM program at the Columbus Public Library. Projects have included slow-motion animation and egg carton gardening.” Adjunct instructor Sarah Elliott, EdD, says, “Whatever your forte, we’ll give you specific tools to successfully bring STEAM into your classroom.”