Frightfully Fun Fall STEAM!

October is upon us and that means one thing is on my youngest students’ minds: Halloween. In fact, back in September, during one of my very first classes with one of my kindergarten groups, when asked to respond to the prompt, “Tell me something that you like you do,” one little person replied, “Go to the Halloween store to pick out costumes.” So, needless to say, they’re definitely thinking about it!

In order to harness some of that energy, I created a series of Fall and Halloween themed STEAM challenges for my youngest engineers (Pre-K and kindergarten). I find that many STEAM challenges targeted at this particular age group often tend to be simplistic and not as open-ended as I’d like, so I wanted to find some tasks that would strike a happy balance between being independently accessible but also highly scalable, that is, leaving room for boundless complexity or creativity in devised solutions.


The ten activities that I devised for the month were incredibly fun to create and I couldn’t wait until it was finally time to roll them out this week. My plan with implementing these activities is to offer four different choices each time that my kindergarten classes come to the STEM lab. I’ll rotate and mix in different stations as we go to help keep it interesting, but also will offer the same activity over multiple weeks to hopefully see growth in the sophistication of their creations.


Week one of these activities has been a sweeping success! My kindergarteners particularly loved “Pumpkins on a Fence” and “Ghost Tower.” Here are a couple of their creations.


Having the students engaged in these activities also allowed me to introduce our BeeBots to small groups with a task I’m calling “BeeBot Trick-or-Treat.” I created a set of cards that features different types of human and animal homes. I put one set on my BeeBot grid board and kept the other as a set of cards. When I gathered my small groups, students took turns selecting a card and then trying to program the BeeBot to reach the corresponding spot on the board. It’s been a great opportunity to practice perseverance, as programming the Bee and understanding that he moves from his perspective and not his driver’s has been tricky for many of my kindergarteners to grasp. But, once they do reach the goal, there’s been a lot of dancing and celebrating!


Looking to add some STEAM fun to your classroom this fall? You can purchase a copy of my Frightfully Fun STEAM activities pack by visiting my TPT store. (This Way to the Product Page!) (Note: the product doesn’t include the BeeBot cards, but I’ll send you the set if you email


Get your own set of these STEAM tasks!


Parts, Purposes, and Complexities



Ever since I stumbled upon the Agency By Design thinking routine called “Parts, Purposes, and Complexities,” I’ve been excited to try it out. (Check it out here.) In essence, it is an activity designed to get students looking closely at objects, thinking about what parts comprise them, and analyzing how they are put together. I conducted “Parts, Purposes, Complexities” (both in discussion-based and written form) and was blown away by the detail and complexity of thinking that my 4th grade engineers showed in their work.

To introduce the routine, we did a whole-class version of the task using a standard #2 pencil. I gave each student a pencil, as having the tangible object in front of you is critical for this thinking routine. Working together, we identified the parts, then came up with the purposes for each of those parts, and finally observed and noted complexities about the item (e.g. how the parts work together or noting other objects with which the item is designed to work.)

After the whole class analysis of a pencil, students were invited to choose an item of interest from a bucket of random things that I’d collected from around the classroom. I tried to select items that were interesting, but that weren’t so complicated that they’d require a whole notebook to describe all of the parts. For this initial application of the thinking routine, I also tried to avoid objects that had components inside that would be difficult for students to discover. (Though, I’d like to repeat this routine later in the year in a take-apart activity.)

I created a guiding paper to help students go through each step of the “Parts, Purposes, and Complexities” routine. The first step was to create a close drawing of the item, as drawing is a great tool for helping students notice details that they might not if they just held onto the item. Here are a few 4th grade samples of this part of the routine.

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The next part of the routine is to make a list of the parts of the item. We spent some time discussing that it was important that you list all of the parts, but that you did not need to know the technical names for all of the parts and could feel free to make up names that made sense to you. Here’s a sample of a list of parts (from a student working with a screw.)

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Following the examination of the parts, students copied their lists into the next section of the routine — purposes. Then, for each part, students had to describe what they thought the purpose of that particular part was. Here are a couple samples, from students describing a bottle of Elmer’s glue and a hot glue gun.

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The final step of the routine was the one that pushed my engineers’ thinking the most — identifying the complexities of their item. I defined complexities as the ways in which  the parts work together, specific functions of the item that require multiple parts, or other items that were considered in the design (e.g. a stapler is designed to fit standard-sized staples.) Below are two samples — one from a student describing complexities of a syringe and one from a student examining scissors.

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Overall, this routine was a great way to get my students thinking like designers and hopefully has started to spur their curiosity about and recognition of the parts, purposes, and complexities of the millions of objects that surround them.

If you’d like to try this activity with your students, you can grab a copy of the handout I gave to students here.

Teaching Teamwork: Broken Squares



Much of the work that my students will be doing in STEM class this year will require them to work collaboratively with their peers. Working in groups is challenging for many students (and adults!) and, like most things, practice does lead to improved performance. However, as many people (myself included) with past negative groupwork experiences will tell you, simply grouping students and telling them work together does not always lead to effective outcomes or equal contributions.

Last year, I read a wonderful book all about facilitating improved collaborative experiences called Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom (Cohen & Lotan). [More about the Book] While the book covers many aspects of designing purposeful groupwork, my biggest aha! from the text was the suggestion to conduct explicit “groupwork training exercises” with students. While I often required my second graders to work in groups to complete tasks and assignments, I realized that I was just throwing the students together, providing a few platitudes about how to get along, and then expecting them to know how to work as a group. Cohen and Lotan argue that, far too often, this is the norm in our classrooms — we expect that students will know how to work together when, in fact, they have never been shown or taught what that entails.

One of the training exercises that the authors suggest is called “Broken Squares.” Here’s how it works. Teams are made — I’ve found that groups of three or four work best — and each team member receives an envelope. Inside the envelopes are a variety of puzzle pieces. When these pieces are combined with those of their teammates, they make a set of squares.

Envelopes prepared for a group of three.

Sounds pretty simple, right? Two rules take this task from one that could be dominated by one member of the team to an activity that (literally) requires all hands on deck. First, no one may speak during the duration of the activity. Second, the only pieces you can touch are your own. Taken together, these two caveats require students to come up with diverse ways to communicate and ensure that everyone needs to participate in order to be successful.



I’m currently using this task with my three classes of third graders and finding that it’s just the right amount of challenge for them. This is the fourth time that I’ve done this task (I’ve also used it with 2nd graders and 4th & 5th graders) and I find that, despite being a pretty simple task, it never fails to fully engage the student participants. A hush will fall over the classroom, punctuated only by gasps of excitement as a first square is successfully created. This has, thus far, held true even in very boisterous, outgoing groups.

Following our completion of the activity, we spend some time debriefing the task and discussing its connection to teamwork. I’ve used the following questions to help prompt my students to share their thoughts on the activity:

  • How did your group go about solving the puzzles?
  • What was challenging about this activity?
  • What strategies did your group use that helped you make progress?
  • What does this task teach us about effective teamwork?
  • What did you learn in this activity that you might use the next time you work in a group?

Interested in trying “Broken Squares” with your learners? You can use the link here to get more information and access to the templates I used for my square sets ( This link also contains another activity — “Broken Circles” — that is the same task, but uses circles instead of squares and which I’ve found a bit easier for younger learners.

Teacher Tips:
I copied my “Broken Square” templates onto cardstock and used a different color for each complete set. This makes all the difference when you find a stray puzzle piece while you’re cleaning up!

When preparing for the task, don’t agonize over how to divide up the pieces — just make sure that no participant can create a complete square from their set of pieces.

First Activities: STEM Mystery Bags


I wanted to pursue an open-ended task to kick the year off with my sixth graders, so I created STEM mystery bags. Preparing this task was simple —  I rummaged through my storage closets, compiled a random assortment of objects, and tossed them into grocery bags. I chose to use the same starter materials for each bag, but this activity could also work by creating unique bags of items. After an introductory name game, my students broke into small groups, selected a bag, and were prompted to “make something.” In addition to the items shown in the photograph above, my students were allowed to select two additional materials from our Maker Station, which gave them a chance to access and learn about the potential materials that they’ll be incorporating into their projects all year long.

Observing the students working gave me some initial insights into which students are drawn to one another, as well as the class-wide comfort level with ambiguity and open-ended tasks (e.g. students asking, “What are the requirements for the final product?” or “Can we use the materials in any way we want?” versus students being completely comfortable cutting up or taking items apart to meet a group-determined objective.) Best of all, this activity was a perfect illumination of our first STEM class principle — “Imagine Possibilities.” In our concluding gallery walk, we focused on and discussed the wide range of products created by groups starting with the same initial materials.

Here are some photographs that illustrate some of that variety.

Framing Learning in STEM Class

My new position as a STEM teacher is everything that I’ve always wanted — open and flexible, with ample opportunities to infuse creativity into the classroom. All summer, I’ve been working on creating a developmental progression of where I want students to be in their learning after each year that they’ll spend with me, from Pre-K to 8th grade. For weeks, I spun my wheels without getting much traction.

Despite having a steady stream of ideas about activities and projects, I eventually realized that what was lacking was an organizational frame, some specific capacities and skills that would function as the overarching goals for all of our work in STEM class. Fortunately, I’ve been immersing myself in reading about making and STEM all summer and, in Maker-Based Learning: Empowering Young People to Shape Their Worlds (Clapp, Ross, Ryan, & Tishman; 2016), I finally found the framework for which I’d been waiting.

Maker-Based Learning is a book born of work done by the Agency by Design working group at Harvard’s Project Zero. Throughout the book, the concept of maker empowerment is presented as an overarching goal of maker-based learning. The authors define maker empowerment as “A sensitivity to the designed dimensions of objects and systems, along with the inclination and capacity to shape one’s world through building, tinkering, re/designing, or hacking” (p. 98). In other words, students who are empowered as makers recognize the designed nature of our world, see objects and systems around them as malleable, and believe that they can act as Makers upon their world. This is exactly what I want for my learners and what I couldn’t articulate myself.

Clapp et al. argue that the necessary steppingstone to maker empowerment is developing a “sensitivity to design” and then offer a set of three capacities that help facilitate this sensitivity — looking closely, exploring complexities, and finding opportunities. Here’s a graphic from the Agency By Design website that explains each of these capacities.

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After encountering this framework and coupling it with Engineering Design ideas from the Next Generation Science Standards, my developmental progression almost wrote itself. I was able to clearly picture what I want a kindergartener to be able to do in terms of looking closely versus what I want a sixth grader to be able to accomplish in that domain. What excites me most is the way that these capacities offer opportunities for noticing growth — while “maker empowerment” or “sensitivity to design” feel dauntingly broad for someone who has to note student progress, these three, interrelated skills are things that I can clearly monitor as I capture and document student work.

Perhaps most significantly, finding a framework closely linked to my overarching goals for my STEM class will help me keep my focus more panoramic, rather than zoomed in on one project at a time — hopefully yielding alignment between my end goals for my students and the activities transpiring in our classroom each day.

As Julianne Wurm writes in Working the Reggio Way (2005): “It is not a question of right or wrong answers, but of determining what you really believe about children and education, and then making sure that all of the millions of decisions you make as you work with children reflect that vision to the best of your capacity” (p. 13).

The Benefits and Pitfalls of Themes

2017-05-13-07-51-11-900x675When I was teaching second grade, I would always use themes to organize our learning activities. Over the years in my classroom, we studied bees, trees, inventions, holidays around the world, advertising/media literacy, robots, and Antarctica. These themes helped my students by providing multiple exposures to vocabulary, content, and ideas as we explored our topic across different subject areas.

As I think about my new role, I’m contemplating what themes might offer to a STEM classroom. Specifically, I’m wondering whether to pursue a whole-school theme, a theme for each group of learners, or to forgo a theme altogether. Here’s a bit of my thinking about the benefits and pitfalls of themes in a Makerspace/engineering setting.

Benefits of Themes:

  • Help learners make connections and introduce them to important ideas they may not encounter on their own
  • Offer increased cohesion between projects tackled by different students
  • Provide a jumping-off point for learners who may not respond well to a completely blank slate
  • Help stimulate observations and conversations about projects between different groups of learners
  • Connect learning and making to the real world

Pitfalls of Themes:

  • Can be constricting if too narrow — students may not be able to find an entry point into the theme that relates to their interests
  • May prevent students from stumbling onto other ideas or content of interest through natural pursuit of their own ideas
  • More likely to lead to students trying to create products to meet a perceived expectation instead of considering what they want to make

As I consider my role as a teacher of students in Pre-K to 8th grade, I am drawn to the idea of having a whole-school theme, as learners in different sections of STEM class could witness the thinking and creating done by others thinking about a similar topic. I am also particularly interested in the potential of the authentic audiences that a theme would create — students would be able to design products to be shared with another group of learners. A theme could also streamline my content delivery and help spark a common conversation that could happen across groups of learners, rather than every group doing something wholly different.

To me, the linchpin of a theme’s success in a setting that aims to foster creativity and innovation is flexibility. I want my theme to be a source of inspiration for my students to dwell in possibilities, rather than a restrictive block to their thinking. Naturally, this leads me to think that broad themes would be best — presently, I am leaning towards Sustainable Planet, Inventions, or Robotics. I would love to hear suggestions of other themes!


Providing Autonomy in the “4 Ts”

Greetings! I’m writing after the second day of a new approach to structuring our mornings in the classroom to be more autonomous and am feeling that mixed bag of emotions that comes along with trying out something new — excitement, uncertainty, confusion, frustration. I’ll share more about the specific changes that I’m making in a future post, once I’ve had more time to observe my Curious Questioners and to reflect on what’s working and what isn’t.

In my last post, I wrote about the research that supports shifting classroom practices to provide students with as much autonomy as possible in the classroom. Specifically, I cited Daniel Pink’s theory about the four components of what he called “Motivation 2.0” — providing autonomy over time, task, technique, and team (Drive, 2009). Today, I’m going to offer some suggestions for small, medium, and large steps that educators may be able to make to provide students with enhanced opportunities for classroom autonomy.


Giving students autonomy over time involves allowing them to have more say over what they do when and how much time they spend on particular tasks.

Small Step: Let students have some input in the schedule of your day. Have a discussion with your students about your daily classroom schedule and find out from them what they think is working and what they might like to try altering. One year, my students told me that they’d like to do math first thing in the morning. After making the change, I got far greater engagement during our math activities.

Medium Step: Engage students with tasks designed to last multiple work periods, with parts that can be completed flexibly. Giving students a multi-part assignment with components that can be completed in any order allows students to create a plan for completing the task and the freedom to organize their learning and work in a way that makes the most sense to them.

Large Step: Create a flexible work period, where students are given multiple assignments and a larger chunk of work time in which to complete them. These type of work periods are common in the Montessori approach to education and provide authentic opportunities for students to make decisions and to hone their time management skills. (This is the large change that I’m actively working on making in my own classroom.)


Giving students task autonomy involves allowing them to make choices about the learning activities in which they’ll be engaging.

Small Step: Give students a 15-minute free period each day to spend on anything that they can relate to learning. Observe students during this time to see what tasks they gravitate towards. I call this time “independent learning time” in my classroom. You can read more about ILT here.

Medium Step: Create two (or more!) different tasks that cover the same learning topic or goal and give students a choice about which one to complete.

Large Step: Have a conversation with your students about a specific learning goal. Explain what learners would need to do to demonstrate their understanding of the concept or skill and offer some suggestions about activities students might do to “show what they know.” Allow students to choose one of your suggestions or to create their own idea for a product or task they can complete to share their learning with you.


Providing students with autonomy in terms of technique involves defining a clear objective, but leaving room for students to develop their own way of getting there.

Small Step: Give students the freedom to choose their own art supplies and materials to complete tasks and assignments. I’ve long been a proponent of allowing students to write with whatever tool they’d like — if I’ve got them happily working on a learning task, I don’t need to control what they write with! (I do work with them on recognizing how to make smart decisions about what to use for specific learning tasks.)

Medium Step: Offer students an open-ended task that allows students to show their thinking in more than one way. A simple example: Draw or write about what you think what happen next in the story. A more complicated example: Using a single piece of paper, share with me what you know about nonfiction books. Math problems can also be a great opportunity to open up the possibility of using multiple techniques — manipulatives, drawing a picture, abstract representation, etc.

Large Step: Begin highlighting student work that is “outside the box.” Discuss how using different techniques makes learning more interesting and allows us to learn more from each other. Celebrate creativity and make sharing different techniques and strategies a part of your classroom culture. This will expand your students’ toolkits and ideas about the many possibilities for approaching a learning task.


Offering team autonomy involves letting students make choices about how they work — individually, with a partner, or in a small team. It can also mean letting students create self-chosen groups.

Small Step: Open up the possibility of students working together on a task. A lot of research indicates that when students work with others, everyone’s performance is ultimately enhanced. Even if students weaker in a particular area rely heavily on their partners in the beginning, having a peer explain concepts can be more effective than listening to the teacher explain something again.

Medium Step: Create “working together” spaces in your classroom. Set up an area where students can voluntarily go if they are seeking an opportunity to collaborate with a peer. Discuss this space with the students and have them provide input about how this space should function.

Large Step: Allow students to design a team project to address a learning goal. Have students come up with a proposal, a plan, and roles. They should also be able to articulate how they’ll demonstrate what they know as individuals and as a team.

*For more about creating effective groups in the classroom, I highly recommend the book Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogenous Classroom by Cohen & Lohan. Available here.

Beginning to make small changes in your classroom practice in even one of these areas will create a path towards greater autonomy for your students. Let me know if you try out any of these changes or if you have other suggestions for increasing autonomy in the classroom.