Integrating STEM in your classroom using the “Grand Challenges for Engineering”

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What is STEM, and why should I be teaching it?

STEM education has been gaining momentum since the turn of the millennium, largely because of the pace of technological advances and the rapidly changing job market that requires workers to be equipped with 21st Century Skills. These skills are frequently summarized to:

  • Critical thinking
  • Creativity
  • Collaboration
  • Communication, information, and media literacy
  • Computing and ICT literacy
  • Cross-cultural understanding
  • Career and learning self-reliance

Learning these skills is critical to being an employable adult in an increasingly technological society that values competency and critical thinking as highly transferable skills

STEM education is not simply focusing on the individual disciplines as the only avenue of success. It is teaching how the disciplines are integrated into a vast majority of real-world situations and how being proficient in the problem-solving processes inherent to science and engineering can result in a large variety of career pursuits. 

STEM education can also look very different from class to class and can be implemented in a variety of ways. Some courses are more student-centered. Others stick to more traditional teaching methods, and some use different learning models. 

No matter your approach, this guide will help give you ideas about how to integrate STEM throughout your lessons and curriculum and help you address the critical skills that your students will need to be successful in the future.

The Grand Challenges for Engineering and STEM

The Grand Challenges for Engineering are a series of 14 problems that are common across the globe. They are varied in subject matter, which can make it very easy for almost every student in your classroom to address one that they are interested in (if not many of them!). 

They were developed by a panel of international scientists and engineers at the request of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering in order to unite the world in solving some of the world’s most pressing and critical problems, which means that they mesh nicely in addressing 21st Century Skills. Addressing these challenges is a great way to encourage students to see how STEM is integrated into the fabric of the real world outside of the classroom.

The Grand Challenges are:

  • Make solar energy economical
  • Provide energy from fusion
  • Develop carbon sequestration methods
  • Manage the nitrogen cycle
  • Provide access to clean water
  • Restore and improve urban infrastructure
  • Advance health informatics
  • Engineer better medicines
  • Reverse-engineer the brain
  • Prevent nuclear terror
  • Secure cyberspace
  • Enhance virtual reality
  • Advance personalized learning
  • Engineer the tools of scientific discovery

These challenges are further categorized into four cross-cutting themes: Sustainability, Health, Security, and Joy of Living. These broad themes can make it a lot easier for you to integrate STEM into your lessons and classroom while still hitting the standards you are responsible for teaching, and without adding a lot of extra work to your plate. 

In the next section, we will discuss strategies and ideas for integrating them into your specific subject area.

Integrating STEM and the Grand Challenges for Engineering

In order to integrate STEM into your classroom, you must first set a focal point for your instruction, which is why we introduced the Grand Challenges for Engineering. In classrooms with more student choice, this will allow students to focus on problem-solving in areas they are interested in. In classes that have more specific applications of STEM skills, you can still tie the application of those skills back to very real-world problems and issues.

Whatever your environment, make sure that you set expectations at the beginning of your course that you will be addressing and teaching these challenges. Your introductory lesson/first class, where you set classroom rules and expectations and get to know your students, is a wonderful opportunity to introduce them to the Grand Challenges and get them talking about what interests them as related to the challenges. 

This can really help address the “well, when am I ever gonna use this” questions that inevitably are thrown towards educators at some point during a course. Each of the Grand Challenges is strongly rooted in the real world and are real, existing problems that many students are already familiar with.

Online asynchronous vs. in-person

Learning environments can make integrating STEM a difficult challenge depending on a teacher’s teaching style, student learning style, and materials available.

Hands-on STEM education can be especially challenging in asynchronous or largely online learning approaches (but here are some best practices about how to maximize learning for those types of environments). 

In-person learning easily lends itself to more flexible day-to-day planning regarding in-class pacing and content, and teachers are able to give more direct feedback to students in an efficient manner, but students frequently can not choose when or how to do assignments; choice can become limited. 

Online learning environments have more flexibility in how students can pace themselves given a set amount of time and content that they must complete. However, it can suffer from a lack of quick feedback loops that students can often benefit from in traditional classroom settings. 

In order to help take advantage of the strengths and address some of the weaknesses of these settings, try following these guidelines:

  • In-Person settings: 
    • Introduce the Grand Challenges on the first day of class, and have students discuss some of the real-world challenges that intertwine with their interests.
      • Hold a vote to determine a challenge or set of challenges that you can design assignments around if there is enough consensus.
    • Provide opportunities for students to read, watch, or produce content related to the challenges they are interested in.
    • Use classroom discussions and lectures as opportunities to tie back to the challenges, and have students pose ideas about how they could address challenges differently once they have learned or mastered new things. 
      • Use the information you gather to help tailor assignments to students’ interests and growth areas.
  • Online Asynchronous settings:
    • Create an introduction assignment that introduces students to the challenges, and have them post in discussion boards about where their interests lie. 
      • Have the students pick three challenges after participating in the discussion board assignment that they will use as topic areas for any written/short-answer assignments.
        • Make sure you include questions, items, or assignments that allow students to refer back to how what they have learned relates to solving real-world problems by way of one of their grand challenges.
    • At critical intervals in the pacing of your course, consider adding a writing assignment or another discussion board assignment that allows students to talk freely about how what they are learning is connected to the challenges.

STEM subjects

STEM subjects are generally the easiest to integrate because they allow teachers to match content to Grand Challenges that are tied to the standards of the course fairly easily. 

For example, the Grand Challenge of Improve Carbon Sequestration can easily be tied to biology standards of the carbon cycle without much alteration.

While you can certainly do any or all of the things mentioned in the guidelines for online or in-person settings, consider taking it to the next level with this approach:

  • The capstone course
    • As mentioned previously, introduce the Grand Challenges at the outset of class, and use every opportunity to tie back to them as you teach the standards of the course. Continuously ask students to think about how to address the problems in the world with the knowledge they are gaining.
    • As you progress in the course and students start to gain comfort with how you are consistently bringing up the challenges, ask which Grand Challenge they are passionate about. Help cultivate that interest by allowing them to, whenever possible, complete assignments in ways that address their challenge of choice.
    • As a final assignment, have students propose a method for addressing their challenge of choice by either writing a research paper, actually performing experiments or developing prototypes, creating media, or other types of deliverables that demonstrate the student’s understanding of their chosen challenge within the context of both the course content and the world at large, and give them a chance to display their critical thinking, creativity, communication, information, and media literacy skills.

The arts

STEM has also transformed into STEAM (adding the A for Arts) in many different circles, and this is an opportunity to do just that if you are a teacher in the Arts. Keep in mind that you want to keep it present throughout the entirety of your course rather than just a one-off lesson– seamless integration as if it is by design, and of course, it is! Here are some ideas:

  • If teaching drama or theater, remember that many current and historical pieces have ties to many of the challenges (sometimes older versions of them), and encourage students to discuss and pose questions about how those problems have been solved historically or how the characters in those plays or pieces of literature tried to solve problems or how they could have solved them. This helps them develop the collaborative problem solving and critical thinking skills that employers desire when selecting employees for a team role.
  • When teaching art in any medium, encourage students to create with the Grand Challenges in mind, and remind them that building awareness around problems and issues is a great way to bring the world together to help find solutions.
  • When teaching music, try connecting the content to the history or context in which the musical piece or theory was built around, and then encourage students to think about how music has been a medium that has helped address real-world problems, including many of the challenges, both in history and currently. 

Non-STEM Subjects

Educators that are outside of subjects that are traditionally seen as STEM content areas still have many opportunities to integrate STEM education and the Grand Challenges into their courses and lessons.

As explained earlier, it is important to address the Challenges and set expectations of tying assignments and content to them at the very beginning of the course. While some topics and assignments lean more clearly into addressing some Challenges over others, use your course content to tie back to them wherever possible. 

Most importantly, you will need to collaborate with other teachers or course designers to try and create that cross-curricular connection, and ensure that it is not your course that drops students out of focusing on the Grand Challenges. 

In environments where student cooperation is low or even largely impossible, just keep in mind that being consistent throughout the course from start to finish will allow you to keep students focused on how almost everything can be related to real-world problems and issues. Reiterate often that the content they are learning about will help them develop skills that have been historically or are currently used to address such problems.

Lesson Resources

Below are some handy resources and ready-to-go lesson plans for teachers that would like to get started integrating the Grand Challenges for Engineering into their curriculum and classrooms.

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Nikolas McGehee

Nikolas McGehee

Dr. Nikolas McGehee received his doctorate in Exceptional Learning and STEM Education from Tennessee Technological University. He has worked as a high school science teacher, university researcher, analyst, and project manager, as well as a STEM Education program manager. His professional career is focused upon improving educational processes and products by performing sound research and making data driven decisions.

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