Have you ever wondered how to craft the perfect engaging STEM experience for children? In this article, I will outline the steps for you to make your own creative programs, whether it be an online, local, or international initiative.
On April 25th, I presented at the FIRST Detroit World Championship for a second time. Since many of my fellow STEM fanatics could not attend the conference and have been asking for my Powerpoint slides, I decided to post an in-depth article covering the content that my presentation did instead so that many could refer to it and hopefully benefit from it. This content is geared towards STEM educators and mentors, especially those on a high school robotics team who want to promote STEM to young people.
I am an 18-year-old STEM educator, roboticist, and entrepreneur. Last year, I graduated from Troy High School and was a student on FRC Team 4384. Now, I am taking a gap year and mentoring over 30 robotics teams. If you'd like to learn more about what I've been up to, check out this fantastic article by Fabbaloo.
This article is the second part of a two-part series. The first article outlines how to determine your goals as a team as well as my own STEM educational projects. This article focuses on content development and planning strategies. Read the first article here.
Idea Conceptualization: Let's Brainstorm
In part one we learned about developing our goals. Using our goals, we can come up with stronger content ideas.
To brainstorm, hold a meeting with your team and discuss ideas by using a whiteboard and physically drawing out concepts. If your team does not have a lot of physical time together, consider starting a Word Document so that you can add ideas live. If you still don't know what to start with, do a community survey or ask school faculty. Your community knows what it wants.
Many great ideas come from solving a problem that you see in your community. For example, I funded every single program that I started (mentioned in Part 1). This is extremely expensive. Being able to afford my teaching tools was a huge motivation behind Every Kid Gets a Robot and my STEAM books.
Other great ideas come from improving upon something that you've seen others do. For example, when you search STEM coloring sheets, old white male scientists are often the first results to pop up. Through The STEAM Connection, I wanted to develop a diverse alternative that would benefit my audience and give them the representation that they deserve.
To go back to the goal examples I provided in Part 1, here are example outreach ideas to go along with them and get the idea ball rolling:
Engage every learner, every day: post lessons online, teach drop-in classes every day
Prioritize creative thinking: engineering drawing club, architecture field trip
Teach readily usable technology skills: take apart appliances, computer skills class
Introduce kids to STEM: students drive the robot day, STEM awareness poster for school
Promote girls in STEM: Barbie STEM night, social media campaign
Provide free STEM education for community: publish own content, partner with companies to host an event
Promote future engineers: advanced STEM skills class, partner with engineering students
Inspire kids to pursue a secondary education: college prep skills, partner with colleges to speak to students
Considering your Audience
Sometimes what looks good on paper isn't actually that great. Once, during Benzene Buddies, I taught a class for 1st-5th grade students on Python programming. I thought it would be fun, but it did not go as planned. In hindsight, the lesson was not age appropriate. Had I understood my audience better, this wouldn't have happened. So, how can we avoid occurrences like this in the future?
Learn about your audience before you start a lesson plan. Know how long their attention span is, how to best teach them safety skills, etc. Understand developmental age specifics and discuss with local teachers and educators that specialize in the age group that you plan on working with. Run your ideas by them.
Has your audience learned about the content that you want to teach? This point is especially important for me because I was homeschooled up until the middle of Sophomore year of high school and I don't know what young kids have already learned. Asking educators has saved me a lot of trouble. While developing my books for The STEAM Connection, I worked very closely with teachers and students to ensure that the content was engaging and age appropriate.
Tips for making your activities more successful:
Digital content: Pay attention to your insights and determine who your main audience is. Most social media platforms have valuable insights that you can access, especially Instagram through its business account insights. Think about what you want to achieve. Do you want to spread awareness for STEM or an issue in STEM? Do you want to provide resources for others? Do you want to network with others? Determine your goals and led that drive your online content. Pay attention to what your demographic is looking at currently and try to cater to that to increase interest.
Online content: Know when major testing dates are for students so that your activity does not coincide on those dates. If possible, implement diverse event/activity volunteers to inspire participants and provide more role models. If providing food, ask for allergies on a form! Consider religious diets as well. I have brought my students to countless events where they were not able to eat much of the food. To better remember important materials and help with emailing directions to participants, have a floor plan of where your event will take place.
General content: If your content focus is technical, utilize experienced people, especially if you don't understand a topic. Lesson planning will be so much easier with an in-depth understanding of the topic. Look for mentors in administration, education, and marketing to increase event success. If you must buy technical materials for your event, ask around for the best websites and specifics on what to order if that isn't your background or strength.
To develop better events, ask for feedback. Your audience will know what works and what doesn't, so offer feedback forms and listen to your community through both online comments and physically.
Location: It Doesn't have to be Local
STEM outreach doesn't have to be local or even physical. Think outside of the box by posting on social media, starting a newsletter, connecting to others internationally, developing a curriculum, recording a podcast, or creating an app to spread your STEM message.
The possibilities are endless, and that can be a bit mind-boggling! To choose what best suits your STEM message focus on your goals first. For example, if your goal is to spread awareness of STEM for girls, a social media campaign may be best to achieve that. If your goal is to teach readily usable technology skills to kids consider putting on a computer skills webinar, posting information online of good YouTube videos to learn at home, or hosting a physical class to be hands-on with your audience.
Online content is more flexible, time-wise. You don't need a free weekend to work on your social media campaign, and you could do it anywhere. Additionally, skillets are important to consider. Do you have many members who are editors? Focus on video content. Do you have many programmers? Publish an app! Use your content as learning opportunities for everyone involved. Use it not only as a teaching experience for your audience but for those putting on the event as well... especially students.
International outreach is hard to do well, or thoroughly. If an international focus doesn't inherently align with your goals, consider local or national help first. There are many around you locally who need help! Understand the culture of the other country before you offer to help and work with team members who have an international connection to be more sensitive and helpful. Instead of assuming what your international audience needs, ask them! They know what they need help with.
For a social media content example, for a robotics team, I posted a campaign called the Benzene Week of Christmas. I uploaded new downloadable content and resources every single day for the week leading up to Christmas day. I posted STEM flashcards I developed, a robotics coloring sheet, Christmas cards, and more.
Whenever I travel, I try to do something for someone else. At SOLIDWORKS World 2019, I visited the Dallas Children's Health Center and brought my books. I was able to instill this ideal on many of my students. Encouraging an organization to value a goal or mentality in their free time is also a way of doing something to contribute to the group and its outreach goals.
What's Manageable... and what Isn't: Prioritizing
Time management: Plan activities in advance and have project milestones. Prioritize what best suits your goals. Back to back to back outreach events are often too much for both students and mentors and don't promote quality > quantity. To best plan events, learn about team members significant commitments to not overwork members. If work becomes too much as a primary outreach event activity planner, delegate to others in your organization.
Although extremely simple in structure, this format is helpful for activity planning and is something that many teams do.
Student oversight: Oversee outside student communication, especially direct messages and emails to ensure that content remains appropriate. Keep meticulous financial records. While students getting supplies is awesome and should be encouraged, don't let it get out of hand by making sure that your funds are going to the right places.
Start small with new students by having them work on paperwork and volunteer at events before they start putting on their own events and activities. Pay attention to who is doing a good job and reward them with more responsibility.
Teaching kids: Pair new and uncomfortable students with experienced team members when instructing children. If you're putting on an event for elementary aged kids and younger, involve older students by letting them assist or come up with some ideas. Engaging a wide variety of ages increases interest and involvement.
Regarding child safety, do background checks on adult volunteers or ensure that they're a FIRST registered volunteer. Get consent forms and photo releases signed by parents so that you ensure the parent is aware of what activities you are planning and that you are allowed to use the photos that you take. However, ask a child before you photograph them. Even young children know whether or not they want to have pictures taken of them or not.
Cost considerations: Physical events tend to be expensive, especially if you don't have a sponsor covering the cost for the event. Room rental can cost a fortune, even if you are a nonprofit. Online events are less expensive, so think about if your class needs to be taught in person or if a Webinar would work as well. Technical equipment is expensive, no matter what platform you're utilizing, so ask others for help to get the resources that you need for as low of a cost as possible.
I hope that this was helpful for your future STEM educational content development. Please leave any suggestions or tips in the comments below and credit me if you repost or share this information!
Stay tuned for an upcoming article on STEM resources that I utilize for my educational programs!
If you would like further help with your team or your content, contact firstname.lastname@example.org for individualized assistance.