All Articles Education Voice of the Educator When you enter a STEM competition, make sure your students are driving the bus

When you enter a STEM competition, make sure your students are driving the bus

Helping students get through glitches and stretch their skills is a rewarding part of shepherding them through a STEM competition. Corrie Christensen offers advice on doing it well.

7 min read

EducationVoice of the Educator

Stillwater Middle School 6th grade Science Teacher Corrie Christensen with her students for article on STEM competition

Stillwater Middle School students present their project to judge at the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow STEM competition. (Samsung Solve for Tomorrow)

Winning a national STEM competition taught me three principles teachers should follow to help maximize the learning experience for students while keeping educators from getting in the way.

Looking back to my childhood, it was clear I was destined to be a teacher. Cousins and I used to play “school” — and they still complain about the callouses they got from all the writing assignments I gave them. Growing up in Minnesota, I enjoyed the great outdoors. With a mineralogist father, supportive parents who encouraged my drive for education and knowledge, and pioneering environmental author Rachel Carson as my personal hero, it was only natural that I gravitated toward studying and teaching STEM as an extension of my curiosity.

Stillwater Middle School 6th grade Science Teacher Corrie Christensen with her students. (Samsung Solve for Tomorrow) for article on STEM competition
Stillwater Middle School 6th grade Science Teacher Corrie Christensen with her students. (Samsung Solve for Tomorrow)

Early in my career, I’d taught just about every subject and K-8 grade level. However, recalling my own childhood frustrations with middle school, I resolved 20 years ago to focus on improving middle-school STEM education.

All these paths aligned this past school year when I experienced a high point in my teaching career. My sixth-grade science class was inspired by the challenge the Solve for Tomorrow national STEM competition poses to students. It asks them to identify a pressing issue in their community and devise a STEM solution. 

The project — and results

Following their individual passions, they developed a prototype for new municipal streetlights that dramatically reduce light pollution that causes many deaths among the millions of migrating birds that cross our state each year. This was the first time our school had entered such a STEM competition. But going head-to-head against more experienced competitors – most of them older high-schoolers – our team not only placed as one of 10 national finalists who faced off in Washington D.C., but they won the competition’s 2024 Community Choice Award. All told, we won $60,000 in technology and classroom supplies.

How did we pull that off? First of all, if you’d been there in D.C., or even just watch the video of their presentation to the Solve judges, you’ll see how thoughtfully our students approached their community issue, how deeply they researched the subject and the passion they brought to creating a solution. Young and guileless as they clearly are, working on this problem and being energized by competing, they showed a maturity and confidence beyond their years while still remaining fun loving kids.

Three principles for guiding the students

Reflecting on their achievement, I think that in addition to those innate talents, the principles that guide how I as an educator approach working with these remarkable young people played an important role in our competition success. Three principles that all educators can follow are:

  1. Be OK with messy. While having everything in its place is often a useful organizing principle, nature doesn’t always work that way. In my classroom, as we worked on our Solve project, it would sometimes seem that nothing was happening. Then, suddenly, everything was happening all at the same time. Teachers need to be OK with that kind of disorder – it’s a flow that reflects how nature operates.
  2. Admit to your students – and to yourself – that you don’t know all the answers. That’s actually a good thing, as it encourages students to figure out answers for themselves. I know that can be hard, especially when teaching middle-schoolers. They want facts. They expect you to provide the answers and aren’t always happy when told, “You’ll have to figure it out.” However, as educators, our reward comes when they figure things out for themselves and get excited by their own, growing capabilities.
  3. Give the kids agency. Yes, an educator’s role is to provide guidance and inspiration. But in a STEM competition like Solve for Tomorrow, researching and seeking information and perspectives is an important part of the learning process. I have my students write their own letters and emails to outside experts and local officials. Middle-schoolers are still developing their writing skills, but their passion for a subject and their natural charm shines through in their heartfelt prose. And it was incredibly rewarding for our team to receive replies, attention and solid advice from outside sources, including a leading birding expert, and from meetings with the city of Stillwater’s mayor and chief municipal engineer.

Adjust for what doesn’t work well

Stillwater Middle School students prepare their STEM solution to tackle light pollution for article on STEM competition
Stillwater Middle School students prepare their STEM solution to tackle light pollution. (Samsung Solve for Tomorrow)

At the same time, it’s vital to acknowledge what doesn’t work so well. While I advocate for inclusivity, it became clear a team can get too large. Starting with a STEM competition team of 30-plus pupils added challenges in managing such a complex project. It’s hard for everyone in large groups to feel involved and appreciated. Our project was highly complex, with multiple threads being researched and pursued: learning about birds, conceptualizing different light sources, exploring how to build lamps, and understanding how infrastructure is designed and deployed. 

When the team as a whole was focusing its overall efforts around specific actions to advance the project, some students would feel that “nobody’s listening to my ideas.” To move forward, we needed a lot of restorative conversations with students whose concepts would have been hard to practically execute and/or didn’t fit with where the team was heading. For example, one student was deeply committed to pursuing the brilliant (pardon the pun) idea to genetically alter trees to be bioluminescent and replace streetlights.

I addressed this by breaking the team into smaller subgroups, each organized around a common point of research or work that matched their individual passions and interests. Birders formed one group, engineers another, students interested in design a third, etc. It was my job to drive that organizational structure and make sure all the subgroups kept working toward the common goal.

Creating digital surveys became a go-to tool that I used to spark ideas and help find out what students are passionate about. By offering a range of choices and getting each student to focus on what was most important in their eyes, we were able to fine-tune our project groups and make key adjustments to aspects of our solution.

Reinforce education through community involvement

U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (center) with Stillwater Middle School teacher Corrie Christensen (left) and students for article on STEM competition
US Sen. Amy Klobuchar, center, with Stillwater Middle School teacher Corrie Christensen, left, and students (Samsung Solve for Tomorrow)

Something else was reinforced by our work and our win: our faith in our community and in its support for education and students. That extended from the local officials and experts who helped our team realize their STEM solution; to the schoolmates, administrators and families who led the drive for votes in support of our Community Choice candidacy; to the congratulations that have showered our team, including having both our US senators — Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith — attend the D.C. festivities and honor our team. That support goes well beyond our state’s signature “Minnesota Nice” and is something that will continue to inspire our team members in the future.

For me personally, as a STEM enthusiast and educator, this journey has also given new meaning to a favorite bit of advice from a favorite scientist, Albert Einstein: “The important thing is not to stop questioning.”

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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