Authentic STEM Projects: Learning with a Purpose

Problem-solving is the heart of STEM investigations, but not just any old problem will do.  STEM focuses on authentic projects that fuel students’ curiosity and investigative interests – problems that generate enthusiasm and a sense of empathy as kids engage in work that truly matters. Students might design and create solutions to make a product safer or more cost-effective. They might design a way to minimize some type of damage to their local environment. They might work on a solution for a health concern or an accessibility issue. And as they work together, they realize that content they learn in class has actual applications.

Criteria for Choosing Authentic STEM Problems

Identifying real-world problems that students can understand and design solutions for may be one of the most challenging parts of creating a project. Here are a few tips you might consider as you choose or develop a STEM project:


  • Be sure that the problem is authentic. It must be grounded in issues that affect people’s lives and communities. If you come across a project that uses a make-believe scenario (space aliens, cartoon characters, imaginary animals, etc.), just pass it by and keep looking.


  • Keep the problem doable. This project should focus on problems that students can reasonably grapple with. Kids should come to the project with the knowledge and skill set they need to select and test solutions.


  • Make sure students can relate to the problem. They need to care about this issue. If students are unfamiliar with it, put the problem in context with videos, field trips, speakers, and so on.


  • Select problems that allow for multiple acceptable approaches and solutions. Don’t even consider a problem with a single, predetermined approach or a single “right” or “wrong” answer.


  • Choose a problem grounded in engineering. Remember that students will be using an engineering process to design and construct solutions for this problem. And, like engineers, they will work in teams to propose and create possible solutions.


Types of Authentic STEM Problems

What type of problem should your project tackle?  Start by checking your curriculum objectives. Consider whether the problem needs to synchronize with a specific set of math and/or science standards from the school system’s pacing guide. Once you decide what standards the project will address, you might look at two categories of problems – local and global.

Local problems.  Invite community members to post local problems to a school or class online location; or, they could send suggestions in writing directly to students for the “community STEM project.” Check out Brookwood’s 3D Design Problem Bank Project to get an idea of how one school successfully determined local problems. Involving your community in this project will pay big dividends.

Your students can also identify local problems. These can range anywhere from issues that affect them personally to having students explore their school and community for problems that need solutions.

Global Problems. For a broader look at authentic problems facing our world, look at the National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenges. This site features some game-changing goals for improving life on our planet. These goals fall into four categories that kids can relate to and that also dovetails with most school science objectives: Sustainability, Health, Security, and Joy of Living. Here are some of my students’ favorites from those categories:

  • Economical solar energy. This area involves capturing the sun’s energy, converting it to useful forms, and storing it for use.


  • Access to clean water. In this category, students might focus on developing a way to purify recycled water; or they might set out to design a method to reduce water usage and waste.


  • Health and medicines. This area involves improving the quality and efficiency of medical care, engineering better medicines, and responding to widespread health emergencies.


  • Environmental problems. These take on many different forms, from designing more efficient fertilizers to creating barriers to the erosion. Kids can work on problems involving oil spills, water pollution, air quality, endangered species, food shortages, and so on.


  • Urban Infrastructure. These fundamental systems that support our communities and regions include transportation systems, power grids, water and sewer systems, rail networks, and municipal structures.

You can find more information on these authentic STEM problems here.


By now, you may be wondering how students can tackle authentic solutions for such complex problems. Keep in mind that students’ solutions may not actually be implemented. Generally, they will brainstorm multiple possibilities; then design and test prototypes for solving the problem. (Engineers also develop prototypes before they construct the real thing.)


How to Find Authentic STEM problems

I’ve located some sites that help me come up with authentic problems. (You’ll find a couple of them in this post.) You probably have a list as well.  If not, type phrases such as “Authentic Engineering problems,” or “Authentic STEM problems,” or “Real-World STEM Problems” into a search engine. Choose carefully from the resources that pop up. Remember that everything labeled “STEM” is not necessarily a true STEM project. Also, remember that you are looking for engineering problems.


In Conclusion:

On Buck Institutes PBL Blog, Rich Lehrer writes:Students can design, create, and engineer effective solutions to problems. Powerful new technologies are allowing students to create and disseminate solutions to real life problems like never before.” Lehrer goes on to note that the key to true and purposeful change-making for kids is the power of the human experience - empathy, relationships, opportunities to improve, plus a sense that what they do has meaning and matters.

What will the students you teach be doing as young adults? How exciting to think that you have a place in preparing them with authentic skills, understandings, and mindsets for the future!

About the Author: 


Anne Jolly is a STEM consultant, MiddleWeb blogger, and online community organizer for the Center for Teaching Quality. She began her career as a middle school science teacher in Mobile County Schools in Alabama and is a former Alabama State Teacher of the Year. Anne has recently co-developed nationally recognized STEM curriculum with support from the National Science Foundation. She writes for a variety of publications. Her most recent book, STEM by Design, is published by Routledge Press. Find her regularly on Twitter @ajollygal, on her blog at MiddleWeb, and on her STEM by Design website.




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