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4 ways to engage kids in STEM, straight from Design2Learn classrooms

Emma Banay

Emma Banay is the Design2Learn Program Manager at ExpandED Schools.

IS 30 partners with NIA Community Services Network to expand learning—and fun!—for these young scientists.

Does your program struggle to keep students interested and engaged in STEM activities? Community educators at a recent STEM training shared that they needed “more of a hook to involve students and keep them engaged” and that they found students disengaged “if they do not find the content relevant to them.” Some sites also shared that, unfortunately, some kids “don’t like science or think it is boring, so they shut down even before” the lesson can begin.

Sound familiar?  

Tackling this challenge is at the heart of Design2Learn, whose mission is to determine whether extra time + collaboration between classroom and after school + design-based learning improve student engagement and achievement in STEM subjects.

Stack 'em up! This "Textbook Challenge" is a fun way for kids to try out their engineering skills, building a structure strong enough to take more and more weight. 

In response to this challenge, Design2Learn educators have been working hard to boost students’ interest and engagement in STEM by using strategies that promote participation, youth voice, relevance and positive relationships in their activities. How do these strategies spark STEM interest? See these tried-and-true approaches, straight from Design2Learn classrooms:

  • Participation. You can spur high levels of participation with fun, high-stakes testing like IS 30/NIA. This site challenged students to design a “soft landing” system that would protect a raw egg from breaking. The catch? You break it, you clean it up! Kids were excited to test their designs with a real egg and took the engineering design process even more seriously to avoid clean-up duty.
  • Youth Voice. Disappointed by students disengaging during STEM lessons, the educator team at Entrada Academy/East Side House Settlement passed out a survey asking students what activities and topics they’d be excited to explore in Design2Learn. Now educators are using the survey results to plan activities for the rest of the year, like the “Textbook Challenge.” In this activity, students were challenged to build a table out of just paper and tape to support one textbook. Students took the challenge and ran with it: the winning group held up a whopping 33 textbooks! Honoring students’ interests and ideas allows them to shape the activity and feel a sense of responsibility and ownership. 

  • Relevance. Activities become more relevant to students when they connect to students’ own lives, cultures and interests. At IS 109/Global Kids, students designed water filters after learning about the Flint, MI water crisis and contamination at some NYC schools. Try picking activities that you know will connect with students’ broader lives, or—better yet—ask them what issues, interests, or topics from their own lives they’d been interested in exploring in a STEM activity.

  • Positive Relationships. Another way to boost student engagement in STEM activities is by making those activities a fun and positive place to be. Warm relationships among students and between students and educators makes a safe environment where students are more willing to take risks, engage with material, and explore their interests. Highland Park Community School/Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation explicitly promoted teamwork skills, giving students a “teamwork checklist” to complete as part of their design challenge. Students had to create and test and popsicle-stick bridge and convince their educators that their team demonstrated the teamwork skills on their checklist.


Tried something similar at your site?  Have another strategy you’d recommend?  Share in the comments!



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