STEM Challenges in the Primary Classroom


Intimidation.  Time-consuming. Uncomfortable.  No, I’m not talking about returning from Spring Break.  These are just a few of the things that come to my mind when I hear STEM.  However, all of these feelings changed when I stumbled upon STEM Challenge Stories from Education to the Core.  

STEM is a hot topic in education and many schools are creating and implementing their curriculum around it.  Where does that leave educators like me that are uncomfortable with math and technology?  I am going to totally be honest with you for a moment. Avoidance! STEM Challenge Stories was a resource I stayed away from implementing in my classroom for a while.  I was truly intimidated by it.  Gosh, was I ever wrong!

I LOVE incorporating a book into any lesson!  Once I plan a lesson I am looking to pair it with a text.  Wait, a second… ETTC’s STEM Challenge Stories does this already?!?  I’m fully in.  I took the plunge.  Quite literally a plunge, because my students and I completed the STEM challenge: “A Boat That Floats”.   Be sure as you are learning more about this interactive and fun resource to check out some photos from my classroom with the lesson!  

Education to the Core – STEM Challenge Stories

The STEM Challenge Stories resource includes 25 STEM challenges to inspire and build a growth mindset among learners. Along with each hands-on STEM challenge, this resource includes storybook suggestions, classroom posters, teacher guides, and engaging student resources.  

These activities can be used in whole group, small group, or center activities.  Not only is it so adaptable to fit into any grouping, but these hands-on activities are also truly interactive!  The activity and interactive student books are geared to encourage students to learn and grow by following the design process throughout each challenge. 

How do STEM Challenge Stories Look in the Classroom?

The short answer to this question… HOWEVER, YOU WANT IT TO LOOK!   Yes, this resource is that adaptable to your classroom.  To any classroom.  However, let’s take a look at some different groupings. 

Whole Group Learning

The story recommendations included for each hands-on activity are perfect for whole group learning and a wonderful opportunity to inspire discussion around the lesson topic, build background knowledge, and allow students to share ideas.

There are question cards, an interactive poster, or an activity for each step of the design process. The whole group can work together through these activities to begin understanding and implementing the design process. 

In my classroom when I tried the “A Boat That Floats” challenge, I began in whole group.  Following the “Design Process”, we started with a broad question in the “ask” step.  Then we began to “brainstorm/imagine” some solutions with the materials presented.  Next, I had my students work independently.


Check out STEM Challenge Stories! 🎉 #educationtothecore #teacherlife #teacherthings #teachersoftiktok

♬ I want it I got it – 🧁Gianna, Lila, & Faith🧁

Independent Practice

As students work through the activities with a small or whole group, they have the opportunity to write their personal thoughts and ideas in their individual STEM Challenge books.

I wanted to make sure to have my first STEM challenge story experience special for my students.  So I had all my students create their own boats.  The next step of the “Design Process” was “Design”.  So that is exactly what my students did independently. By using various materials already in my classroom like tinfoil, cups, plates, straws, spoons, pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, cotton balls, pom poms my students drew and labeled their boats.  How it would look.  What each part was made of. We revisited what makes a good boat and were reminded that the goal was to see how many ‘counting bears’ their boat would hold.

I am a huge supporter of students working together, so naturally, I had my students get into small groups.  Since this activity focuses on different academic skills than just reading or just math, I allowed my students to choose their own groups**. 


 **This event comes with numerous conversations regarding choosing “wisely”.  Picking friends you know you will still work well with and not have ‘off-topic’ chats with.  

Small-Group Learning

Students will use the supplies for each STEM challenge to work through the design process and accomplish the task. Allowing students to work on challenges in a small group setting can build teamwork and cooperation skills.

Teamwork and cooperation skills?  Sign me up for STEM Story Challenges!  Alright, so far my students “Asked”, “Imagined”, “Planned”, now it is time to “Create”!  In small groups, my students had an opportunity to create and build their boats.  The next day, we needed to “Test” our boats!

Now, I like to think that I design and incorporate some fun activities, games, and ideas in most of my lessons.  However, I haven’t seen my students this excited in a long time!  They all crowded around me as I was filling up two large plastic storage containers with water.  Each calling out questions, taking guesses about how many bears their boats will hold.  More importantly, supporting their hypotheses with explanations of materials and methods of how they shaped and built their boats. 

The time has finally come, let’s test our boats!  Placing two boats in each of the containers, students were provided with a pile of counting bears as weights.  They counted as they placed their bears onto their boats.  Quite strategically.  Onlookers were cheering for each other, laughing, and being an amazing community together.  After all of our boats sank from increased weight, we returned to whole group to discuss openly one of the last steps of the Design Process, “Improve”.  How would you improve your boat if we did this activity again?  


Can your students complete our STEM challenges? 😏 #educationtothecore #STEM #teachersoftiktok #teacherlife

♬ Milkshake Showmusik Dance Mix – Showmusik Sounds

Family Components to STEM Challenge Stories

One of the last steps in the Design Process is to “Present”.  What better way to share and explain the concept of your lesson and the challenge than with their families?!

While STEM challenge stories are great to encourage teamwork within the classroom, they can also inspire teamwork at home. Consider sending some of the challenge activities home for families to work on together for a family project! Families can send in their completed projects or photos of their projects. Allowing students to present and share their family experiences with the class is an ideal time to practice and incorporate speaking and listening skills in the classroom!

Wait…There’s More!!!

Believe it or not, there is even more to this resource than a book recommendation and the challenge itself!  Each book selection includes a video link to view a read-aloud of the story online. 

If you do not have access to a hard copy of the read-aloud story, viewing the story online allows your students to make the connection between literacy and STEM. The video links can also be shared with families to view at home and encourage additional topic discussion.

Activities for the Classroom

Utilize the STEM challenge stories as a time to work on speaking and listening skills. As students complete their challenges, they will implement the “present” step of the design process and share their creations with their classmates. Encourage classmates to ask questions to spark discussion and further conversation about each project.

This is a great opportunity for students to build upon the ideas of others. Many STEM challenges can be revisited more than once. It’s so fun to see how students would build a marshmallow and toothpick creation at the beginning of the year, and then see how differently they might build it at the end of the year. These activities can be added to centers for continued use throughout the school year to learn and grow. 

Other ETTC Resources That Pairs Well With STEM Challenge Stories

Hold up… STEM and SEL?!?  How does that work?? … Growth Mindset!

Let’s Take it One Step Further…

Through the use of this resource, students learn and become comfortable using the Design Process. This process can continue to be utilized and practiced beyond the STEM challenge stories. When students become comfortable following the steps of this process on a regular basis, they allow themselves the opportunity to gain new ideas, try new things, learn from mistakes, move forward, and grow. These are growth mindset skills that students can apply to all aspects of learning. 

If you aren’t sold after this blog, try STEM Challenge Stories for yourself!  My thoughts on STEM in the classroom have totally changed over the few days this lesson took!  I am already planning my next STEM Challenge Story.  Have you incorporated STEM Challenge Stories into your classroom yet?  Have any pictures to share with us?  Drop them in the comments below.  I know our Teaching Trailblazers would LOVE to see these challenges in action!

Written By – Christopher Olson & Sarah Cason

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