Dyan Branstetter | January 2018

Are your STEAM Lessons Authentic Enough?

STEAM and STEM challenges and activities are all the rage in education right now. Indeed, a quick search on teacherspayteachers.com and you will find hundreds of returns! So how can you even begin to determine a high-quality STEAM activity versus fluff?

The first way is to look for the alignment (and presence!) of standards. Even projects that meet the standards may just be a hodge-podge of fun learning activities but these types of projects have value. They teach the Engineering Design Process and many other process-based skills. However, do they have authentic meaning for students?

Enter the “14 Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century”

When choosing or creating STEAM activities, I like to use “filters.” My go-to filter, in particular, are the 14 Grand Challenges. These Grand Challenges are the biggest problems of our time. STEAM projects that are designed to help students answer these real-world challenges are more meaningful to students and provide a piece of authenticity that is sometimes missing from our Pinterest-y STEAM activities.

Take a look at the Grand Challenges that have been identified as ways to improve life in our part of the world.

  1. Make solar energy economical.
  2. Manage the nitrogen cycle.
  3. Advance health informatics.
  4. Prevent nuclear terror.
  5. Advance personalized learning.
  6. Provide energy from fusion.
  7. Provide access to clean water.
  8. Engineer better medicines.
  9. Secure Cyberspace.
  10. Engineer the tools of scientific discovery.
  11. Develop carbon sequestration methods.
  12. Restore and improve urban infrastructure.
  13. Reverse-engineer the brain.
  14. Enhance virtual reality.

Real World Problems, Real World Solutions

In spite of some of the items on this list not being in the realm of understanding for elementary students, the are have infinite possibilities because they are so, well, grand.  Consider #7: Provide access to clean water. This is a huge problem in our world. After participating in some guided research about the need for clean water in parts of the world, students are motivated to take action as a result of this.

In other words, this type of engagement can only be found in a real-world problem. Students like being part of something that is bigger than them with a global connection, and it motivates them to work toward their goal. In addition, designing a water purifier is not too much of a task for most upper elementary students. The number of constraints we add to the scenario is what adds to the level of difficulty.

Dean Kamen is an innovative inventor who created the Slingshot water purifier, among other things. His video, particularly, is great motivation for students. Not only are his inventions interesting to learn about, but his innovative mindset is shared loud and clear. He is an inspiration for making our world a better place. Take a look:

So as you search for or design your own STEAM projects, consider using one of the 14 Grand Challenges as a springboard. The problem is already defined, and the research is out there. So our job is to identify what we can guide students to do, and find naturally connecting arts standards to take it from STEM to STEAM.

Designing Authentic STEAM PBL:



About the Author

Dyan is a fifth grade teacher in a public school district in Lancaster, PA and has over 16 years of classroom experience. With a Masters of Science Education and a passion for dance and music, she strives to integrate the arts into the curriculum whenever possible. Dyan has a background in teaching advanced learners, and is devoted to using project based learning to help her students achieve 21st century learning skills and master the PA Core Standards.