Dyan Branstetter | May 2018

How to Save a Failing STEAM Challenge

Have you ever tried to facilitate a STEAM challenge that flops? Have students attempted the challenge without a successful prototype at the end? Leading a STEAM challenge properly requires that the teacher answer questions with more questions. This way, students are making their own decisions instead of relying on answers or suggestions from the teacher. Of course, when students aren’t comfortable with embracing and learning from failure, this can cause some tempers to flare within groups and can even result in tears.

While we want students to know the feeling of pushing through a little frustration, we don’t want to cross the fine line that leads students to shut down mode. So how can we handle this without actually giving students ideas for success? The Gallery Walk Carousel Strategy is my solution. It is a way for students to gain ideas for a successful end result without the teacher giving suggestions. The best place to “press pause” and implement this strategy is during the STEAM process, just after the iteration step.

Side Note STEAM Tip:

Make sure to allow time for students to iterate, or revise, after testing their prototype, even if it is at a later date. Revising and retesting is an extremely important part of the STEAM process. It is the step where students essential critical thinking skills to respond flexibly to parts of the challenge that failed.

Have students to analyze their result to notice what worked and what didn’t. Encourage them to save the parts that worked (many want to scrap the whole thing) and revise the parts that weren’t successful. Depending on the challenge, we sometimes record the test in slow motion so that students can do this easily.

Here’s how the Gallery Walk Carousel Strategy works:

After student groups test and fail, have them make some revisions to their prototype. Provide an index card for each group to write a current challenge they are facing with their work. Then, have students put their prototype with the accompanying challenge on display somewhere in the classroom. I like to set up the prototypes in a circle throughout the room. Place a “grow and glow” feedback form with each prototype. (Download a pdf version of this here: Grow and Glow Carousel)

After going over guidelines, have STEAM groups travel together to each prototype in a clockwise rotation, spending about 3-4 minutes at each prototype. While they are observing and reading the challenge at each prototype, student groups should record something that they think is done well, and a suggestion they have for overcoming the challenge. As each group rotates to a new prototype, they may not repeat a “grow or glow” suggestion that was previously listed.

Sometimes, stepping away from our own work and frustrations can give us the time we need to refresh, regroup, and gain new creativity. Observing how others tackled the same challenge in different ways may give students a new idea of how to proceed. When students finally arrive back to their own station, they will find a list of suggestions, which could also provide encouragement or inspiration for how to move forward.

A Real Life Example:

The Chinese Lantern STEAM Challenge (Almost) Flop

This is the first year my district is exploring STEAM challenges, so my current third graders don’t have a lot of experience in this type of learning. I created a challenge to complement our unit on Ancient China and asked teams to work collaboratively to create a Chinese lantern. (Find a link to this challenge below.)

Although I meticulously planned this scaffolded experience for students, I quickly found that most of the students did not have the skills needed to be successful. First and foremost, social skills (sharing, compromising, and listening) were getting in the way of getting started for a number of the groups. Other groups were able to start designing and creating but began to get frustrated with one another when their ideas didn’t work. By the end of a 45-minute session, one group had gathered materials but hit a wall when they could figure out how to use them to create the lofty goal of a dragon, so they ended up with nothing.

Saved by the Bell

We were saved by the bell- it was time for lunch. The students were relieved, and so was I because I needed time to reflect and save this project. I grabbed the book The Most Magnificent Thing, and kicked off our afternoon session with a read aloud. We looked at how the main character took a walk to recharge and approach her work with fresh eyes. We also noted how her final result wasn’t exactly what she had envisioned, but it ended up working anyway. And finally, we pointed out how we can use those ideas too- we took our lunch and recess break to recharge, and now we can look at our flopped designs with fresh eyes.

Trying again

Before returning to our work, I led students through the Gallery Walk Carousel strategy.  I had to be very explicit about remaining respectful of student ideas, keeping comments positive and constructive. Students also needed reminders to be respectful to the actual prototypes- touching or poking could destroy them, and it would be awful to come back to a damaged product. Once students returned their own creations, the suggestions that they found were just that- suggestions. It didn’t mean that they needed to use them, but they could provide a helpful idea they hadn’t thought of already.

While our lanterns were not necessarily beautiful, they provided some incredible learning experiences for both me and my students. Now, my iteration: revising it to include more social skill scaffolding prior to our next STEAM challenge.

Free Resources:

Gallery Walk Carousel Feedback Form

Design a Chinese Lantern Challenge

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.