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STEM learning essential, helping students develop skills such as critical thinking and problem solving–skills that will help them be successful in college and the workforce. Though many teachers tout the importance of STEM learning, many also shy away from the “E” in STEM. But engineering and the engineering design process, when incorporated into classrooms correctly, can increase student engagement and subject matter understanding.

“STEM is incredibly important, specifically for skills like critical thinking and problem solving,” said Dr. Erika Neuman, CEO of iSTEMmentors and a lecturer at the University of Texas at San Antonio, during an ISTELive 24 session. “While those aren’t tested on standardized tests, it’s a necessary and important piece of what students and learners need when they get out into the workforce. Whether they go into engineering or not, the engineering design process is something that integrates a lot of important skills that are very necessary in the real world.”

When educators are comfortable with engineering,

The engineering design process is a cycle that begins with a question:

1. Ask a question
2. Brainstorm potential solutions and scenarios, think of different variables, and let students research
3. Design, such as putting a pencil to paper or using a program
4. Build, based on design, given certain parameters and a specific set of materials
5. Test your design or prototype
6. Improve on your design and look for ways to make changes

Integrative STEM combines science, technology, engineering, and math together to solve problems. It is interdisciplinary and focuses on 21st-century skills, real-world problems, and offers context and content integration, making topics relevant to something students are learning about and are engaged in.

“Many teachers have misconceptions that STEM is all about robots and coding, and that you have to use the latest and greatest technology available,” Neuman said. “All of those things are definitely STEM, and they’re great examples, but STEM can also be something that’s very applicable to what you’re already doing in your classroom.”

For example, how might a teacher combine a lesson on animal adaptations with the engineering design process?

Asking students to design an animal that can live in a desert habitat is one example of bringing engineering into lessons that might not seem engineering-focused. Students would work within a set of guidelines around the terrain, climate, predators, prey, and use relevant vocabulary aligning with standards as they engineer an animal to solve the problem of how to best survive in a desert habitat.

Incorporating engineering works for students with all needs–it’s easy to personalize a lesson or differentiate an assignment to meet a student’s specific needs.

“There’s lots of flexibility and many opportunities to make this engaging for students–turning a worksheet into something that’s more integrative and [that incorporates] engineering,” Neuman said.

“When you’re thinking about STEM, whatever the activity or standard is, you can turn that objective, goal, or lesson into an engineering or STEM project,” Neuman added, suggesting a number of strategies to work engineering into learning:

Post a problem with more than one solution

Give students choices with parameters—giving students autonomy increases their engagement and often makes the difference between students going through the motions and students gaining true knowledge

Give time for brainstorming, which is often eliminated because it can be time-consuming

Leave room for improvement and time to identify how the solution could improve

Be comfortable with not knowing the answer

Many educators shy away from engineering because they’re worried they won’t have answers for students. But that’s OK, Neuman said.

“[One thing] likely preventing teachers from integrating engineering design principles is ‘what if I don’t know the answer?’ or what if students have a solution you haven’t thought of,” Neuman said. “Well, that’s amazing–if students are thinking about things that didn’t even cross your mind, how amazing is that learning?”