It has taken over every after-school club, PTA event, craft aisle and even a recent Boy Scout event I was asked to be a part of: STEM.   

With everything from using trash to create holiday decorations, plastic spoons to make catapults and making the water cycle out of plastic bags; STEM is the buzzword that seems to make parents, teachers and even students happy.  It even seems like every educational company and toy creator has a STEM line to enrich the lives of kids everywhere. NONE of this is bad, NONE of this is wrong. 

I just want to emphasize the most important and most fulfilling part of any STEM lesson: failing and fixing.

I don’t know if that’s a buzzword phrase, but I’m going with it, and I hear alliteration helps us anchor ideas in our memory. I believe STEM is about failing and fixing. 

In any sort of engineering process there must be a point when we observe our initial design and then adjust based on those observations in order to improve our initial design. Without this process of adjustment – what are we really learning? 

There is a grounding question every STEM club needs to ask itself: What is today’s learning objective?  Things like: How does a 3D printer work?  Where does the water go? How can I get the pumpkin to chuck further? 

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It’s up to you and (your lesson vibes) whether you share this question with your students at the onset, let them discover it – or give it to them after some initial exploration.  Whatever the case may be, the leader of the STEM activity should have in mind what they want their students to learn that day. 

Please don’t get it twisted…just because you have a driving question doesn’t mean that is where the learning will stay, but your STEM activity needs focus, or kids are just playing in an unstructured way which leads to the extraverts and the ones who already have a background in the activity or skill to do most of the thinking and the work – that’s not what I want going on in my class. 

Tired of hearing me rant? How about a lesson? 

I’ve found this to be a great way to introduce 3D printing. 

Driving Question:  How does a 3D printer work?

(nice and simple

Background:  A 3D printer extrudes filament much in the same way a hot glue gun does.  Material goes in, gets heated, comes out the hot nozzle in liquid form and then will dry to take shape.   

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Challenge to Students:  create a 2”x 2” cube out of hot glue 


Create & Record: 

  • Teams get 2-3 minutes to create and then 2-3 minutes to record what is working, what is not working and take a quick tour of other teams’ creations.


  • As a group it is important to start showing them parts of the actual 3D printer.  This can begin with some time lapse videos and evolve into a simple 2-3 minute video breaking down the parts and showing current uses of 3D printing.  I also make sure my 3D printer is running this whole time.

    Don’t have a 3D printer?  I’d suggest visiting local libraries and asking local families; my printer was around $200.
  • I’d also like to say here that running the 3D printer is a bonus…it is a resource for students. The idea of this part of the lesson is to have resources available for students.  Whether this is via actual devices or just videos, book, articles or interviews the key is to provide resources that allow your students to learn from exciting products.

Create & Record: 

  • Now it’s time to take what they’ve seen on the 3D printer and the work of other students and go back to their own original cubes.  Some choose to adjust their design, some start over completely.  Once again, they get 2-3 minutes and then come back to the group.

Discuss & Question

  • Back in the whole group it is important for students to share some of the struggles they are having.  Their job is to turn these into questions and use the real 3D printer as a foundation for how they can solve their problems.
  • Repeat the creating and coming back together as much as needed.  Giving them more time as the activity goes on is important, but don’t leave them to create on their own for more than 10 minutes. The goal is to help them identify questions and struggles, so they can gain information that will help them address those questions and struggles.   

During this sort of exploration and questioning all the key components of the 3D printer come up:  build plate adhesion, cooling temperatures, consistent material from the extruder, infill, supports, etc.. 

  • For example:  Students come back with struggles such as, “my material isn’t cooling fast enough to hold the next layer, how does the 3D printer handle that?”  We review the variety of fans on a 3D printer and the temperatures of the nozzle and build plate.  Next they’re figuring out how they will cool their material

Experience -> Problems -> Questions -> Gain Info -> Generate Solutions   

I never leave students alone during this process.  

Failing and Fixing; letting students struggle, learning how problems in the world are being solved in similar situations, and then applying that knowledge to their situation is critical to truly preparing our students for college and career. It is how I try to do STEM in my classroom because it is how engineering and product development takes place in the real world.  

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Thomas Dennison

Thomas Dennison

5th Grade Teacher

Note: Fresh Ideas for Teaching blog contributors have been compensated for sharing personal teaching experiences on our blog. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.

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