Teams for Middle School STEM projects

In STREAM, students group in teams of three to four to solve problems. Often, especially at the beginning of a new term, I let these teams be self-selecting.

Here are the roles that team members may fill (often taking two or more):

  • Builder: The kid(s) who are going to put the project together. Often, other team mates may be called in to help.
  • Blogger: The chroniclers, journalists, editors. These kids tell the story of how the
    The team blogger, taking pictures of table testing.

    The team blogger, taking pictures of table testing.

    team solved the project. They are not to just give step-by-step directions. They are to tell of the hurdles encountered, and the solutions that the team thought up. These kids photograph the work as it progresses, and create a blog, Power point, or Keynote presentation for the project.

  • Skeptic / QA: The kid(s) who double-check that directions are followed and goals are being met. They are the kids with rulers, levels, squares, and so on.
  • Researcher: The kid(s) who look for ideas on the internet or through other resources such as the media center.
  • Machinist: The kids who like to work with power tools, hand tools, and can follow specifications. They generally aren’t bothered by noise, can cut a straight line, and have good fine motor skills.
  • Requisition: These are the kids who are resourceful. Our budget is not huge. These kids dumpster dive (we discuss safety & respect for property & privacy!). These kids go to other teachers with lists of needs. They know where the maintenance office is.

The prompt: We’ve talked about STREAM and how we’ll approach projects as teams. What are your strengths as a worker? What do you think you will bring to the table?

The first day of class, I explain the concept behind teams, using Apple Computers early years as an example. Pared down, Jobs was great at coming up with ideas for gadgets and caring about how they looked. Wozniak was a great engineer. They needed an adult to make them feel more official. Both Steves had a tendency to be socially precarious, so they needed a good schmoozer to help them get money to fund, etc. etc. I’m amazed at how many kids know a lot of the story, and want to discuss the finer points, but it’s important to keep the concepts to teams.

On that first day, I ask kids what they feel DSC_0751they bring to the table. This becomes a journal entry. I have a dream that some day, a kid who doesn’t like to work with tools will say “I need to work with someone who likes tools.” It hasn’t happened yet. I’m not sure if it is because they see no connection between the strengths journal entry and the establishment of teams, or if it is just because this is middle school, and it’s simply more important to be with your friends.

It is always interesting to see the criteria by which students band together. It may be based on gender, maturity, socio-economics, or shared interests, like sports. Socio-economics usually trumps all, at least at the outset. Over the course of a term, though, teams morph: sometimes because I assign it; other times because students realize they need an expertise that they don’t have, and can’t do without. When a team change comes about as a result of the team recognizing a need, I count that as a great success.

I make a strong connection between the ability to focus and be productive, and future success in the workforce.

DSC_0755The habits and qualities of productivity, care, planning, respect, and so on, are not attached to a job or a project, they are attached to the person who has them. And so, if team members aren’t getting along, I sometimes refuse them a change.

The journal prompt: "There is a relationship between how you contribute to your team and how you will contribute to a job in the future. What habits do you think will carry over into your adulthood?

The journal prompt: “There is a relationship between how you contribute to your team and how you will contribute to a job in the future. What habits do you think will carry over into your adulthood?

Learning to work together is key. Such discussions about this are part of the STREAM DSC_0757class, and are often the subject of journal prompts. I think they have a strong effect, and I often sense relief when I make a team change. I think this is because at the middle school age, it is hard to branch off without implying friend-disloyalty.

Structural Engineering… and Middle School Life

When I teach vocabulary, for any subject, I try to have students use each word in a way that is individually meaningful. In my middle school STREAM class, vocabulary can range from simple discussions about the difference between “are” and “our,” to elements and principles of design terms, to engineering terms.

My lunch-time class is small, but challenging. More than sixty percent of the students receive free and reduced lunch; a number of them have warnings right on their electronic attendance record that they are to have no contact, ever, with a parent or some other relative. They are my “most likely to…” group—to wander the halls, to end up on the 7th or 8th grade Core list of students to discuss, to pick a fight, to show up in class after lunch without having eaten because they didn’t like the offering. Still, I was surprised when I went over the structural engineering terms in advance of our paper table unit.

The engineering vocab is a great way to bring teamwork conversation into the class. I usually love it. “Who’s got a good idea what stress means?” I ask.

“You want your definition, or my definition?” a student asks.

“Yours, of course… as long as it has appropriate words.”

“Stress,” he says, “is when you wake up at four in the morning because your baby sister is crying, and you have to get her to go back to sleep before she wakes up your little brother. Stress is when you know if your little sister wakes up your mother, or your mother’s boyfriend, they’ll be really mad at you. It’s when you know that if you don’t get her to sleep, you won’t sleep, and then your teachers will be really mad at you because you fall asleep in their classes, or because you have to stand and move around to stay awake. Stress is knowing all this and knowing that you can’t let your little sister know your stressed, because if you do, she’ll never fall back asleep.”

Whew. I lean on the white board. I’ve heard about this kid’s situation. “That sounds incredibly stressful. Yeah. Especially for someone your age.” The kid is twelve.

Another student raises his hand. “Stress is when you have too much homework and when you just want to sleep, but your mother’s mad at you because you lost your winter coat and a bunch of other stuff. It’s when you feel like everything is coming down on your shoulders.”

Nearly everyone shares some definition of stress, and it’s all in the same vein. But there are parallels to be made.

I draw two pictures on the board.


“Based on what you all shared, which of these pictures looks to be the most stressful?” I ask. The answer is unanimous.

I alter the pictures.


“Which of these figures would you rather have come down on your arm? Which is going to break the skin?” Again, unanimous. I ask why.

And so, the kids themselves come up with the best definition of stress. A definition that fits both engineering, and life.

In another class, as we discussed trusses, cross-bracing, right angles, and support against fatigue, the students spontaneously broke out into a 7th-grade rendition of Bill Wither’s song “Lean on Me.”

These opportunities can best be seized if teachers are not rushing to cover material for a test, if administrators value creativity, and if all constituents of the school recognize the need to teach the whole child.

We only cover definitions for compression and compressive strength. I don’t have it in me to cover tension with this group today. We’ll get to that and the remaining eleven words next class.