A guest blog post by Lausanne Learning Teacher Mentor Jessica Varela

You’ve got a makerspace, now what? Your administration is excited about this new venture your school has decided is worth the time and money. The students can’t wait to get started on making something. But what will you teach? What should they make?

Especially for lower school and early childhood students, curriculum plans can be somewhat limited. Because of this, many makerspace teachers have adopted the STEM challenge approach. There are many amazing STEM-based lessons available online, so it can be tempting to choose several, prepare them and let the students experience science or engineering at its finest in singular lessons, week after week.

This approach, however, can often lead to burn out. Can you possibly come up with enough one-off activities for each grade, each week, year after year? There has to be an easier, more thoughtful way!

There is! Surprisingly, it’s something we are all familiar with: backwards-design lesson planning. In Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe say, “Curriculum should lay out the most effective ways of achieving specific results… in short, the best designs derive backward from the learnings sought.”

It works for makerspaces too! Simply identify the challenge you’d like for students to complete, determine how to measure their success, then plan the skills they need to meet those requirements!

Let’s say you’d like to have first grade students complete a STEM challenge that involves building a structure with some parameters around materials, size and effectiveness. Instead of planning a singular lesson where students brainstorm, make and test this design, I suggest turning this into a three-part lesson.

 Explore. Build Skills. Challenge.

The first lesson includes exploring the materials and tools that will be used to complete the challenge in a fun and engaging way. It also involves building background knowledge around the science or engineering concepts that will be at work during the challenge.

The second lesson features work stations where students practice certain skills in isolation. We breakdown the skills necessary to complete the challenge successfully into their tiny individual steps. Then have the students practice those before being asking to employ those skills as part of a larger forthcoming challenge.

Lastly, introduce the challenge on the final lesson day. Give students time to solve the challenge alone, plan with their partner or group, complete the project, test its success and reflect on changes they may or may not make.

Jessica Varela is a teacher at The Lamplighter School and a Lausanne Learning Teacher Mentor. Learn more about Jessica here