Engaging Students in STEM Through Real-World Problems

By Discovery Education

Schools use STEM-based lessons to explore issues such as plastics recycling and solar energy.

As Discovery Education’s Director of Global STEM Initiatives, I’ve had the unique opportunity to travel the world and see literally hundreds of examples of school systems implementing powerful STEM education programs.  In talking with school leaders about their initiatives, one common refrain I’ve heard is that students need to witness STEM’s potential to improve both their personal future and the future of their community before they invest themselves fully in concepts like numeracy and literacy.

One way I’ve found to immediately demonstrate the transformative power of STEM to students is through activities that are based on the design-thinking pedagogy.  Each day, individuals around the world and across many fields employ design-thinking to solve complicated issues.  A mix of critical-thinking, imagination, and logic, design-thinking helps creators of all types explore solutions to complex problems and choose outcomes that benefit stakeholders.

In working with school leaders and students to create vibrant cultures of STEM teaching and learning, I’ve discovered that asking students to use design-thinking to solve problems observed in their own community is critical to achieving student “buy-in” for STEM.  At Discovery Education, we believe student engagement and achievement improves when the learner understands how an issue affects them personally. To accomplish this requires that educators ask students three fundamental questions:

  1. How do you feel?
  2. What do you think?
  3. What do you do about how you feel and think?

By approaching a challenge from a place of empathy, a desire to learn is planted with students before they even begin seeking solutions. Helping learners discover why they should care about crafting a solution then drives the need for participants to know content across disciplines.

This is a vital step that's often overlooked by traditional STEM-themed lessons, and it is something high-quality digital resources like Discovery Education's STEM Connect, which empowers teachers to inspire the next generation of global solution seekers, can support extraordinarily well in the classroom.  By generating opportunities to design grand solutions to local and global challenges, learners of all ages are invited to lean forward and work to resolve an issue of importance to them.

But what does classroom design-thinking from a place of empathy look like in practice? Below please see three specific challenges that encourage design-thinking:


Among the resources in STEM Connect is an inspiring video of women in Nigeria who make a living using recycled bags to create accessories and household products like baskets and fashion accessories for sale.  A teacher can challenge students to use bags, sheets, tubing, and other materials in conjunction with household irons and other tools to create something purposeful and or beautiful from this waste. Solutions range from boots, umbrellas, even prosthetic limbs made from discarded materials.  Participants learn by rapid prototyping and experimentation that while the plastic easily melts, it can be layered to add to its strength. Sometimes it looks like a design mistake leads them two steps back, when it's actually one step forward. Ask students what they discovered about the properties of the materials they used or what they might try differently to improve their products and then ask them how repurposing waste can help cut down on pollution in our environment and address the UN Sustainable goal of creating Sustainable Communities.


Earth's natural resources are dwindling, and scientists are seeking alternative solutions for the future. Among them is traveling to our nearest planetary neighbor — Mars. This alone presents a precarious challenge, as successful retrieval and re-entry plans for Mars missions have not yet been executed. But it's an undeniably enticing challenge for future engineers.  

Educators can represent various spacecraft that have been proposed to perform interplanetary missions and engage students to talk among themselves about which of these seems most viable. Then introduce a variety of materials to use to construct a rocket for the mission. It must safely transport an astronaut (in this case an egg) to their destination, retrieve a pod, and using the criteria of the Mars mission, the craft must land upright, lift off, and then land upright back on Earth with the pod. It’s up to the students to iterate and arrive at a viable solution for the mission.


There is no shortage of communities in our world that lack a reliable source of power. STEM Connect features a video of elderly women in Mexico creating photovoltaic cells from common materials. It’s just one example of a way to spark imaginations for solutions to this challenge.

Educators can break students into small groups and give them the opportunity to share their own reactions to the challenge presented in the video. This opens the door to iterative thinking within each group, which leads to collaborative solutions. Ask students driving questions, like what materials could be used to create photovoltaic cells, what is the most efficient angle to position them, and what color should the background be to create the maximum amount of current? These are practical questions that can lead to several possible solutions that show how to make sustainable energy sources quickly and cheaply.

Activities like these carry a message of empowerment not just for teachers and education leaders, but for students. We want kids to walk away feeling empowered to make a difference in the world and that there are issues they can start tackling right now. 

Throughout each of these activities, encourage students to express how they feel about the challenge, what they think about it, and what can be done about what they feel and think.  Rapidly, students will grasp the importance of their work, and their hunger for solving real-world challenges through STEM will grow.  When students see STEM’s potential to improve both their personal future and the future of their community, not only will educators find their STEM programs gaining momentum, but students will realize their ability to improve their world. 

And I think we can all agree that is a great thing!

By Robert Corbin, Discovery Education’s Director of Global STEM Initiatives. Dr. Corbin also is a North Carolina Science Leadership Fellow, associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and adjunct professor at Wingate University. 

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two boys examining models of molecules