What are STEM Bins and do I need them in my Classroom?

What is STEM or STEAM and what does it have to do with Primary Education?

Science ~ Technology ~ Engineering ~ (Arts) ~ Maths

STEM education is an integrated, open-ended approach to Science and Maths, using the Engineering Design Process. STEM Challenges begin with a real-world question or a problem, and the children take the lead to find a solution.

STEM education develops creativity, problem-solving, reasoning, perseverance, and fine motor skills. It is a valuable and worthwhile activity for children of all ages.

What are STEM Boxes or STEM Bins?

STEM Boxes are lunchbox-sized boxes containing manipulative materials for exploring STEM challenges and tasks in classrooms in a fun and engaging way. They are easy to set up, easy to use and can become part of the daily routine for any class level.

What age group are STEM Boxes suitable for?

STEM Boxes can be used for any class from Junior Infants right up to 6th Class.

What’s Inside STEM Boxes?

1. Materials already in your school

Have a look around your classroom and your school for maths resources and games. You might be surprised at what you find. Ask your colleagues; often there are resources lying unused in the back of presses, in storerooms etc.

· Base Ten Blocks

· Pattern Blocks

· Dominoes

· Jenga Blocks

· Lollipop sticks & Pegs

· Matchsticks & Playdough (or Marla)

· Linking Cubes

· Lego

· Straws & Pipe cleaners

· Playing Cards

· Index Cards and Sellotape

2. Materials to Invest in

I’ve said ‘invest’ rather than ‘buy’ here because these materials will last you for years!

· Lego (This is a must!)

· Plus Plus Blocks

· Magformers

· Plastic Snowflakes

· Wooden blocks of different shapes and sizes

You can buy some of my favourites here.

How do you store the materials?

You’ll need durable boxes or containers to store all of your materials. Label them clearly! Lunchboxes of different sizes work well. Try Homestore and More, Choice, Lidl, Aldi, Dealz and Ikea. Here are two options from Ikea that have stood the test of time: Glis & Trofast.

You will need to designate a shelf or area for you STEM Boxes. I use a Raskog Trolley from Ikea for mine, but you can use a bookshelf, press or any other designated area. Model and teach the children the routines and procedures for taking out and putting away the boxes.

Task and Challenge Cards

These go hand in hand with STEM Boxes. A lot of children (especially older ones, I’ve found) need a starting point and task cards do exactly that. They provide a stimulus of a photograph or picture of a real-world structure such as a chair or a bridge. You can download my STEM Challenge cards here or from Brooke Browne here. She recommends putting approximately 6 different cards together on a ring so that the children can take a bundle and then choose one task.

Another option is to give the children a ‘Bingo Board’ or ‘Choice Board’ of tasks that they can tick off or colour in when they have completed them.

How do you use STEM Boxes in the classroom?

I use STEM Boxes in my classroom in the following ways:

1. Individual Tasks

Give the children one STEM Box and ring of Task Cards. 10-15 minutes is sufficient time to allow the children to imagine, plan, create and improve a simple structure. This is a great morning activity.

2. Paired & Group Tasks

Give the children one (or more) STEM Boxes and a set task. You can use Task cards or give the whole class a challenge related to a topic you are covering, i.e. Build a house for The Three Little Pigs. In pairs or larger groups, you may give the children more time for the activity. You can allow extra time for planning and let the children choose their materials. Paired tasks are a useful ice-breaker activity for the first few days of the school year.

3. Early Finishers

STEM Boxes are a popular early-finisher task. And what’s more, they are a meaningful task, rather than just ‘busy work’. They can be a great incentive for some children to finish other work. You will need strict procedures in place for early finishers so that the Boxes are looked after well and tidied away properly when finished with.

4. Junk Art

STEM Boxes and Junk Art are part of the same family. Both involve the steps of the Engineering Design Process: Ask, Imagine, Plan, Create, Improve. STEM task cards or choice boards can be used for either. You can read about Junk Art for the infant classes here. Similar principles apply for the older classes!

5. Fine Motor Skills

STEM challenges are a wonderful way to help develop fine motor skills. You may want to choose certain materials to use to target specific skills, i.e. lollipop sticks and clothes pegs for hand strength.

6. Stations

STEM Boxes are ideal for Station work within your class. You can have one or more groups using STEM Bins while the teacher works with another group for direct instruction.

Extending the Learning

As mentioned already, planning and improving are two key parts of the Engineering Design Process. It is important that time is given to these steps in order to develop the relevant skills.

While the teacher is not usually involved in the ‘create’ step, the role of the teacher is still significant. Teachers can model the necessary behaviours required, question the children on their thinking, and provide additional challenges (can you make it taller? stronger? etc.).

Planning may take part individually, in pairs, groups or as a class as appropriate. Discussion, brainstorming, drawing and writing all work well for planning.

Reviewing may take place in the same way. Children are usually enthusiastic to share their creations. Take photographs and videos where possible for digital portfolios. Again, through modelling and questioning, the teacher can guide the children in reflecting meaningfully on the problems they encountered and how they overcame them. Praise perseverance and effort as much as possible!

Looking after your STEM Boxes

Once set up, STEM Boxes should las you a long time. Some materials, such as index cards and tape will need to be replaced but most will not.

Let the children know that it is a privilege to have them in the classroom and that they should be treated with respect. Teach the children to tidy the materials away neatly in the correct boxes when finished. You may find it helpful to assign one or two children the job of ‘STEM Boxes Manager’ to keep tabs on the other children!

You may be interested in my other STEM Blog posts here:

STEM Activities at Home
STEM Activities for Distance Learning
Junk Art Ideas for School

If you have any questions about STEM Boxes, you can email me playfulclassroom@gmail.com or via Instagram or Facebook.

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