Guest Blog Post from Dr. Jacie Maslyk:

 “I really think our game should focus on adding and subtracting decimals,” one student suggests. “I think that might be a little challenging. Maybe we should just focus on rounding decimals since that’s what we have been working on mostly in class,” shares another.  “I like that idea. Can we all come to an agreement on that?”

This was part of a conversation that I recently overheard in a fifth-grade classroom, where students were working together to design and build board games. All the games needed to include relevant math content, as well as different characteristics of gaming. Students engaged in meaningful conversation as a part of the engineering design process. They shared ideas and politely disagreed. Each student’s voice provided value to the group, allowing them to work collaboratively on the task. 

“Can I add that maybe we could use the adding and subtracting like Daniel said as like a “power up“ within the game?” one student offered. “Ooh, I like that idea. Then we are making a game that everyone can play, but there are also ways to make things a little bit harder” says one student as she high-fived her teammate. “What do you guys think about creating cards for the game? I’d like to design those and you guys can start on constructing the game board.”

The conversations between the students were rich and focused. They made decisions and solved problems in a collaborative spirit that allowed them to fully engage in the task. Together, the team worked to design and build their game board using recyclable materials and art supplies from their classroom STEM cart. They activated their imaginations and skillfully used their resources to create aspects of the game that reinforced math concepts. The group incorporated their challenge cards and wrote instructions for how their game was to be played, all while infusing their math knowledge as the primary content for the game. 

Mindset in action

Students in this classroom example are demonstrating a STEM mindset in action. They are working to accomplish a common goal that requires collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and creativity. Students are thinking flexibly about the problem in front of them, but also activating their personal experiences to enhance their project. 

When this type of mindset is cultivated in a classroom, it is evident through student conversations like this one. As students are presented challenges, they utilize their collective skills and strengths to analyze and solve problems. This mindset can be developed in any classroom and at any age. With personalization, perseverance, and patience, we can foster this mindset in our students, setting them up for success in school and beyond.

Developing the mindset

 A STEM mindset is flexible and curious and is often thought of as “outside the box” thinking. A STEM mindset is challenging, as learners wonder about problems that aren’t always easily solved. It includes things like combining ideas to create new things and taking apart things to find out how they work. 

This mindset is not something that you can force upon learners, but rather something that you guide students towards. With support, we can encourage our learners to explore new materials, tackle big challenges, and extend their thinking beyond what is possible.

Developing a STEM mindset can be difficult for some, both students and teachers alike. It requires grappling with ideas and experiencing failure, things that are not comfortable for many. As learners encounter setbacks, they build resilience, rebounding into new learning. As teachers experience challenges, they rethink their instruction and reimagine ways to engage students in STEM learning.

For some students, STEM experiences are when they have the chance to thrive. It is when they get to try new things (and then try some more). It is often when students get to access different types of learning modalities, beyond what occurs within traditional courses. The nature of STEM learning represents possibilities for creativity and innovation.

Experiencing failure

In schools where students engage in STEM learning, things don’t always turn out the way they were planned. And that is OK!  Groups of students engage in an engineering design challenge or conduct an experiment—sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. STEM learning can be messy and unconventional. It may require trial and error.  Students may encounter obstacles or find shortcuts. It is likely that at some point, they will fail. How students respond to that failure is a part of the STEM mindset.

John Dewey said, “Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks, learns quite as much from his failures that from his successes.” This is a tough lesson for kids to learn. Failing and bouncing back from that failure is critical to a STEM mindset, and to life. 

STEM learning is meant to be open ended, which is why learners encounter stumbling blocks and experience failed experiments or designs. In authentic STEM experiences, there shouldn’t be one anticipated endpoint or product of this learning. It is what the learners construct it to be.

Where STEM thrives

Learning spaces that embrace STEM are places where students say:

I wonder how that works? 

What if we would combine these two materials? 

Can I try that? 

What can we create together?  

As we work to foster a STEM mindset within our students, we welcome these questions of curiosity and exploration. We invite students to get messy, learn new things, and explore new materials. Through their exploration, a mindset of discovery and creativity will thrive!


About the Author

An educator for the last 25 years, Dr. Jacie Maslyk, has served as a classroom teacher, reading specialist, elementary principal, and assistant superintendent. Jacie currently serves as an educational consultant providing coaching and professional development to educators across the country. She is the author of STEAM Makers: Fostering Creativity and Innovation in the Elementary Classroom, Remaking Literacy: Innovative Instructional Strategies for Maker Learning and Unlock Creativity: Opening a World of Imagination With Your Students in addition to two books on engineering for children. She has served as the keynote speaker for several national conferences, most recently speakers to participants at the Northwest District Educators Conference in Seaside, Oregon. Connect with Jacie on Twitter @DrJacieMaslyk or email her at or check out her website at