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Elements of an Engaging K-12 STEM Activity

Often students are unsure of how best to approach creating a STEM presentation for youth. The following are recommendations for developing an effective presentation.

Getting Started

1) Start with a question that gets students to hypothesize
2) Tap into what students already know
3) Connect learning with topics relevant to that age group. Use examples and analogies.

Develop the activity such that…

1) Students work with materials hands-on
2) Students ask questions, offer explanations
3) Students can practice specific skills: observing, predicting, formulating hypotheses, analyzing data
4) Students work together
5) Students talk to each other and write about their science ideas
Adapted from: Learning to Teach Elementary Science,  Teaching & Learning, Fall 2003, Volume 18, Number 1, pp. 16-23, Debra Zinicola and Roberta Devlin-Scherer.

More Tips & Video Examples

  • Be Relevant: Identify a local community issue that would interest K-12 students.

Pick a current topic that is relevant and engaging to the K-12 students and their immediate world, i.e. a polluted neighborhood swim hole, a trashed skate park, an animal shelter. Try not to select an issue that is too advanced or complicated. Keep it fairly simple. It is better to cover less material in a clear, thorough manner, than to present too much information.

For example:

Giant Bubble

  • Include Lessons: Connect with learning objectives that are age and level appropriate for your students.

To create objectives that are both age and level appropriate, consult with the K-12 teacher or review the Idaho Content Standards for specific content area and grade level education standards.
Design the presentation so K-12 students can clearly see the connection between learning and service.

For example:

Grade 6-Flight Unit


  • Use Visuals: Engage K-12 students with fun visuals*, hands-on activities, and lively discussions.

Include visuals (PowerPoint, handouts, videos, overheads, posters, Google Earth, etc.) to show students what you are expecting. Do not rely on Powerpoint as your only visual… unless you have good animation.

For example:

3D Solar System Animation

Making Molecules with Atoms

MythBusters – Diet Coke & Mentos

  • Be interactive: Young students have a voice and want to be heard.

Let students interact with you, so instead of using a lecture format, use class discussion with engaging questions and activities. Break up your presentation into sections in which students are doing different things. A suggestion is to split the class into 5 – 10 minute increments, switching activities to keep the presentation interesting and moving. For example, if your presentation is 45 minutes long, begin with a 5 minute introduction and warm-up activity like an ice-breaker so that students will feel comfortable participating. Next, give an overview and present the information of your service project. This would be a good time to introduce an interactive activity where all students “do” something. Finally, use discussion questions to conclude the presentation. If you are coming back, make sure that all students understand their tasks to prepare for your next visit.

For example:

Monster Foam Elephant’s Toothpaste

Crushing a Can with Air Pressure

  • Communicate at their level: Use appropriate language when speaking to K-12 students and staff.

Do not talk down to K-12 students. Match your vocabulary with their level of understanding. Do not use slang and euphemisms to get students’ attention. You will gain more respect from younger audiences by cleaning up your vocabulary and speaking properly.

For example:

Dry Ice Fun

  • Repeat instructions: Clearly communicate expectations with K-12 students so that they know what they should be doing during your time with them.

Clearly communicate to the K-12 students what their responsibilities are. Do this several times and do not assume that they will just know what to do next. Spell out each of the steps, and model the desired activity. Don’t be afraid to review their jobs more than once to check for understanding.

For example:

Cookie Lab

  • Be enthusiastic: Speak clearly, energetically and with passion for your issue. If you are excited, you’re students will be too.

Make sure you have a great deal of energy when you present your information. Speak loudly enough so that everyone can hear and use inflections in your voice so that you “sound” as excited as you feel.
Show passion for your topic. If you are excited, chances are the students will be, too. SMILE!

For example:

Doppler Effect

  • Evaluate: Reflect on the service learning experience with your K-12 students.

When your service project is done you will need to debrief with the students in a reflective manner. This will allow students to identify and understand the kind of impact they had on themselves and the community. Reflection and evaluation can take many forms: discussions, reflective papers, skits, drawings, letters, documents and charts, class presentations.

For example:

Classroom Reflections


  • Plan: Think through a outline and time line for accomplishing the objectives above. Decide what you want the students to accomplish by the time you are finished. A good rule of thumb is to 1) provide an overview, 2) present the material and project idea, 3) give students their assignments or work together with them, 4) discuss the outcomes and reflect on the completed project.
  • Practice: Do not assume you can “wing” it.

Write out your presentation on note cards so that you can practice ahead of time at home. You want to be smooth and sound like you know what you are doing. Students can very quickly pick up on a presentation that is not well-prepared.

  • Prepare: Set up all supplies ahead of time so that no time is wasted during presentation.

Make sure that you have enough supplies for the entire class plus a few extras. If you will be using audio-visual equipment, check in advance to make sure the K-12 school has what you need, equipment can be set up, and that you know how to use it. Go to the school early so that you can have everything ready to go. Ask the teacher if you can set up your presentation quietly while he/she is teaching.

  • Thank participants: Send thank you notes to the students, staff and community members that you worked with.

Additional Suggestions from a Classroom Teacher

from Jan Smith, IDO-TEACH, 2015

  • Have an attention getting strategy:  During hands-on activities, it often gets noisy.  There may come a time when you need to give further directions or just get their attention to move on.  Decide on your attention-getting strategy ahead of time and tell the students about it at the beginning of the presentation.  For example, you could say, “When I say “Clap once if you can hear me, you need to clap once.  If I say “clap twice if you can hear me, clap twice.”  Other strategies that work are “1, 2, 3, eyes on me”   Whatever you decide to use, practice with the students before you begin.
  • To add to the materials/supplies:  Have materials already separated into groups/partners.  Ziploc bags or small Tupperware work great for this and come in many sizes.
  • Directions:  A great strategy to review directions is to ask a student to tell the class what they are supposed to do.  “Who can tell the class the steps of the activity?”
  • Safety:  Don’t forget to mention and stress any safety issues.  Think like a kid with this.  You may not think beans are dangerous, but 4th graders might do silly things with them like stick them up their noses! :)
  • A great discussion strategy to add:  Think, Pair, Share.  For this strategy, you pose a question to the whole class.  Instead of calling on one student,  ask students to discuss the question/response with the person next to them.  After about 30 seconds, get their attention and ask different pairs to share what they discussed.  This helps get everyone involved in the discussion instead of just one or two students.
  • Questions are your friend.  Develop questions you can ask during activities ahead of time.

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