STEM special education

How STEM saved this special education teacher

Share these ideas!

I’m excited that today Kristin, a special education teacher, will be sharing her first attempt at STEM with her students! It’s always great to have a fresh perspective on the blog! I hope you all enjoy reading this post as much as I did!

Hello, this is Kristin Muse from Samson’s Shoppe. I am a middle school special education teacher. In my department, subject areas switch from year to year but I have consistently taught seventh-grade self-contained science and reading for ten years.

When I first started at the middle school, I was lucky enough to be given seventh-grade science as one of the subjects to teach. I really was only given this subject because no one else in the department wanted to go near it. In my district, seventh-grade science has many physical science units in the curriculum. Atoms, the periodic table of elements and Newton’s laws of motion are just a few of the topics I cover. As a newbie teacher, I was eager to teach anything and everything. My first year was rough. These topics are often abstract and require a lot of higher level thinking skills; two areas that my students struggle with, significantly. It took some time to grapple with the material and really get it into a place where I was comfortable. During this time, students would complete experiments or projects as appropriate but they also were always teacher-directed with a planned outcome. I was happy, comfortable, and my students were learning the content.

My district is respectful of its teachers. When there are new initiatives, we are encouraged to try them out but nothing ever really feels forced. After some time in my comfort zone, the word STEM kept popping up as the new buzz word. I researched what STEM was, became terrified and pretended I knew nothing.

What is STEM?

STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math. It is a curriculum that is based upon combining these four disciplines to have students devise solutions to real-world problems. In recent years, there has been a push for this type of learning because it is thought that these areas will be in the greatest need of workers in the near future. This type of teaching is necessary for the United States to remain a world leader in a time when technology is improving and involved in almost all aspects of our daily living.

So knowing the benefits of STEM, why was I scared? I felt I was a good educator. I was motivated and could engage the students in learning however I controlled everything. I knew the outcome and expectations of everything we would do. I knew how to scaffold the information so that all students could feel successful. Being a special educator in a self-contained classroom, one of my biggest worries was having a student struggle. They already struggled with so much, I didn’t want this class to be another one. What’s the difference between my teaching and STEM? STEM is more open-ended and student driven. The teacher sets the problem and may or may not provide materials. Some criteria was outlined of what students need to do and then they need to figure it out. This definitely was out of my comfort zone.

What if they can’t figure it out?

What if they stumble?

What if their solution doesn’t work?

This sounded like a terrible idea. However, being an educator that likes to try new things, I said to myself, start small. I came across a quick activity that was perfect to try out the day before a break. Students (and teachers) are excited for the upcoming time off and if it bombed, well hopefully they would all forget over the vacation.

My STEM experience

I divided my class of fourteen into small groups. Each group was given 10 pieces of dry spaghetti, a large marshmallow and some masking tape. I explained to the groups that they would be timed. During that time, they needed to use the materials to construct the tallest tower they could.
STEM project

That was it. All the instructions that were given. We did not brainstorm as a class first. I did nothing to prepare them for this activity. I set the timer and let them get to work. I was anxious. I didn’t know what would happen or if I would have to step in. I circulated the room checking in and listening to each group.

After a few minutes, I was pleasantly surprised. Students were working together. They were discussing ideas, trying then out, listening to one another. Student who normally don’t get along were listening to one another. I was stunned. The timer went off and we measured the towers. Students praised one another for their different ideas and strategies. They cleaned up and the bell rang. I, however, sat there. I could not believe how well it went. My students who I think needed to be babied with everything showed me just how much more they were capable of.



Over the break, I realized how valuable this experience was for my students. Not only did they learn valuable skills but it helped me to learn as an educator that I needed to let go. My students might struggle and that’s OK. If I am there to help them through it, I will be teaching them a more valuable lesson than what the curriculum teaches.

I hope this encourages you to try out something new with your students. I have continued to push the envelope with my middle school students. When I am not creating fun lessons for them, I enjoy painting, kickboxing or taking my 90 lb. pit-bull pup, Samson, for walks. If you want to find out more about me and what I like to create, please visit me at

Share these ideas!

Written by
April Smith

Until the Simplify Writing Membership opens!

Get fully editable, daily lesson plans.