Use Mini-Lessons to Launch STEM Projects

Big Idea RocketHere are some ideas you can use as “launchers” for STEM projects. I’ve adapted this post from my December 2016 article for MiddleWeb, “Launch the New Year with STEM Mini-Lessons!” Truth be told, these warm-up activities will help engage the middle school brain year-round! You’ll find a complete lesson plan below. ~ Anne

Back when I was a classroom teacher, few questions perplexed me as much as how I was going to settle my 8th grade students back down and reengage them after fall, winter or spring break.

Then on a cold day in early January, as one particularly animated class began scurrying (literally) back into my classroom, it hit me. Don’t try to subdue that energy – use that energy!

My solution? Kick off the class with some entertaining, hands-on problem solving that allows kids to be active while reengaging their STEM brains.

Kids love to make things. We can take advantage of their energy and use the opportunity to kick off a new project (or a new year) with a STEM launcher. Read on!

What’s a STEM launcher?

Carolyn-DeCBefore you read any further, let me introduce you to Carolyn DeCristofano – a top-notch STEM specialist and a writing colleague of mine.

Carolyn came up with the STEM launchers idea when we were working on an NSF-funded curriculum development team. Back in 2013, she shared her idea in this MiddleWeb post titled STEM Launchers! I invite you to click on that post and browse it before continuing.

Have your students REcharge, not REcite!

Generally, I use launchers in two ways: (1) to introduce students to engineering design; and (2) to introduce teachers to some components of a STEM lesson as I begin a STEM workshop.

But an equally valuable use of a STEM launcher – which is a STEM mini-lesson of sorts – is to use it as a student recharging activity. Instead of asking kids to recite what they remember about STEM (borrrrring), give them an opportunity to show you.

A launcher typically is not a complete STEM lesson. For example, the launcher I’m sharing with you at the end of this post doesn’t specifically apply math and science concepts as the kids engineer solutions to real problems. However, this activity does present a real design challenge.


This launcher reminds students to adopt an engineer’s mindset as they tackle and solve problems, and it calls their attention to the engineering design process. They will see connections between engineering and science and math. In addition, they can revisit team norms as they start on a successful teamwork journey.

Stop, Drop, Don’t Pop!

This launcher, called “Stop, Drop, Don’t Pop!” is designed to be used over two days – one day in math class and the following day in science class. The thinking was that this division of labor could help math and science teachers practice working together on STEM challenges.

However, like most of my suggestions, this is not a my-way-or-the-byway approach. Notice when you look it over, one teacher can lead the whole launcher. As always, please make creative adaptations. (If you lead STEM workshops, note that this launcher can be easily adapted for use with workshop participants to introduce them to an engineering process.)


In this particular design challenge, teams of students will modify an idea for an amusement park ride, the DareDevil, so that the riders will be safe but will still experience a thrilling, fast ride. Note a couple of other things about this Launcher:

  • It will help to refocus students on teamwork.
  • It can continue to build students’ understanding of how to tackle problems systematically, using the engineering design process.
  • It involves students in the Redesign step of the engineering design process – one that is often not addressed in classrooms because of time issues.


Here’s everything you need to plan this activity:

► The Drop, Stop Don’t Pop! two-day lesson plan (download PDF)

► Day 1 slides for math class (download PPT)

► Day 2 slides for science class (download PPT)

As you browse through the lesson, you’ll quickly see that one goal is to refresh student awareness about the principles of effective teamwork. Two resources might be helpful to you in this regard: my Student Teaming Tips guide, and a student handout from my book: Design Tool 8.3: Important Team Behaviors.

(Special thanks to the Mobile Area Education Foundation and its award-winning initiative, Engaging Youth in Engineering, for giving me permission to share this launcher with you. )

A couple of additional resources you might find useful

STEM Activities for Middle School Students from Illinois Valley Community College. These aj-design-squadlaunchers involve kids in trade-offs and cost considerations as well as design.

Design Squad Teacher’s Guide. Not all of these lessons are mini-challenges, but this is a site worth visiting and remembering when you need a STEM lesson to adapt during the school year.

If you decide to look for a shorter mini-challenge to use as a launcher, be sure it’s more than a fun activity. Kids need to address a real-world challenge, follow an engineering design process, and understand how to work together to successfully solve the challenge.


stem by design cover 140My book STEM by Design: Strategies and Activities for Grades 4-8 is published by Routledge/Eye On Education, in partnership with MiddleWeb. Readers of this post can receive a 20% discount with code MWEB1 at the Routledge website.

From the Amazon description: “This practical book…has all the answers and tools you need to get started or enhance your current program. Based on the author’s popular MiddleWeb blog of the same name, STEM by Design reveals the secrets to successful lessons in which students use science, math, and technology to solve real-world engineering design problems.”

Anne Jolly

Anne Jolly began her career as a lab scientist, caught the science teaching bug, and was recognized as an Alabama Teacher of the Year during her years as a middle grades science teacher. From 2007-2014 Anne was part of an NSF-funded team that developed middle grades STEM curriculum modules and teacher PD materials for the Mobile Area Education Foundation's Engaging Youth through Engineering initiative. In 2020-2021 Anne teamed to develop a middle school STEM workforce curriculum for Flight Works Alabama. Her book STEM By Design: Strategies & Activities for Grades 4-8 is published by Routledge/MiddleWeb.

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2 Responses

  1. Harry says:

    Hi, I have this Stop, Drop, Don’t Pop launcher. Where can I find more example launchers that I can use?


  2. Anne Jolly says:

    Hi, Harry. There are three more, but I’ll need to get permission to post them. I’ll send a message out today to the Mobile Area Education Foundation who developed them. Remember – they are not full-fledged STEM (because they don’t intentionally reference specific math and science content.) They are meant to introduce kids to engineering. Feel free to modify them and let me know how it goes.

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