In the last year or so,  I’ve seen an increasing number of requests in social media groups I’m part of for STEM Challenges that can be done in 5 minutes.

5 minutes?!





How challenging can anything be that can be accomplished in just 5 minutes?


Five minutes isn’t even enough time for a proper build, let alone all the other steps of the Engineering Design Process / STEM Challenge Cycle that make the challenge worth doing in the first place.


We dedicate endless instructional minutes to reading and math to the detriment of everything else. I’m honestly getting tired of defending the need for a well-rounded, full-bodied education. Besides the fact that the ELA/Math stranglehold isn’t working, it’s short-sighted. We aren’t preparing students for success in the 21st century when we ignore science, history, art, music, PE, character education, and on and on and on.


I recently wrote about why “simple” STEM is a problem, so I won’t repeat those arguments here. It’s sufficient to say that “simple” STEM is to STEM Challenges what this dog’s routine is to exercise!





Today, let’s assume you agree or are at least open to the idea that simple STEM isn’t remotely the same thing as actual STEM Challenges.

We’ll focus on problem-solving our time issues to allow for deeper, better STEM Challenges that prepare students for the 21st century — even if that means we end up doing fewer of them throughout the year. Fewer can be better!


Step 1: Reality Check

Take a look at your schedule. The minutes you’re given have largely been imposed upon you. What you choose to do from there affords far more choice than we might initially believe.


Would you reasonably say any of the following?

I want to make world-class pasta sauce from scratch, but I only have 15 minutes.

I need someone to paint my house impeccably, top-to-bottom, in the next 2 hours.

I’m going to need a full glamorous makeover for my high school reunion, and I also have just 30 minutes to get ready.

I really need that heart surgery, but I really only have an hour to spare for it. Can anyone recommend a heart surgeon who can get it done in an hour?




It is similarly absurd to expect simple, 5-minute “challenges” to deliver on the benefits of a well-conducted STEM Challenge. You either adjust your expectations of the outcome, or you find the time to get the outcome you desire.


I am not willing to adjust my expected student outcomes. So, before we go any further, we should talk about priorities and get on the same page there.


Step 2: Define Priorities

There are a lot of great reasons why to do STEM Challenges with your students.

Here’s my short list:

  • Prepare students with the skills needed to have successful, happy lives in the 21st century.
    • Get students actively engaged in relevant, challenging problem-solving
    • Have students practice the 4 C’s of Engineering (collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking)
    • Work on a host of soft skills around growth mindset, productive failure, resilience, determination, etc.
  • Connect as many content standards as possible


In addition to these goals, I recently put together two questions as part of a STEM Challenge Teacher Personality Quiz that really call into sharp focus your priorities and how well they align with your actions:


At the end of the day, which student goal are you working toward more than any other?


If your class was a carnival ride, how will your students remember it?


Reflecting on these answers and what actually goes on most days in the classroom can be sobering.


It makes me regretful knowing that for a number of years, my schedule often didn’t reflect my priorities. What I realized over time is with some creative planning and connecting multiple subject standards, I could match up important goals with what I was dedicating instructional minutes to in the classroom.


It can be done!


Step 3: Make the Time


A good STEM Challenge is probably going to take between 60-90 minutes. You can split that up over a number of days, but if you want students to not only plan & build, but to also reflect and analyze and make meaningful connections (and you should want those things … a lot) you must dedicate time to these areas.


My priorities listed in the section above can’t be accomplished with “simple” STEM. If I believe those priorities are … well … priorities, I have to make the time and space necessary to accomplish student goals.


Right now, you might be thinking, “Of course I’d love to have students dive deeper and discuss, reflect, analyze, and extend, but I just don’t have the time!”


I’m going to challenge you to think creatively about how you can fit in those crucial steps of the STEM Challenge Cycle. If you’re self-contained, there is no doubt you can make this work. None! Nada! There are so many options!


If you are an elective or single-subject teacher, it can be trickier for sure, but it can be done.


I give several examples of making the full cycle work with short class periods in two videos below.





One example of an elective schedule I’ve heard about since making the videos above is a STEM elective class where the students are seen daily, but each day is dedicated to a different STEM topic: coding, robotics, STEM Challenge, etc. All topics are covered each week.


Monday – Thursday, the class lasts about 45 minutes. On Friday, the students are seen for 20 minutes.


The original schedule placed STEM Challenges on the Friday of each week, so the teacher had 20 minutes to work with.


I’d recommend trying something different in order to gain more from STEM Challenges. I’d consider dedicating an entire week to a STEM Challenge every 4-8 weeks. An entire week would give students time to make it all the way through the cycle with extensions and likely a second opportunity to build. It would also open up a far wider range of STEM Challenges to try. More complex challenges can’t even be built by students in just 20 minutes.


I might similarly focus on the other STEM topics (robotics, coding, etc.) in a similar fashion, with full-week projects that are cycled through less often. You might even mix things up with a deep dive week followed by shorter activities in each area (like the original schedule) to serve as sort of palate cleaner in between. Choosing between breadth and depth requires some balance and some experimentation to find the best fit!


I know there are so many different schedule issues out there. If nothing suggested here solves your problem, please reach out and let me know what your setup is in the comments.

I’m happy to try to help you find a way to make deeper STEM Challenges work with your reality!





You probably have more time than you think to make a proper STEM Challenge work with your schedule. Check out this blog post to see some sample schedules for making STEM Challenges work with short class periods.