Back to School STEM Challenges are among my favorites, so this pandemic had me extra cranky thinking about yet another thing ruined by the changes this year.

I figured out a little mind game to play with myself though that I think might save the day when it comes to Back to School STEM: when I let go of what it was and what I wanted it to be, I was able to free up my mind to reimagine what it could be now.

I did a live stream recently where I talked through some of the modifications for one of my favorite fall STEM Challenges: Apples A-head. I consider both social distancing and distance learning. I’ll sum up the ideas underneath the video, so take your pick of how you like your content delivered!



What Apples A-head Was

In Apples A-head, students create a device to help them balance an apple on their heads, which they test by participating in a relay race. It’s a fabulous challenge for the end of the first week of school. Teachers get to see how students think, problem-solve, and work collaboratively.

A part of this challenge still works in distancing environments: because I was always concerned about head lice, in this challenge, each student creates his/her own head gear. The collaboration piece can come in several forms:

  • teams can create one design that each student builds
  • teams can create unique designs, but include a unifying team element
  • teams give each other feedback on unique designs
  • teams choose a team name
  • teams participate in the relay race together


Here’s a video walk-through of the challenge, the way it was:


Not all of that works with our new normal, so let’s talk about changes needed.


What Apples A-head Can Be

We have to consider issues with getting materials, especially for those learning from home. We also need to address the relay race piece.


I always aim to use simple and cheap materials, but that doesn’t mean I can expect families to have it all on hand. And not everything you see above is strictly required for the challenge anyway.

One of the mind shifts I have made is in recognizing things as lessons and teachable moments I might not have considered before. In the case of materials, I might make an entire lesson around having students consider the suggested materials list and look around their homes for substitutions. Think about the comparing & contrasting and consideration of properties that students do in this case.

This also gives me an opportunity to introduce one of my favorite STEM Ideals: Be resourceful. I love the idea of training students early on to be resourceful and work around perceived obstacles. It’s so empowering!

In the video at the top of this post, I go through examples of materials substitutions starting at about the 8 minute mark.

Collaboration & the Relay Race

Ms. Yonemura Apples A-head STEM Relay 2

Most of the collaboration options listed in what Apples A-head was apply in social distance and distance learning environments, but the relay race piece is tricky! Can that work? What adjustments can we make and still have it be joyful?!

Relay Race Options in Social Distance (SD) & Distance Learning (DL) Environments:

First, you know you don’t have to solve all the problems yourself, right?! Involve your students! Put them in teams (breakout rooms or shared slides work well with DL) and lay out how the relay race used to be implemented to test designs.

Lay it out as criteria & constraints.

Criteria examples:

  • We need an active way to test designs
  • Designs should be tested in teams
  • Tests should be fun or silly
  • Tests should be fair

Constraints examples:

  • no shared materials
  • students can’t be within 6 feet of each other
  • students are at home on Zoom

In teams, have students brainstorm and recommend relay race alternatives or modifications. In the video at the top of this post, I talk through some ideas at about the 20 minute mark.


This Can Work

What this exercise taught me is the importance of letting go of my notion of how something should be in order to free up what it can become. It’s very similar to when we see kids struggling with immense frustration and emotional investment in a design that isn’t working. Sometimes it’s good to keep trying, and sometimes when you let it go, you’ll find another way that has its own advantages. What I want isn’t an option right now, but there are opportunities in what is … if I can get out of my way long enough to discover them.


Apples A-head STEM Challenge Paperless Resource Cover

Apples A-Head Print Resource Cover