Hands-on Activities Offer Benefits Beyond STEM Education

08 Mar 2022

How can educators engage students in STEM and help them become the diverse workforce that will move our country forward?

Christine Romero, Digital Learning Coach

The following was written by Christina Romero, a digital learning coach and DoD STEM Ambassador. DoD STEM Ambassadors work with the Defense STEM Education Consortium (DSEC) to advance STEM outreach for students who are underrepresented in STEM and/or military connected. Romero was selected by TGR Foundation, a DSEC partner, as their DoD STEM ambassador for the 2020-2021 school year.

Quick! The district observation team is coming down the hall! What do you do? Remind students of expectations? Pray the team doesn’t come in? Offer students donuts if they are on their best behavior? When this happened to me, I quietly reminded students to keep a clear path for the visitors to walk, and we kept on working.

Why was I so calm about the prospect of an unannounced visit? I was teaching 5th grade and students were testing the latest iteration of their K’Nex cars and collecting data. They worked in groups of three or four, and all were focused on the work in front of them. When the associate superintendent stopped to question them, they wowed him with their responses about what they were doing and the concepts they were studying.

Student engagement and its challenges is the subject of many books, professional development classes, and teacher discussions. Engaging students in STEM can be even more difficult. In Santa Fe Public Schools, 85% of students are people of color. Nearly 75% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. While the number of people of color and women is increasing, they remain underrepresented in the STEM workforce. Engagement in STEM courses often falls off as students perceive it as too difficult or boring. So the question becomes, how can we engage students in STEM and help them become the diverse workforce that will move our country forward?

Early in my teaching career, I was introduced to hands-on science units: units on electricity that had students connecting batteries and wires to light bulbs, chemical tests to identify mystery powders, and modeling of a human hand using popsicle sticks and rubber bands. Students could often be found in the hallway that offered the space needed to run K’Nex cars to study forces and motion. During open house events, students challenged their parents to light the bulb or move the model hand and explained the concepts they studied. Their excitement and learning was easy to see.

In addition to being highly engaging, these activities challenged students to think critically: What adjustments can I make to make the car travel farther? How can a microscope help me identify an unknown substance? What happens when hot and cold water meet? They eagerly devoured texts to find the answers to questions generated by the activities. As a result, their reading skills improved along with their math skills. Additionally, through a study of inquiry science and the Smithsonian Science Education Center’s LASER program, students made gains in their knowledge of science as well as reading and math. Emerging multilingual and special education students achieved educationally meaningful gains in reading and science through the hands-on science program.

The group nature of this type of learning also helps build skills such as leadership and collaboration. Students learn to communicate and solve problems with each other as they work together on a challenge or activity. It is common to see the game Rock, Paper, Scissors used to resolve small disputes such as who will pick up the materials. When there is a disagreement over what it all means, students use evidence from the activity to support their position.

Hands-on and inquiry-based learning also provides opportunities for students to see themselves in different roles. Among Hispanic students, it is common for families to encourage their children to do well in school, and that is often measured by grades on a report card. But what are those grades measuring? Guided sense-making discussions and journal entries help students understand the concepts behind their experiences. I can quickly see what they know and address misconceptions. Students gain confidence in their ability to comprehend STEM content and begin to see opportunities for their future.

Not every student will go on to a STEM career. But all students will be part of communities with problems and issues, and a strong STEM foundation will give them confidence to participate in figuring out the solutions. Now my students have a voice and can help to move their world forward.


Christina Romero is a digital learning coach with Santa Fe Public Schools in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She works with teachers and students to plan and implement lessons that integrate technology tools and provides support to teachers, students and families for remote learning. She also has 23 years of classroom teaching experience in 3rd–5th grades, including STEM subjects. As a site coordinator for the LASER program, Romero helped to implement an inquiry science program, providing teacher support, training, oversight of materials and strategic planning. Through the LASER program and the Inquiry Science Education Consortium, she became a trainer for inquiry science units as well as content units. She is one of the 2016 New Mexico finalists for the President’s Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching.


TGR Foundation’s award-winning STEM curricula, college-access programs, digital platforms, and educator professional development offer underrepresented students the resources and support needed to thrive in school and beyond. The Foundation’s role in the Defense STEM Education Consortium is to provide STEM teacher professional development to aid in the implementation of high-quality, integrated STEM teaching and learning, particularly for underserved students. For more information, visit tgrfoundation.org.