sTEm Puzzles Cultivate Problem-Based Learning At The Elementary Level

They are young, they are innovative, and they have a passion for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Seth Dillon, Cody Torres, Jacob Argoncilli, Janya Capel and Dheron Barnes may be young, but it is not premature to envision them as future engineers. These fifth graders at Brooksville Elementary School (BES) in Hernando County are part of the engineering club at BES, and share a common passion for STEM. The engineering club is one of the most robust clubs on campus, and has members engaged in hands-on projects that range from building bridges, learning about live weight, dead weight, or programming robots.
A key part of their learning lies in becoming “out-of-the-box thinkers.” To set them on this path, Anna Speessen, one of the STEM teachers and a technology ambassador at BES has devised a plan that involves integration of FLATE’s, state-of-the-art STEM puzzles, into her STEM curriculum. To date, Speessen has used puzzles 1, 3 and 7 to teach fifth grade students like Seth and his classmates linear measurements, angles, and how to read graphs.

Speessen’s approach is simple. Her motto “the faster we fail, the sooner we succeed” adopted from the television show “Design Squad” is somewhat of a reverse engineering strategy. In that, to derive a solution and/or come to a reasonable conclusion, students undergo a step-by-step process whereby they talk about the things they do know, to get to the things they don’t know. Speessen hopes somewhere during the process students will be able to connect and bridge the dots, deconstruct the problem, understand, analyze and perhaps come to some form of solution, or at least a solution they are able to defend. The idea is a deviation from an answer-driven, traditional classroom form of learning/teaching to a more analytical skill-building tactic—one that promotes problem-based learning and higher level thinking skills.

In addition to cultivating analytical skills, the STEM puzzles have also helped expand students’ knowledge about local manufacturers by taking the content they’re learning in the classroom and connecting it to the real world using real world companies/scenarios. The STEM puzzles have also given students an opportunity to work as a group to bounce ideas off of each other, and raised awareness about local high-tech opportunities. Speessen hopes the experience will continue on in middle school, “motivate students to develop a passion for STEM," and to apply STEM in everyday practical applications.

The STEM puzzles represent a larger FLATE-led “sTEm-at-work” initiative that works to dispel a commonly held misconception that the letters s, t, e and m are four independent disciplines, and to advocate an operating principle behind STEM that science and mathematics support engineering practices that culminate in a technology application. The "sTEm-at-work" initiative currently offers three resources: STEM Puzzles, STEM video clips with embedded lessons, and HSTI or the High School Technology Initiative. To learn more about FLATE’s sTEm initiatives and resources contact Dr. Marilyn Barger at, or visit