5 Ways to Spur Student Growth and Opportunity Through Hands-On STEM

Mar 06, 2018 By Donald E. Bossi, President of FIRST




Teacher with students on computer

Editor’s Note: This post by FIRST President Don Bossi was originally published on The Teaching Channel’s Tchers’ Voice blog. We’re sharing it this week as FIRST heads to SXSW Edu, where Don will be leading a discussion on nonprofit-corporate partnerships in education with representatives from FIRST Strategic Partners Qualcomm and Rockwell Automation.

It may seem far down the line when we talk about career prospects for elementary school students — or even for middle schoolers — but many students decide on careers in STEM long before they graduate high school. Plus, STEM skills and digital literacy have a proven demand in a job market that is increasingly technology and data-driven, thus making these skills critical competencies students should be learning in school.

Research shows a startling gap between what business leaders expect of graduates and the reality in the classroom: by 2021, 67 percent of U.S. executives expect to choose job candidates with data skills over those without, but only 23 percent of educators believe their students will graduate with these essential technology and analytical skills.

Educators need tangible resources to build the skills students need to succeed in the current and future workforce. Active-learning activities provide students with practical, hands-on education and engagement key to building their STEM competencies. Whether these activities are done in the classroom or as an after-school program, students lead the learning and gain opportunities to hone their teamwork, delegation, problem-solving, and communication skills.

Today’s over-burdened educators need easy-to-adapt strategies for implementing new STEM programs or curriculum. Here are some tips to make the most of hands-on learning in your classroom:

  • Choose programs and curriculum that offer multiple benefits. Team-based robotics programs like FIRST or computer science courses like can provide both tech and soft skills development for your students.
  • Once you’ve implemented a program in your classroom or an after-school setting, encourage teamwork and peer-to-peer learning through small-group work. Mix students into groups that span social circles and STEM affinity to facilitate personal growth and learning.
  • Provide opportunities for students to learn new skills and discover new interests. For example, a robotics program provides multiple opportunities for student engagement, from programming and engineering to marketing and fundraising. Consider rotating tasks and functions among students to maximize their exposure before setting more permanent assignments.
  • Demonstrate how and why STEM and digital literacy are important. Clearly communicate to your students how STEM permeates almost every job, from marketing to mechanics, and empower your students to use their smarts for good. There are countless examples of kids and classrooms using their knowledge for public good.
  • Take advantage of the local business community and engage professionals to mentor your students. Invite a local engineer, mechanic, marketer, computer programmer and more to come speak to your class and demonstrate how classroom lessons and activities translate into careers. You may also be able to recruit these professionals to serve as ongoing mentors, guiding your students and serving as a valuable sounding board throughout projects.

Hands-on learning activities are key to uncovering and solidifying students’ interest in STEM and go a long way toward setting them up for success in the workforce. Consider these and other ways to make hands-on activities fun and insightful in your classroom.

If you have an inspiring story or piece of wisdom that you’ve picked up through your experiences in the FIRST community, please reach out to us at and inquire about becoming a guest contributor for Inspire.

Back to Blog