For Family Engagement, Try a STEAM Challenge!

  • Elementary
Camille Jones

My school launched our STEAM Lab in 2014, and my first goal was to teach students and their families the value behind this integrated, applied, hands-on approach to learning. However, with only 45 minutes, twice a month, for most students, I knew this couldn’t be accomplished simply within the walls of my classroom.

None of us had heard of STEAM before. I smirked when my principal posed the idea to me, thinking, “it’s pronounced STEM, but OK.” After a summer of researching the theory behind STEAM and the curricula others were using around the country, I realized the key. While STEAM sounds new, it’s just an intentional label slapped on skills my students are already building, skills their parents already use.

That’s how the Family STEAM Challenges were born. Once a month, I introduce a challenge that students take home and work on with their families. Over the last five years, these challenges have grown beyond my initial goal into a tradition that our community looks forward to throughout the year.

Have I piqued your curiosity? Read on for the FAQ.

What exactly are the challenges, anyway?

Over the years we have tweaked these activities and tested others. (The play dough challenge, shown above, is one of my favorites currently out of rotation.) Many are seasonal. The projects can lean more artsy or more technical, but they are always open-ended enough to integrate both. Here is our line up for this year:

October: Painted Pumpkins

A pumpkin decorated with candy corns to look like a cat.

November: Turkeys in Disguise

turkeys disguised as Pancho Villa and a cheerleader.

December: Ugly Sweaters

two students wearing homemade ugly sweaters

January: Cardboard Creations

A horse made of cardboard.

February: Make Your Own Mailbox

Student made mailbox that looks like a fish.

March: Build a (Leprechaun) Trap

A student created leprechaun trap.

April: STEAM Night Projects

A student's Homemade Ice Cream STEAM Night Project.

May: STEAM Night Projects (continued)

A student showing her "how to" on arts and crafts at STEAM Night.

June: The Egg Drop Challenge

Student holding her egg drop experiment.


Some of the challenges tie to holidays that not all students celebrate. How can they be more inclusive?

This is one of the thoughts that always challenges me, and it is why we have played around with different activities over the years. In Quincy, there is opportunity to expand our cultural awareness. I want to include all students in every challenge, so I try very hard to keep the projects as open-ended as possible.

For example, February is a Mailbox Challenge. I designed this challenge because many students enjoy making mailboxes for classroom Valentine’s Day parties and I wanted to capture that energy. However, during the initial pitch and all written communication thereafter, I never refer to the challenge as specifically about Valentine’s Day. I also provide both Valentine’s and non-Valentine’s related examples. The challenge is open to students’ interpretation.

What about families who lack the time or supplies to participate?

Honestly, when we first started these challenges, this was my biggest fear. Over 80% of my students qualify for free and reduced lunch, and in a farm town, nearly everyone works outrageously long hours. I feared we would have low participation, but I decided to give it a try--and I was blown away. Some months, we have up to half the school turn in projects!

We still have plenty of room for improvement, and we’ve found creative ways to provide more opportunity to more kids over the years. Sometimes teachers choose to lead the challenge in class or I open up my makerspace for students to “shop” for supplies they need. We’ve also gathered donations from the community for bigger supplies like pumpkins and sweaters.

The most effective thing we’ve done to make it easier for anyone to participate is partnering with the Quincy Recreation Department. Once or twice a month they host STEAM Nights centered on our monthly challenges. They provide the supplies and the space, and teachers come by to help out and try the challenge for themselves. As time has gone on, I’ve noticed it’s many of the same families who attend these events each month, telling me we’re accomplishing our goal. Families often bring the whole crew--toddlers and older kids, too. The whole family has fun together.  I get to catch up with past students and meet incoming youngsters, too.

On the other hand, how do you avoid overly-helpful parents?

Family help is not only allowed, but encouraged. For these projects, my goal is for students to see that their families have and value the skills I’m teaching at school. I want the conversations that begin in my classroom to echo past the walls of our school. Even if (gasp!) parents end up doing the whole project for their children--the kids are seeing the value in learning these skills. But honestly, that doesn’t happen often. The projects are too much fun. There is no competition, award, rubric, or consequence for lack of participation. (AKA no motivation for parents to spend hours working on these projects alone). These challenges are simply for fun, for exploration, and for family engagement, and that is what they have proven to be.

How do you communicate about the challenges each month?

Each month I launch the challenge at an all-school assembly, with examples from past projects or the web. The same day, all students take home flyers that describe the challenge, examples, details for the family event (described above), as well as the deadlines for the project.  In addition, we try to hype it up throughout the month via Facebook, our school website, and morning announcements. It’s become a whole school effort!

How are the projects displayed at school?

Most months, students bring their projects to school to display in the library. The November challenge is more two-dimensional, so we hang them up. They take over our entire front hallway of the school. Some months, the challenge leads up to a special event (Ugly Sweaters, Science Fair, Egg Drop), and we ask students to bring them in on the day of the activity.

Don’t the kids get bored doing the same projects year after year?

This is the fifth year we’ve had some of the projects going, and I haven’t seen any drop in engagement. Actually, it's more common that students plan ahead for next year. I see them starting to incorporate more complex ideas we learn in class into their projects each year.  Now, that being said, we are a K-3 building.  Next year, we will transition to a K-5 building and I plan to prepare some challenge variations for the older students. For example, older students could design catapults to launch the pumpkins at the end of October. Or I could separate the egg challenge into grade bands for egg drops, egg launches, and egg rovers.

These challenges have been a great community builder for Quincy. From the days when I was scratching even my own head at the idea of “STEAM”, today we all buy into this integrated, applied, hands-on approach to learning. I frequently have parents, students, and other teachers bringing me new ideas for challenges, or lessons to teach in class. Still, these projects are always a work in progress. If you have ideas for other variations, ways to make them more accessible to all students, or new challenge ideas, please leave them in the comments!


  • Family Engagement
  • STEM
  • Student Engagement
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The opinions expressed by the CORElaborate Bloggers, guest bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD), Ready Washington or any employee thereof. PSESD is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the Washington State Teacher Leader or Guest Bloggers.

Camille Jones Board

K-3 STEAM Schoolwide Enrichment & Highly Capable Teacher at Pioneer Elementary in Quincy, WA

I am a hometown teacher in Central Washington State, and the 2017 WA State Teacher of the Year. My classroom is a place to inspire curiosity, create opportunity, and grow potential. Where everyone (me included!) is challenged to do hard things, on purpose, every day. Outside of school, I love spending time in the mountains or on the water, and anything else that involves my husband, baby girl, or black lab Obi Wan. For more writing, and other inspirations from my classroom, find me on Twitter @farmtableteach or at