Teaching STEM Practices with Coding

Teaching STEM Practices with Coding

Successful scientists have a habit of asking good questions. Efficient mathematicians have a habit of noticing patterns. The STEM Practices are “habits of mind” every student needs to develop. Coding can be the key!


Coding isn’t just for computer programmers. It’s a thinking skill we all use.

Say it’s breakfast time, and you want a piece of toast. What is the first step of your toast-making procedure? (Find the bread.) What do you do next?


As you prepare your breakfast, you are actually using a set of step-by-step procedures that you extracted from your mental library. Your toast-making algorithm probably includes some “if/then” statements (if no jam then use peanut butter) and “do until” commands (do toast until smoke alarm). Even during breakfast, you’re thinking like a coder!


Since students are already coders, why not use coding to help them master the STEM Practices? Let’s try it!


Planet Can It

Can a blindfolded student (Mars rover) get a tennis ball (Mars rock) into a tin can (sample bin) using kitchen tongs (robot arm)? The Rover will need clear commands from

Mission Control to get the job done!

Rover’s job:

Pretend to be the Mars rover. Start by putting on a blindfold and an oven mitt. Then hold a tennis ball in a pair of kitchen tongs. There will be a tin can in front of you, but you won’t be able to see it!

Mission Control’s job:

The rest of the students pretend to be Mission Control. They use verbal commands to guide the Rover to put the ball in the can.  At first, students may only use a limited set of commands (up, down, in, out, left, right, open, close). Extend the learning by asking the students to brainstorm other commands. If time permits, try the activity with some enhanced commands like (“move until…”).


Things to notice:

In my experience, students of all ages love this activity! They are immediately immersed in the process of coding. Of course, the Rover will fail a few times before having any success. Then, everyone will want a turn to be the Rover! Students will quickly see why it is important to think systematically, give clear instructions, and be an efficient communicator.  


Here are a few ways this engineering challenge reinforces STEM Practices:

NGSS – Science and Engineering Practices CCSS – Math Practices CSTA – Computer Science Practices
  • Use Models
  • Design a Solution
  • Communicate
  • Persevere
  • Critique Arguments
  • Use Structure
  • Create Step-by-step Instructions
  • Break Big Problems into Subproblems
  • Test and Debug

Beeline Delivery Service


In this math challenge, students become the world’s most efficient delivery drivers. Teams place blue sticky notes on a simple map showing where the delivery truck needs to go. But what route should it follow? The students place other sticky notes with a left arrow, right arrow, or “straight ahead” arrow to mark the route they think is best. Both these route ideas will work. How are they different?

The notes are a series of instructions, which can be followed by hand using a block to represent the truck, or they can be executed with a programmable mouse like the Code & Go™ Robot Mouse. 

Because teams will come up with multiple solutions, students will have a wonderful opportunity to analyze data, argue from evidence, and optimize their design solutions.


Here are a few ways this coding challenge reinforces STEM Practices:

NGSS – Science and Engineering Practices CCSS – Math Practices CSTA – Computer Science Practices
  • Define Problems
  • Design Solutions

  • Argue from Evidence

  • Use Models
  • Attend to Precision
  • Use Repeated Reasoning
  • Use Data
  • Create Step-by-step Instructions
  • Develop Programs

Coding Patterns

Introducing this science challenge can inspire students to actually look closely at the beautiful patterns found in nature. As they model patterns on their computers, they may notice the graceful swirl in a sunflower or the impressive regularity of a honeycomb!

I did the examples above with Scratch (a free tool developed by MIT). Scratch code “clicks together” on the screen.  

If you want to minimize the programming component of this task, give your students the basic code and challenge them to see what happens when they change some of the variables. In almost no time, they will be generating amazing geometric patterns.


For teachers who are eager to add more technology, a low-cost robot can be used as a programmable graphing tool. Artie 3000 is one example. As the robot drives around on the paper, your students will be captivated by the complex and graceful patterns it leaves behind.

Here are some of the STEM Practices this activity reinforces:

NGSS – Science and Engineering Practices CCSS – Math Practices CSTA – Computer Science Practices
  •  Investigate
  • Analyze Data
  • Use Computational Thinking
  • Reason Abstractly and Quantitatively
  • Use Tools
  • Use Structure
  • Operate Software
  • Use Visualization
  • Develop Programs

Practices Make Perfect

The activities shown here are just examples of the many creative ways coding can be used to help students master the STEM “habits of mind” they’ll use throughout their lives. I hope some of our ideas jumpstart your own thinking.  Even if you are not a coding expert, don’t be afraid to “Start small and think big!”

2 months ago
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Greg Brown

Greg Brown is an Education Consultant, Curriculum Developer, and Teacher Coach. He began his career as an engineer at a Silicon Valley R&D center, where he led a worldwide technical training program. Greg left industry to help start The Tech Museum, an educational resource dedicated to inspiring young innovators. As a vice president at the museum, he conceived and launched The Tech Challenge, a project-based learning program designed to engage young people who may not see a future for themselves in science or engineering. The Tech Challenge attracts thousands of students each year. Greg continued inspiring teachers and learners as the Director of Education Initiatives at Resource Area For Teaching. His work included expanding the RAFT library of hands-on kits and lesson plans to cover virtually every topic in Common Core Math and the Next Generation Science Standards. Recently, Greg co-wrote a middle school science curriculum which has been approved for adoption by the State of California. He also launched a series of teacher workshops on creativity and design thinking. Throughout his career, Greg has delivered hundreds of teacher training programs at schools and non-profits, as well as state and national education conferences. Greg holds BS and MS degrees in General Engineering and Product Design from Stanford University.

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