Collaboration and Competition: STEM Extensions

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SWABT explore science, technology, engineering and math projects for fun and extended learning.

Big Idea

Competition? Yes! Maker Space? Yes! Project that sort of meets standards? Yes!


10 minutes

Every teacher has a few lessons or projects that are fun, engaging, messy, great and may not align very well with the ever-changing landscape of standards, teacher effectiveness and standardized testing. Sometimes these lessons find a place on a dusty shelf, but some are too good to let go! This lesson represents an entire strategy to meet the student need of differentiated learning. Extensions to learning for students who push the boundaries of the standards are necessary for classroom management, provision of differentiated instruction and to keep students interested and excited. Here, students discuss why they like extension work:

In order to ENGAGE students in this lesson, there are several key factors that should be present in order to ensure that the extensions offered will stoke curiosity and enthusiasm while meeting an educational purpose:

1) High Interest - Extension projects must have elements that are relevant for students. To find student interests, consider using a strategy like What Lights Your Fire: Surveying Student Interests to Drive Curriculum.

2) Fun - Students often associate extensions with extra work. If the project is fun, work and play overlap in a way where learning can occur!

3) Competitive - There is nothing like a little competition to get the fire of enthusiasm lit! By making the extension process competitive, students are driven by their peers to push their learning to a different level.

4) Standards-Based and Connected to Content - Extension projects are meant to extend the learning that is occurring within the class. Choosing projects that take the current content to a new level or in a new direction promote a coherent approach to instruction. At the very least, extensions will allow students to plan an investigation individually or collaboratively or conduct an investigation  to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence that meet the goals of the investigation (SP3).

5) Hands On and Minds On - Extension projects balance hands on (making, doing, experimenting, inquiry) with minds on (thinking, probing, inventing, stretching) activities to maximize learning.

6) Choice - Offering choices (type of project, final product, whether to participate or not) helps students to feel that they are an active partner in learning.

7) Presentation - The song and dance of presenting extension projects to the class or to individual students has to have a positive, enthusiastic and peppy tone. Make a big deal of it! Make the presentations of extension projects a show!

If these factors are present, most students will meet their own needs for differentiation by choosing extension projects that interest them. For more on whether to require extensions, read this section's reflection: To Require or Not Require: Extensions for Differentiation.


The EXPLORE stage of the lesson is to get students involved in the topic so that they start to build their own understanding. To help students explore different extensions, students are encouraged to access these projects by:

1) Visiting the "Extend Yourself" file box in our classroom. Copies of extension opportunities are available and are arranged by unit.

2) Participate in one of our class building competitions, like: Building Bridges Extension, Cardboard Chair Extension, Tennis Ball Launch Extension or Rube Goldberg Extension.

3) Read science-related articles and respond using: Article Analysis Graphic Organizer.

4) Become part of an extension project lunch group.

5) Access extension opportunities that are embedded in different investigations.

6) Devise their own extension. They find great resources like this one: Middle School Science: Junkyard Wars.

Check out all of the resources in this section for additional project ideas! View this video of testing cardboard chairs:


The EXPLAIN stage provides students with an opportunity to communicate what they have learned so far and figure out what it means and the EVALUATION stage is for both students and teachers to determine how much learning and understanding has taken place. There are are many ways for students to explain or show what they have learned for the purposes of evaluation. Including:

1) Oral Presentation

2) Visual Presentation

3) Technology Presentation: Digital Science Notebook

4) Lab Conclusion: RECALL Lab Conclusion Part 1 and Part 2

5) Conclusion or Analysis Questions: Writing Arguments from Evidence

6) Quiz or Test

7) Teaching a lesson to the class

When deciding on an assessment strategy, it is important think about the reason for the extension in the first place. Was it for fun? Fun and learning? Does the project need a grade? Is the student motivated by grades? Is the project better as a participation activity? Are prizes (other than grades) awarded? To meet all student needs, often the option for completing the extension project for credit or not, is offered to students. Students can choose whether they would like to submit the project for credit by completing a specified final product that shows their advanced understanding.

No matter what you decide about assessment, students crave the chance to express themselves creatively! This section's resources show some examples of student work, as does this student-made video: