Sometimes You Have to Be Sneaky to Teach STEM!

10 Mar 2022

Building high-quality STEM learning projects can be time consuming for teachers. DoD STEM Teacher Ambassador Laura Drager details how the Dayton Regional STEM Center offers a treasure trove of hands-on projects sure to create excitement in the classroom, and sneak in solid learning too!

Laura Drager, Elementary School Science Teacher

The following was written by Laura Drager, a science teacher and DoD STEM Ambassador. DoD STEM Ambassadors work with the Defense STEM Education Consortium (DSEC) to advance STEM outreach for students who are underrepresented in STEM and/or military connected. Drager was selected by Dayton Regional STEM Center, a DSEC partner, as their DoD STEM ambassador for the 2020-2021 school year.

After 13 years teaching science to 5th-graders I am confident in the classroom. I’ve had the time to hone my craft, so to speak. For this post, I’d like to share what my classroom looks like and how it operates. I often say that my students are “tricked” into learning science by participating in projects that are based on proven STEM engineering design principles. The idea to “learn by doing” is not new—about 100 years ago pragmatist and education reformer John Dewey said, “Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.”

If students can learn naturally during project-based lessons—which in my experience they truly love—why aren’t more teachers working this way? One reason is time. It can take significantly more time to create quality projects, especially those that incorporate STEM engineering design challenges. Teachers simply don’t have enough time during their already over-scheduled days.

Enter the Dayton Regional STEM Center (DRSC). The DRSC is a fantastic resource for STEM teachers! The DRSC offers free professional development activities and high-quality project-based learning units for grades PK–12. To take full advantage of this excellent resource, visit the DRSC website at The DRSC is also a wonderful hub to help STEM teachers connect to a national network of others committed to quality STEM education. The DRSC’s problem-based PK–12 units are searchable by grade, and content areas cover the following:

  • Advanced Manufacturing and Materials
  • Agricultural Engineering
  • Air Systems/Vehicles
  • Biological Engineering
  • Civil Engineering
  • Computer Science
  • Data Analysis
  • Environmental Engineering
  • Human Performance and Medicine
  • Modeling and Simulation
  • Power and Propulsion
  • Sensors
  • Statistics

Each unit includes suggestions for differentiation and is organized in two files: 1) a lesson file, including detailed lesson plans for each day of the unit and 2) a resource file, which includes all printable resources needed for the unit. As an added bonus, the resource file can be edited so teachers can make changes to meet unique student needs.

For the past year I have worked with 13 other STEM teachers nationwide through a DoD program called the DoD STEM Teacher Ambassadors to network and work together to build a quality library of STEM activities. We are in the process of adapting existing STEM units to work in a fully remote, virtual setting!

Lights, Color, Race: A 5th-Grade Light and Speed Unit

In my 5th-grade classroom I use the DRSC’s Lights, Color, Race Unit to teach Ohio’s 5th-grade physical science standards about light and sound. First, students work in teams to build solar cars and learn to calculate average speed. Then, using the engineering design process, they adapt their cars to manipulate speed. Students must use their knowledge of light reflection, refraction and absorption to alter the solar panels using materials such as foil, color filters and construction paper. Finally, they are given a speed goal and required to use materials they have already used in their experiments. As a technology tie-in, students learn to use motion sensors to create distance vs. time graphs.

I’d like to close this post by encouraging STEM teachers to incorporate the following components of the STEM Quality Framework into their everyday thinking and communication about STEM with teachers and students. The STEM Quality Framework is an effective tool to help develop quality STEM learning experiences.

STEM Quality Framework Components

  1. Potential for Engaging Students of Diverse Academic Backgrounds
    STEM learning experiences are designed to engage the minds and imaginations of students of diverse academic backgrounds.

  2. Degree of STEM Integration
    STEM learning experiences are carefully designed to help students integrate knowledge and skills from Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

  3. Connections to Non-STEM Disciplines
    STEM learning experiences help students connect STEM knowledge and skills with academic standards from other disciplines.

  4. Integrity of the Academic Content
    STEM learning experiences are content-accurate, anchored to the relevant content standards and focused on the big ideas and foundational skills critical to future learning in the targeted discipline(s).

  5. Quality of the Cognitive Task
    STEM learning experiences challenge students to develop higher order thinking skills through processes such as inquiry, problem-solving and creative thinking.

  6. Connections to STEM Careers
    STEM learning experiences place students in learning environments that help them to better understand and personally consider STEM careers.

  7. Individual Accountability in a Collaborative Culture
    STEM learning experiences often require students to work and learn independently and in collaboration with others using effective interpersonal skills.

  8. Nature of Assessment(s)
    STEM learning experiences require students to demonstrate knowledge and skill, in part, through performance-based tasks.

  9. Application of the Engineering Design Process
    STEM learning experiences require students to demonstrate knowledge and skills fundamental to the engineering design process (e.g., brainstorming, researching, creating, testing, improving).

  10. Quality of Technology Integration
    STEM learning experiences provide students with hands-on experience in using multiple technologies.


Laura Drager is a 5th-grade science teacher who is passionate about hands-on learning and engineering design challenges. She holds an MEd from Wright State University and a Curriculum, Instruction and Professional Development administrative license from the University of Dayton. She is currently serving as curriculum coordinator for the Montgomery County Educational Service Center, the parent organization for the DRSC. Drager has also been recognized with a STEM Education Leadership and Service Award from the DRSC.


The DRSC coordinates an established network of regional institutions and professionals that provide rich opportunities for STEM education by training and supporting educators, designing curriculum aligned with workforce needs, training school leaders at the district and building level and supporting schools and program models committed to STEM teaching and learning. The DRSC serves as a hub for building pathways into STEM careers in defense installations in the Dayton, Ohio, area, including Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. For more information, visit