Skip to main content

from the EDITOR’S desk

Exploring Real-World Problems

Engaging middle school students in the exploration of real-world problems, particularly those that require engineering, can not only garner student engagement, but also put students on a path of a future career (Dorph et al. 2018). For those students who don’t plan to pursue a STEM career, immersion in STEM-related activities, particularly problem solving, helps train them to be critical thinkers and problem solvers—characteristics that are useful in any career field (Cohen 2022).

Unlike what typically occurs in the classroom, real-world problems often have no defined solution, and the approach to problem solving can be muddy. If incorporating real-world problems is relatively new to your teaching, you will need to teach the related skills in a way that can be transferred from one setting to another (Mills and Kim 2017). Modeling your thinking as you work through a problem, creating a culture of acknowledging and celebrating failure, and working toward developing a positive mindset in your students can all be ways of helping them become comfortable solving challenging problems.

But how does one incorporate meaningful problems into the school year? Begin by being on the lookout for problems that exist either in the school or in the local community. Students themselves are often able to identify problems that are meaningful to them. Grounding a project in student ideas has the added advantage of providing student voice. Next, tie the project to standards and student learning outcomes by identifying the skills and content your students will acquire through the project. Finally, identify how you want your students to demonstrate their learning.

There are myriad projects that fit into almost any discipline. Whatever you choose, bear in mind that the NGSS call for students to demonstrate their understanding of science through the application of engineering practices. Provide students with the opportunity to develop solutions to problems, specify criteria and constraints of successful solutions, and to optimize their solution through testing and refinement. Incorporating projects provides your students with opportunities to grow not only in STEM, but also in their ability to think critically and compassionately.

Patty McGinnis
Editor, Science Scope


Cohen, A. 2022. Five reasons why STEM career training should start in middle school. Everfi.

Dorph, R., M.E. Bathgate, C.D. Schunn, and M.A. Cannady. 2018. When I grow up: The relationship of science learning activation to STEM career preferences. International Journal of Science Education  40 (9): 1034–1057.

Mills, K., and H. Kim. 2017, October 31. Teaching problem solving: Let students get ‘stuck’ and ‘unstuck.’ Brookings.

Patty McGinnis is an instructional coach and veteran middle school teacher. You can contact her at or on Twitter: @patty_mcginnis.

Careers Engineering NGSS STEM Middle School

Asset 2