Look Inside A Middle School STEM Lab

In my last post, I introduced you to Mark Ochs. Mark is a middle school STEM teacher who transformed an outdated and underutilized technology elective classroom into an advanced middle school STEM lab.


Mark’s class is a 7th and 8th grade STEM lab that is considered an elective class that is 50 minutes in length, 5 days a week, 9 weeks(school quarter) at a time. Because Mark only has students for 9 weeks at a time, his curriculum is limited by the time. Thankfully, this coming 2017-2018 school year will have a change for the better. Mark’s class will move from a quarter longer, to a semester long, allowing Mark to really dive into other components to the class such as building bridges to test on the compression machine and building rockets.

Let’s take a look at what the classroom looked like when he first started and then see what it looks like now.


When I first got the keys to the classroom, the summer before the new school year, I had my work cut out for me. What I found was a curriculum in which students spent nearly all of their time sitting at computers without any hands-on applications and an inventory of unused, sometimes brand new, application projects.  This first thing I did was take inventory of what was there already:

  • Outdated programs
    • Photoshop
    • Home Design
    • AppleWorks
  • Unused Resources
    • Lego Mindstorm, NXT-The prior teacher felt that they robots took to long for students to build. My suggestion to that was to build a base robot and have the students program it.
    • Zome Geometry – zometool.com
    • Wind Generator Demonstrator
    • Maglev Cars
    • Stop Motion Programming
    • Laser Lab

I know there was more but those are the ones I distinctly remember.

Another drawback to the classroom was that all of the computers were running on Windows XP. We didn’t get new computers until this most recent school year, 2016-2017. I would have to check out laptop carts within the school so that my students could work with programs like Tinkercad for 3D modeling. The outdated computers created a lot of problems but I did the best I could and I was extremely grateful to finally get newer computers this year. Now I can continue incorporated new programs and technology without worrying if the computers can keep up.


My curriculum is dependent upon the grade level.

7th grade students work through interactive stations with learning engagements that consist of mini projects. 8th grade students take on larger, more in-depth projects.

I update and change stations to better incorporate concepts from their core math and science classes, as well as to stay current with new technology.

The current stations for the 7th graders consist of the following:

Island 1: Science & Data

1:1 Electricity
In Electricity students have their choice of learning about AC/DC types of electricity or about how Green Energy is capable of powering different types of lights, sounds, etc.
1:2 Laser Lab
The Laser Lab utilizes real lasers to help students understand how they can be applied in the modern world.  Students will also learn about different types of lasers and their applications.
1:3 Vernier Science
Vernier Science utilizes handheld science gathering information.  In this engagement, students will learn about body temperature as well as the solar system among other things that the students choose.

Island 2: Programming

2:1 Coding
Students will learn the basics of coding by playing a multitude of games.
2:2 Kodu Game Lab
Students will learn the basics of creating a video game using Microsoft’s Kodu Game Lab.
2:3 Sphero
Students will apply coding basics by programming a Sphero to bowl.

2:4 Parrot
In this engagement students that have mastered coding and Sphero take it to the next level.  Where Sphero is two dimensional programming (forward/backwards and left/right) the Parrot mini-drone adds a third dimension to it (up/down).  Students also learn the FAA requirements for having and flying a drone.

Island 3: Engineering

3:1 Zome Geometry
During Zome Geometry students will learn the basics of Newton’s Three Laws of motion, centripetal forces, as well as the difference between low, middle and high center of gravities.  Students also have the opportunity to learn the basics of building construction.
3:2 K’Nex
In K’Nex, students will learn the basics of the six simple machines as well as compound machines and how they are utilized in everyday life.
3:3 SketchUp
After SketchUp, students will have a basic knowledge of 3D modeling utilizing a modern software.

 Island 4: Story

4:1 Animation-ish
During this engagement students learn about and create their very own animation.
4:2 Comic Life
Students will create a comic about a historical person.
4:3 CrazyTalk
In CrazyTalk, students will research a person of historical interest and using CrazyTalk, and have a photograph “talk” about themselves using the research the student has found.

Island 5: Production

5:1  Photoshop
In this Engagement students learn the basics digitally morphing and enhancing pictures.
5:2  Premier Pro
Students create their own movie using a state-of-the-art movie editing software.
5:3  Frames
In Frames, students will create their own stop motion animation movie!

Island 6: Green Energy

6:1 Solar Power
Students will learn how the sun is capable of producing enough electricity to power different materials.
6:2 Wind Energy
Students will learn about wind energy utilizing the WinDyanmo 3.  This allows students to see how different blade angles can effect the output of energy.
6:3 K’Nex 2
Students will use K’Nex to learn about different types of renewable energies and how they can be used to power vehicles.

Island 7: Prototype (Only a select group of students may participate in these engagements)

7:1 Magnetism
In this engagement students will learn the basics of magnets and magnetism as well as real world examples.
7:2 RealFlight
Students will learn the basics of flight by using a computer simulated drone software.
7:3 MaKey MaKey
Using MaKey Makey, students will learn the basics of computer programming as well as conductors.

7:4 K’Nex 3
Using K’Nex students that have truly mastered the building process of K’Nex take their building skills to the next level.  Students can build a variety of different models that all move and from there the students must figure out what questions they wish to learn and develop based on their own project.

The 8th grader curriculum consists of more in depth projects with a variety of sub-tasks within them.

Chess Set 2


In this unit, students will be able to:

  • Apply Scientific, Mathematical, and Engineering concepts.
  • Use technology, Tinkercad, a 3D CAD website to help them understand and create 3D drawings.
  • Calculate the prospective cost of their project.
  • Prototype and solve problems within certain criteria.

Formulas used in this unit:

  • Cost to Print = Mass of Object (Cost of Spool/Full Filament Mass)


                In this unit students will learn the basics of coding.  Students will be introduced to blockly and script versions of coding. Then later end of the project involves learning about FAA Drone laws, coding drones, and them taking them to the sky!

Bridges (Returning next school year):

In this unit students will be able to:

  • Apply Scientific, Mathematical, and Engineering concepts.
  • Use technology (CAD-Westpoint Bridge Designer) to help them develop a bridge for testing.
  • Describe different types of bridges.
  • Construct a bridge utilizing balsawood.
  • Measure & record the strength of their bridge.
  • Calculate how their bridge differs from the class average.

Formulas used in this unit:

  • Average
  • Efficiency Rating = Critical Load / Mass

The Newton Grand Prix


 In this unit students will be able to:

  • Apply Scientific, Mathematical, and Engineering concepts.
  • Use technology to understand Newton’s Three Laws of Motion.
  • Describe and use Newton’s Three Laws of Motion
  • Design a CO2 dragster/car utilizing balsawood.
  • Measure & record the speed of their car.
  • Calculate how their car differs from the class average

Formulas used in this unit:

  • Speed=distance/time
  • Velocity=distance/time in a vector direction
  • Kinetic Energy=(1/2 Mass) x Velocity^2
  • Acceleration=Change in Velocity/Time
  • Force=Mass x Acceleration

What’s your favorite project?

The Newton Grand Prix is my favorite. I design a car along with the students to compete with theirs. They love the competition and I love challenging them to beat the teacher!

What opportunities are there for your students to engage in STEM activities outside of the regular school day?

I co-lead our school’s Engineering Academy. We meet every Friday after school working on projects for local competitions or of specific interest to the students. Our most recent project was building a trebuchet for a Punkin’s Chunkin’ contest. The students really dove in and took the lead, just as I had hoped! Now we are moving onto Rockets.

What do you think of Mark’s classroom? If you have any questions, or recommendations, please leave a comment!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Lisa Southern says:



    1. Leah Ochs says:

      Thank you for the comment, Lisa! He has worked very hard to make his classroom what it is today. Thanks for reading!


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