Novel coronavirus made the last few months of the 2019-2020 school year incredibly challenging, and it looks like most schools are further postponing the return to in-person classes: Several school districts across the country have already extended virtual learning through at least the first few months of the 2020-2021 school year.

Some subjects easily lend themselves to online lessons while others are more difficult. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) lessons are frequently hands-on. Can you present effective STEM lessons online?

What makes a successful STEM lesson, anyway? In a 2014 article published by Ed Week (, Anne Jolly identified six characteristics of a great STEM lesson:

  1. Focuses on real-world issues and problems
  2. Guided by the engineering design process. Jolly describes the engineering design process as “a flexible process that takes students from identifying a problem—or a design challenge—to creating and developing a solution.”
  3. Immerses students in hands-on inquiry and open-ended exploration
  4. Involves students in productive teamwork
  5. Applies rigorous math and science content your students are learning
  6. Allows for multiple right answers and reframes failure as a necessary part of learning

All of the above can be attained during online STEM lessons with teacher creativity and the appropriate tools. One effective STEM tool is my company's new Digitarium® SkyBox, an easily portable, stand-alone computer designed to complement or substitute for a full-dome planetarium system. It can be used with Digitalis' lesson plans or teachers can create their own lessons.

The Digitarium SkyBox allows teachers to stream flat-screen lessons anywhere, any time; Digitalis includes the live gamer streaming device and instructions for getting started. Once schools reopen, the SkyBox can be used for flat screen in-person lessons. The SkyBox in the future may even be able to be used in a complete Digitarium planetarium system.

Just how can a Digitarium SkyBox be used for effective online lessons? Let's look at each of Jolly's six characteristics:

  1. Real-world problems: Still or time-series datasets can be mapped to bodies in the planetarium software and manipulated live and on the fly. Use datasets to show effects of humans on the environment, such as CO2 levels in the atmosphere or landslide locations overlaying a deforestation dataset. Display GPS satellites in orbit around Earth to discuss how mapping applications like Google maps work. Overlay a map of coronavirus data over the Earth texture for a big-picture view.
  2. Guided by the engineering design process: A lesson plan on getting spacecraft to other bodies could be a starting point for having students design their own spacecraft to travel to another body. For example, discuss NASA's New Horizons mission: The New Horizons spacecraft started its journey to Pluto in January, 2006 but didn't fly by Pluto until July, 2015. Why did it take so long to get there? Why did NASA choose that particular trajectory? What was the fuel? How did technology change between the January, 2006 launch and the July, 2015 fly-by and how did NASA account for technology changes in the design?
  3. Hands-on and open-ended: Students could build physical models of their spacecraft using common household items or use open-source software such as Blender to create a simple CAD. Load students' 3D models into the planetarium software and manipulate them in real-time.
  4. Productive teamwork: This depends more on the teacher's familiarity with the students than on the tools used. Requiring every student to contribute at least one essential component for the project would be one way of encouraging teamwork.
  5. Rigorous math and science standards: The mission activity would target multiple Next Generation Science Standards and could be used with most age groups. Pull in Disciplinary Core Ideas from Earth and Space Science, Physical Science, Engineering, Technology, and Applications of Science, and many more. It's a great topic for cross-cutting concepts as well.
  6. Multiple right answers, reframes failure: There is no one right answer to the spacecraft question, and students may find that they have to redesign elements as they proceed. Discuss why NASA, SpaceX, etc. design and test prototypes whenever possible, and how not every mission has been a success, but companies learn from these failures. 

STEM education is important for teaching students to think critically. If done correctly, STEM education can set students up for future success, even if they do not choose a career in the sciences. In an official position statement, the National Science Teaching Association declares,

Modern STEM education promotes not only skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, higher-order thinking, design, and inference, but also behavioral competencies such as perseverance, adaptability, cooperation, organization, and responsibility […].

Astronomy is an extremely popular and engaging topic that overlaps many other subjects, such as sociology (constellations of other cultures); Earth science; physics; mathematics; art; language arts; engineering; and more. The Digitarium SkyBox is an inspiring and effective way to present STEM lessons online or in person.

Learn more at

Around NSBA

A group of high school students paint on canvases during an art class.

2023 Magna Awards Grand Prize Winners

School districts rethink and reinvent education for their students, staff, and communities.