What is STEM project-based learning?

All about the Kicks

By Jennifer Pieratt


Paul Lockhart, in his Mathematician’s Lament states, “We don’t need to bend over backwards to give mathematics relevance. It has relevance in the same way that any art does: that of being a meaningful human experience.” Regardless, math and sciences have become a sort of educational blindspot when planning PBL in many schools, with math taking on a “support role” to get through driving standards. So if you’re asking yourself, “What is STEM project-based learning? What does it even look like?” — you’ve come to the right spot! For starters, STEM PBL should incorporate design thinking, a mindset crucial to the 21st century. It’s about helping students become patient, curious, and confident problem solvers, as Dan Meyer explains in his TED Talk “ Math class needs a makeover.” So, what is STEM project-based learning? Amongst other things, it’s inspiring students to learn with things they care about, like… SHOES! 

Here are 4 crazy cool ideas to kick open the black boxes of science and technology in your school. 

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Idea #1:  Host your own SneakerCon

SneakerCons are events that involve buying and selling famous kicks as well as meeting collectors, influencers, and big-time buyers. It’s meant to simulate the Nike innovation lab, where clients get a sneak peek of the design process behind famous shoes! What is STEM project-based learning? Well… It could be organizing your own SneakerCon event featuring a detailed analysis of the science, tech, and math behind cool shoes. 

Idea #2:  Design your own Shoe (Create a Sneaker Bar) 

Some of the most iconic footwear ever celebrates awe-inspiring athletes while other designs highlight individuality and creativity, and still more shed light on controversial issues such as the Mexican “border crisis” in new ways. Using mathematics, online technology, and scientific experimentation, your students can create their own Nike, Vans, or Timberlands kicks to publicly showcase in response to a research question personally relevant to them. 

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Idea #3: Innovation Kitchen for Personalization (because we’re all perfectly imperfect)

To the question “What is STEM project-based learning?” you can ask “What are the healthiest shoes I can wear according to science?” If there’s ever been a reason to ask your students to check out their feet and investigate opposing scientific research, this is it. In response to their own feet or to a societal issue such as the #KuToo feminist movement in Japan, your class can create the perfect kicks brand, considering constraints like budget, time, distribution, etc. 

Idea #4: The Numbers in Vogue 

Fashion designers actually use a surprising amount of math to do their work – for instance, when shoe designers try to create “easy-entry footwear systems” like in Nike’s FlyEase feature. You can codesign a project with your class with ELA extensions by having students research famous shoe creators and icons and present their work in engaging ways. Have them dive into books like Sneaker Wars (about the brothers behind Puma and Adidas) or Show Dawg (investigating Nike’s creator) or research Tanya Heath and Jeneba Barrie’s more recent stories. Then, guide your class as they prepare to publicly present the math behind each shoe story!

What’s fascinating about shoes is that they tend to be unique, memorable, and world-famous. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a twelve-year-old who doesn’t know about at least one “shoecon” such as Michael Jordan, LeBron James, or Kobe Bryant. These basketball legends leave us with more than just their shoe brand, but their own legacies, such as Kobe’s Mamba Mentality: “A constant quest to be the best version of one’s self.” That’s why combining footwear with math and science in meaningful PBL initiatives is the perfect answer to “What is STEM project-based learning?” And who knows, one of your students just might end up gifting you a pair of shoes in twenty years… 

Helpful Resources – information & lesson plans