Flow in STEM Education


The concept of flow, a term coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, is also known as “the zone” and is defined as “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity” (Flow in Wikipedia). It is this idea of “being in the zone”, being completely focused on a task, being totally motivated to do a specific task in a concentrated way. When someone is in a state of flow, they have managed to put their emotions completely in service of an activity such as performing or learning. When one is in flow, they enjoy doing that they are doing, they have a sense of losing track of time (Luxenburg 2011).

flowLuxenburg, in his video “The Flow Experience in Education I”, explains the following diagram based on Csíkszentmihályi).  Luxenburg states that flow is the perfect balance between how difficult an activity is and the skill level of the student. If the challenge level is too high and the skill level low, then anxiety occurs on the part of the student. However, if the challenge level is too low and the skill level high in the student, boredom occurs. So the idea for instructors is to constantly strive to achieve that balance of maintaining challenge level and skill level to achieve flow.

anxiety_arousalAnother interesting diagram shown by Luxemburg is the same diagram (also based on Csíkszentmihályi 1990) but with a more granular detailing of emotional/psychological state. Luxemburg basically summarizes the goal of video games as achieving for the player a constant state of arousal leading to flow leading to control and back again. As the player goes up the levels in a game, they are constantly pulled back into a state of arousal which eventually leads to flow which settles down to control.

I am fascinated by this idea of flow because it relates to me personally first and foremost as in how it applies to the creative process of music making. I have often experienced the state of flow and this timeless focus on creating music in my early years as a music composer in high school and later in university. More recently, and more closely related to education, I see how flow applies directly to the ways in which students in our Robotics classes engage with the activities, the programming and the building of robots. It really helps to break down the lessons in terms of challenge level and skill level, so I will spend the rest of the journal breaking this down, so applying flow to the planning and implementation of STEM activities for elementary school students. I’m thinking that especially the two diagrams of Csíkszentmihályi will be very helpful in understanding where students are at in their motivation and engagement with the materials, and how to improve their state of “flow” in the course.

Flow in STEM Robotics? 

Students in the STEM  Robotics program enter with a very low skill level in general (except for the occasional robotics fanatics or returning students who have already been exposed to robotics). They have no experience with the building materials, no experience with programming and some have very little experience even controlling a trackpad on a laptop. The challenge level is also a little beyond what they are familiar with, because they simply haven’t seen these products and software before.

Challenge levels are adjusted according to age and grade level. Students in kindergarten to grade 2 are given an easier set of building bricks, sensors and motors to use, as well as a simple programming block interface on the computer, whereas the Grades 3-8 students are given an interface which can in fact be used all the way up to university. The higher group of students are given a challenge level appropriate for their age but not so challenging as to cause anxiety, but not so simple as to cause boredom.

The trick is to catch students in this state of flow. It would look like students being so engaged in their problem solving, their set of tasks or the building of their robot, that they’ve lost all sense of time and in fact don’t want to leave when it’s time to go. They would be fully engaged without the instructors ever having to tell them what to do or to be on task. They will go from arousal (excited about the project they are about to do), to flow to control over what they are doing. At that point ideally the class would end and they would move on in the next class to yet a new, slightly harder challenge that will arouse their interest sufficiently.

Flow – Between Anxiety and Boredom

The research I have done on flow definitely leads me to be much more conscious of observing flow, anxiety, boredom, even arousal and control, in the students I teach. Particularly, I want to try to be much more intentional about guiding students into that state of flow, balancing challenge level with skill level. I imagine this would be hard with students with varying levels of skill. Perhaps grouping similarly skilled students together will allow me to move those students forward to that appropriate challenge level so they can achieve flow based on their skill level.

Arousing student interest in new projects would be key to maintaining that video-game like cycle of constantly gripping students’ attention with new and interesting challenges. This goal would significantly shape future curricular planning for upcoming courses, in that I will start intentionally planning for achieving flow through successively more difficult tasks. As students get more skilled at particular programming and building features, I need to be constantly challenging to push themselves further to improve their skill level. If I were to design a series of robotic missions that students have to complete, then those missions would have to be successively more challenging and would need to prompt students to use a variety of increasingly more developed skills.

I am excited about observing, encouraging and planning for flow in my students because I believe that ultimately students will be much more excited about the program, engage more deeply in the tasks and are so focused on play that they are not aware of what is going on around them (Luxenburg 2011).



Csikszentmihályi, Mihaly. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper & Row.

Luxenburg, Avi. (2011). The Flow Experience in Education I. Retrieved from YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gffdtI6tWHs on November 22, 2015.

Wikipedia. Flow (psychology). Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology) on November 22, 2015.


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