STEM in the Classroom – Find a Place to Start
Posted: Friday, December 11th, 2015
by Sue Campbell
STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. While they don’t always have to be taught together, when you do, it is almost magic. To shift your lesson strategy, all you have to do is find a place in a lesson and start.
For me, the shift began with a question from one of my eighth grade students about what made instant hot packs get hot. We had just finished completing some investigations on endothermic and exothermic reactions when the question was raised. Although I knew that different reactants were involved in the hot packs, I realized that this was an opportunity to introduce an application of scientific understanding. I drafted a letter from a fictitious company asking students to create the most cost effective instant hot pack using only the materials owned by the company. Students had to design their own tests, collect data, and then write a proposal to the company, complete with supporting data. Students floundered a bit as they worked to find ways to organize their tests and data. They realized they needed to be careful and precise as they recorded the information. We, fortunately, had a set of probeware thermometers on loan from the Office of STEM Educational Services at San Joaquin County Office of Education that allowed students to be very accurate with their measurements.
The next opportunity to shift my strategy came when a group of students had completed finding the density of all the blocks in the ten-block density set and the rest of the class was only partially finished. The group needed something to do so I decided to give them a challenge. I asked them which of the blocks had the greatest mass in the set. It was the copper cube. My challenge? Make something with a single piece of aluminum foil that would float with the block in or on it. I wasn’t sure how it could be done, but I gave the challenge. The group of students jumped at the opportunity to do something new and began to design and test. I found a dishpan for them to use to test their designs. Before long, the rest of the class wanted in on the action and worked faster so they could participate. Soon we were investigating buoyancy. Although it began as an idea off the top of my head, I quickly saw that this had some possibilities.
The next year I refined the challenge and added some constraints such as size and material limits. In the following years I connected the force and motion standards by adding to the challenge. The new challenge not only required that their boat would float with the copper cube (or equivalent weight in pennies) inside. It also had to move across my “lake” (a large tub used to mix cement) without human, electrical, battery, or animal power. “It’s impossible!” “That’s hard!” These were the comments frequently heard and often there were moments of frustration. Students discovered that they needed to observe closely when testing. A tool that helped with those observations was a camera. We had some simple point and shoot cameras that would capture still photos or videos. Sometimes students were allowed to use their cell phone cameras. Watching the videos of their tests revealed information about the design too difficult to see at the time of testing. When something didn’t work, it wasn’t failure. It was a learning opportunity. I had to resist the urge to step in and solve their problems. I learned to ask better questions. I also learned to acknowledge their persistence, which encouraged them to keep trying.
Then there were the bridges. “Why are we studying bridges?” students would ask. They could see the standards on the wall and in their notebooks and bridges were not on the list. This was the furthest I had strayed from the traditional way of teaching about forces and motion. This was also new territory for me and I had to find some resources. I found great guides and an affordable structure-testing table from Pitsco. We started with toothpick bridges the first year and in subsequent years added wooden coffee stirrers as another option for building materials. Students investigated bridge designs and how forces acted on them. Although it was not a major focus of the unit, they also came to realize that understanding the properties of the building materials was important. When it came time to construct their bridges, I gave the students a budget. They also had a deadline. In the real world time is money. Again, the cameras proved to be a valuable tool. Students recorded their load tests and were able to pinpoint the areas of failure, which in turn lead to improvement of their designs.
This shift in my teaching strategy did not happen instantly. It developed over time. I was fortunate to be at a school and in a district that was supportive of inquiry-based STEM instruction. I learned and am still learning from those first shifted lessons. Here are some of the lessons I learned:
- It doesn’t always take a big change to make a big difference. That first shifted lesson made a connection to something familiar to the students. It also demonstrated an application of what they were learning to the real world. There was a reason to learn.
- It is okay to try something (as long as it is safe) even if you aren’t sure it will work. When something doesn’t go according to plan, it doesn’t mean it is a waste of time. Learning can and still does take place.
- Be ready for your students to be frustrated. This approach is new for them, too. Much of their education has been focused on them learning answers to questions. They are not accustomed to having more than one possible answer or solution.
- Ask probing questions instead of answering questions. The right question can provide an opportunity for the students to think more deeply.
- Find a way to organize student projects and supplies. Recently our science department rescued boxes from the purchased Chromebooks from being trashed. They are perfect for project storage and can be stacked which is especially helpful when you have multiple classes.
- Look for connections when considering projects. Think about how the science concepts you are teaching are applied in the world. How are they used?
- Be prepared for a buzzing classroom full of students having fun.
A STEM classroom? Decide to start and find the place.
Sue Campbell is CSTA’s Middle School/Jr. High Director.
Posted: Saturday, January 14th, 2017
The Council of Math/Science Educators of San Mateo County will be hosting the 41st annual STEM Conference this February 4, 2017 at the San Mateo County Office of Education. This STEM Conference is the place to get lots of new lessons and ideas to use in your classroom. There will be over twenty-five workshops and a variety of exhibitors that provide participants with a wide range of practical and realistic ideas and resources to use in their science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs from Pre-K to grade 12. With California’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards, we are dedicated to ensuring that we prepare our teachers to take on these educational policies.
Teachers, administrators and parents are invited to explore the many exciting aspects of STEM education and learn about and discuss the latest news, information and issues. This is also an opportunity to network with colleagues who can assist you in building your programs and meet new friends that share your interests and love of teaching.
Posted: Friday, January 13th, 2017
What follows are several opportunities for science teachers to work with the Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC) on various projects that have direct or indirect implications for the implementation of NGSS in California. Please consider applying to one or more of the following opportunities.
CSET Field Testing Opportunities
Field testing opportunities for future CSET Multiple Subjects and Science tests are available beginning Dec. 5, 2016. Participants will have the choice between a $50 Barnes and Noble eGift Card or a $75 test fee voucher that may be applied to future test registration fees. For more information, including how to register to participate, please visit: http://www.pearsonvue.com/espilot/cset.asp. Learn More…
Posted: Friday, January 13th, 2017
Achieve has launched and is facilitating an EQuIP Peer Review Panel for Science–a group of expert reviewers who will evaluate the quality and alignment of lessons and units to the standards–in an effort to identify and shine a spotlight on emerging high-quality lesson and unit plans designed for the NGSS.
If you or your state, district, school, or organization has designed NGSS-aligned instructional materials, please consider submitting these in order to help provide educators across the country with various models and templates of high-quality lesson and unit plans. Learn More…
Posted: Friday, January 13th, 2017
An upcoming Perry Outreach Program on Saturday, April 22, 2017 at the Orthopaedic Institute for Children in Los Angeles, CA. The Perry Outreach Program is a free, one-day, hands-on experience for high school and college-aged women who are interested in pursuing careers in medicine and engineering. Students will hear from women leaders in these fields and try it for themselves by performing mock orthopaedic surgeries and biomechanics experiments. Learn More…
Posted: Friday, January 13th, 2017
by Jessica Sawko
January 2017 has proven to be a very busy month for science education policy and CA NGSS implementation activities. CSTA has been and will be there every step of the way, seeking and enacting all options to support high-quality science education and the successful implementation of CA NGSS.
California Department of Education/U.S. Department of Education Science Double-Testing Waiver Hearing
The year started with California Department of Education’s (CDE) hearing with the U.S. Department of Education conducted via WebEx on January 6, 2017. This hearing was the final step in California’s efforts to secure a waiver from the federal government in order to discontinue administration of the old CST and suspension of the reporting of student test scores on a science assessment for two years. As reported by EdSource, the U.S. Department of Education representative, Ann Whalen, a senior adviser to U.S. Secretary John King Jr., committed to making her final ruling “very shortly.” Deputy Superintendent Keric Ashley presented on behalf of CDE during the hearing and did an excellent job describing the broad-based support for this waiver in California, the rationale for the waiver, and California’s commitment to the successful implementation of a new high-quality science assessment. As previously reported, California is moving forward with its plans to administer a census pilot assessments this spring. The testing window is set to open on March 20, 2017. For more information visit New CA Science Test: What You Should Know.