January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

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.

Written by Sue Campbell

Sue Campbell

Sue Campbell is the District STEM Coach for Livingston Union School District, and is CSTA’s Middle School/Jr. High Director.

One Response

  1. Sue Campbell
    I enjoyed reading your piece on STEM. Makes sense. There is nothing better than a classroom buzzing with a project. I love when teachers put a spark of interest in their students into the science field.
    Dixie Campbell

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