Through a New Lens

    As goes with most new ideas, my thoughts and feelings towards STEM education are constantly shifting and evolving. Taking some time to reflect on this I’ve tried to picture the most effective STEM classroom and what that would look like on a given day. Here’s what I’ve come up with as of now:

Walking into the room you first see students sitting in a way that provides for collaborative groups to work together. You hear lots of voices, but not so much from the teacher, students are talking and brainstorming with other students among their groups. If you ask one of them what they are working on they say “Oh it’s Monday, on Monday’s we do STEM instead of our normal math block. We have to solve this problem where…”

     To me the main focus of my change in view towards STEM has been that collaborative piece. Throughout the year I quickly learned the role of STEM education and how it functioned in a transdiciplinary lesson plan. That it wasn’t just a Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math lesson and that they weren’t just learning a bit about each one of the core subjects at a time. It was about working with all, or just a few, of the disciplines in striving to solve a real world problem. Something that is interesting to the students, something that they could and possibly actually do relate to in their own lives.  What I don’t think I ever really focused on before was the ups and downs of collaboration and what it teaches the learner.

Collaboration prepares students for future work environments. Collaboration gives them all a chance to be heard. Collaboration involves learning how to really listen and value someone else’s opinion. Collaboration is the key to STEM learning. Going off this theme, I reflected a lot on how I felt when forced to work in a group on a project, or co-write a paper. Sometimes I love it and at other times I remembered myself struggling to get along with my peers. When it was during those bad times I thought to myself “Why is our teacher forcing us to work together? Can’t I just do this by myself?” I think we have to thank the teachers that “force” their students to collaborate. They are not only teaching them the curriculum but they are giving them a life skill.

Most teachers will think that they don’t have time for STEM lessons or that it doesn’t match with their curriculum and therefore they aren’t allowed to “STEMify” their classroom. I too would also have these worries but I think that something could be done. One idea that I thought might work for my own classroom was to take one Math block a week (significantly a large portion of time) and modify our Science/Math curriculum with NGSS standards to give the lesson a true STEM objective and plan. Another idea that is currently happening in our school is having a “STEM Special” once a week with a specialist being the STEM teacher. The person in our building who is now filling this role meets with all classes in the school, pre-k – 5th, once a week during their specials’ block.

While nether of these solutions would be a perfect match for solving the problem, they are a start. Along with all the Reading, Writing, and Math professional development teachers need to start receiving STEM trainings to help with the movement. Lots of things in education come and go, but I truly believe that this one is here to stay.

SWBAT…

Students will be able to…. or popularly referred to by teachers as “SWBAT” is a sentence starter that all educators are familiar with these days. Objectives have become so part of the norm that I find myself never even giving them much thought. Thinking about it a little more recently I started to ask myself: Does just that one sentence encompass the entirety of my lesson?MM900046559 Is this really what my students are going to be doing today? Do I even understand what this objective is saying? I write these curriculum created objectives up on my board daily but I wonder, is my lesson actually true to this objective?

As teachers we create these objectives so that we have something to assess students ability on at the end of the day. Recently, I had a discussion with our school leadership team on the importance of grading in the lower levels. While those who taught 4th and 5th grade classrooms saw more need for it I thought otherwise. When assessing students who don’t know how to independently read and write on their own a lot of information we use for grades comes from “anecdotal notes”. The problem that we run into there is whether or not teachers are truly grading students by the same standards from classroom to classroom.

 

I found it interesting when this similar argument arose while discussing how to assess students on STEM practices. STEM in its truest sense is supposed to support transdiciplinary learning, or the intertwining of the core subject areas into one concise unit.  Not only would this affect our objectives but also our assessment practices. As a cohort, my peers and I are working on taking basic curriculum standards and adjusting them to reflect this transdiciplinary learning. One then has to think on how to effectively track a student’s progress on these new objectives when they are touching on so many subjects and concepts at once. STEM learning does not easily lend itself to grades from a test or quiz and it is often hard to incorporate any written piece of work to grade upon. What we have conversed most about is the use of the anecdotal notes as a method to assess our students’ knowledge. This way teachers can use what they observe while students are collaborating on their projects and not be tied to a formal exit ticket or assignment to give at the end of the lesson that may not even show their true learning.

 

While anecdotal notes are not a perfect solution I do believe they could be used well if teachers took the time to truly discuss what they will be looking for. That way there is a greater chance that assessments are equal across the grade levels. It would also provide teachers time to analyze what they are really looking for from their students and what objectives that they actually want to work towards that lesson. We often ask our students to collaborate so why not the teachers too? As we continually progress in our knowledge of STEM teaching I am confident that our assessment methods will grow and blossom along too.

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Two Brains Are Better Than One!

When it comes to lesson planning there seems to be this new checkbox that teachers are trying to accomplish, Are the students collaborating? 

Educators around the nation are starting to remember the old saying of “Two brains are better than one!” There is an emphasis in school goals on words such as discourse, small group work, and team learning. Teachers are employing students to bounce ideas off one another, share past experiences and background knowledge, and have courageous conversations when tackling day to day projects. While collaboration appears to be the goal we have to think, does it have its down sides too?

In my grad school course on engineering we were working on a design project today that focused on creating a bridge that could hold 20-60 lbs. of weight solely from popsicle sticks and glue. We were divided into teams of our own choosing and dove into the task. Keeping in mind that this was a classroom full of elementary school teachers, I can safely say that there was not much prior knowledge on bridge design amongst the crowd. Working together as a team made us feel safer embarking on this new topic. We were able to share ideas and brainstorm with each other in the planning process before getting to work. One person in the group might have seen something that others did not and then shared their realization for the better of the group.

In all this great discussion and team work though there were points in time when the emotional state of the learner was impacted. As a first grade teacher, I am constantly concerned with the fragile emotions of my students. During this design project I started to experience some of my own feelings toward the process and wondered if my students ever felt the same way. When working with others there are a few things that can go wrong:

  • Only the strongest member is heard
  • No consensus can be reached
  • Frustration builds between group members

In my group there were times when I was upset because my thoughts weren’t being heard and there were times when I was upset because I felt as though I was the only one coming up with anything at the moment. I experienced being frustrated when I didn’t agree with my teammate and also when we couldn’t think of a way to make everyone feel valued. Looking back at it, I don’t think these things occurred because I had a bad team but due more to the natural give and take of collaboration.

As teachers, I think it its something that we need to keep in the back of our minds. We must find a way on how to keep the good that comes with collaboration and balance out the bad that could arise. Professional development-wise this could be a topic that schools would want to explore given the shift in instruction with Common Core and state standards.

STEM Under the Microscope

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             Through my time in this masters program, specializing in STEM education, my thoughts and views on the topic have diversified greatly from what I had in mind when I originally applied last April. For most of us in the educational world, we at least know that STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math and that the goal is to incorporate those topics into our classrooms more often. This is about where I was this time last year when I thought about STEM or heard it mentioned in my elementary school, where we are lucky enough to have a full time STEM teacher.

About a month ago we were asked to make a graphic depicting our current understanding of STEM and how the four topics are focused on in a true STEM lesson. What I have seen throughout my studies is that there are in fact many ideas of what STEM really is and what it should look like in the classroom. Some see it as mainly a time to teach children about engineering, others really only focus on the science and throw some use of computers into the mix to incorporate technology. Very few of the lessons out there seem to practice all four of the disciplines together. I don’t necessarily think that is a problem though. When working to develop STEMcentric lesson plans of my own I realized how difficult it can be to include all the topics in one lesson and still have it be meaningful.

Therefore, when I made my STEM graphic last February, showing how I see the four disciplines being used, this is how I pictured it:

STEM Graphic 1      In this diagram I tried to include the lessons when you don’t necessarily have each subject represented. There are times when teachers would see that the best lesson would only have 2 or 3 of the disciplines. It is important to me that teachers do not simply through in a little math at the end of a lesson to make it “STEM” or stretch some engineering into their lesson to make it fit the mold. While a lesson that meaningfully uses all four areas is ideal, I do not think it is the only option in STEM education.

          Another key component to this graphic is the spacing and overlapping of the four disciplines and in particularly the position of technology in the middle.  In my work place I am part of a UDL, Universal Design for Learning, PLC and have done a lot of professional development in the area. One of their big points is how people tend to always think of technology as something to do with computers or the Internet. Technology by definition is “any modification of the natural world made to fulfill human needs or desires” (National Research Council 2012, 202). Recently, we have called that to be the wonderful advances that we have seen in the computer realm but it can be much simpler than that. UDL emphasizes the use of different technology to just be alternate writing tools, others claim it to be the good old fashion paper and pencil that we use every day. In my viewpoint, there is always some form of technology being used within the classroom, with the sole exception of oral discussions, we can find it in every subject area and it is a constant and integral piece to a teacher’s lesson plan.

As I stated before, this original graphic I composed was done about one month ago. Since that time my master’s program cohort has had a detailed discussions on the overlaps and pieces of STEM and I have also come across the book STEM Lesson Essentials, Integrating Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics by Vasquez, Sneider, and Comer, which addresses the subject. One topic that came up in class and then also came up again in my reading was the idea of Science being the main platform that people have when designing STEMcentric lesson plans. In the text, the authors quote one teacher who has been practicing STEM education for years as stating, “I naturally begin with science as a springboard for learning and applying in a meaningful way the other STEM concepts we are learning in our curriculum” (Vasquez, 2013). Thinking about it more I realized that I do the exact same thing when a STEM lesson comes to my mind. Whether that is because I am more comfortable with the subject or it truly is the main piece of the conversation I am unsure, but it made me rethink my graphic a bit. Here is my current view of the STEM debate:

STEM Graphic 2

     An example of a lesson depicting this model could be taking a Science topic such as plant parts, where students could use different tools in the classroom (Technology) like pencils, construction paper, markers, scissors; to design a model (Engineering) of plants living in various types of environments. Information would be present by the teacher on the different types of plants living in places like the desert, tropical rainforests, the Great Plains, or on mountains and how they adapted their parts to help them survive there (Science). Students would then have time to redesign (Engineering) their plant to suit their location better.

This lesson would include 3 (Science, Engineering, and Technology) of the four disciplines into one meaningful lesson on plant adaptations and parts. I did not include Math into the plan because it might not be the appropriate time for it. Instead of just throwing it into my lesson plan to make it a full “STEM” experience, I believe it best to hold off with and incorporate it at another time. On the other hand, if this lesson was being presented around the same time that students were studying measurement then some Math could possibly be included with the measuring of plant stem and leaf lengths in different environments and such. Though I would only do this if it actually fit, and was not a stretch, within the lesson plan.

As time goes on I’m sure I will alter my beliefs again and again (just like in real Science) on what I truly believe STEM to look like within the classroom. In a field that is so new and innovative it is exciting to feel as though we are among the forerunners, working together to get a better picture of how STEM can best help our students.

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Works Cited

National Research Council. 199. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, DC: National                 Academy Press.

Vasquez, J. A., Sneider, C., & Comer, M. (2013). STEM lesson essentials, grades 3-8: integrating science, technology,                   engineering, and mathematics. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

“What is an engineer?”

When asked the question, “What is an engineer?”, to people of a variety of ages here are the responses received:

A 6 year old, “they make stuff”;

A 14 year old, “a person that builds things”;

A 50 year old, “people who come up with solutions to various problems”.

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One of the most important and relevant jobs in our economy is a bit of a mystery to the youths in our country.  It seems as though an elementary school student comprehends the role of a doctor, teacher, or nurse but hears very little of one of our crucial work fields, engineering. Throughout my master’s program we are studying STEM as a whole but also the importance of its separate entities. Out of the four, Science and Math dominate the emphasis in our school systems, technology is hot topic and currently being integrated into all schools, but engineering has been left in the dark.

Some teachers would think, what is point of teaching engineering to a 5 year old? It’s not uncommon for educators and curriculum planners to forget about the importance of engineering skills. In her post, The E in STEM: Clarifying What Education Engineering Means for K-12, Christine M. Cunningham, the founder and director of Engineering is Elementary, states “the word engineer is derived from the Medieval Latin verb ingeniare, meaning to design or devise. Going back further in time, ingeniare is derived from the Latin word for engine, ingenium, meaning a clever invention. Thus, a short definition of engineering is the process of designing the human-made world” (Cunningham).  It seems to me that a 5 year old should be very invested into the designing of the human-made world since they, along with everyone else, are in it.

Those same teachers might also think that incorporating engineering lessons in their days is just one more thing to fit into their schedule. What researchers have come to say though is that students should not take engineering as a separate class; instead educators should embrace the beauty of engineering lessons in that they can easily be incorporated into other subjects. The focus of young students studying engineering is to promote the critical thinking and problem solving skills that they are working on. Not only does it help in those areas but it is relevant, gives students early  experiences, promotes inquiry based learning, and helps prepare them for the careers of the future (TeachEngineering).

worldRecently, researchers and people working in the education field have noticed the need for engineering lessons in the classroom. Not only to fulfill their high demand in the work force but also to teach children the way to go about solving a real world problem, or the design process. Trying to get children more interested in engineering people have created camps, after school programs, even websites specifically geared towards attracting female engineers, like engineergirl.org , who are underrepresented in the predominately male field.

Children are naturally curious about the world and how things work so why not give them the life skills and ability to problem solve now! They earlier we instill the practices of engineering design and thinking the more likely we can better prepare our children for the future.

Works Cited

(n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.teachengineering.org/whyk12engr.php

Cunningham, C. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://opportunityequation.org/school-and-system-design/e-stem-clarifying-what-engineering

The National Academy of Sciences. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.engineergirl.org/CMS/WhyBeAnEngineer.aspx

The Change We Need

          The overarching topic for our class reading this week was one that we continue to study and discuss, the use of inquiry science in the classroom. When reading the article and listening to the teacher describe their inquiry lessons I was not MM900162961reminded of my own classroom, but more of that of our physics course we are taking. The idea of initial questioning for preassessments, continuous work with the seemingly endless experiments and trials, and developing more questions for discussion off of what is discovered is what we seem to do every time we meet for our graduate level course. My next thought was, if I am a believer in inquiry science why isn’t it evident in my own classroom?

         The importance and value of inquiry science is a great one, but it is also one that not many teachers are too well versed in. I think that a few things have to happen before we start to consistently see inquiry-based lessons in our schools. The first is that all teachers, not just those participating in a STEM centered masters program, need to be educated on its practices and advantages. I hypothesize that if I polled the teachers in my school building the percentage of those who could accurately describe an inquiry-based lesson would be discouragingly low. We are constantly pulled out of our classrooms for reading, writing, or math professional development, but I have never even heard of a principal initiating a science themed presentation. As one educational blog cited, “”many teachers are still striving to build a shared understanding of what science as inquiry means, and at a more practical level, what it looks like in the classroom” (Brunsell, n.d.).We know as teachers that it is a hot topic in education, but many of us still do not fully know what inquiry really means.

Secondly, for inquiry science to be seen in our classrooms, I believe that schools need to allow teachers more time to actually teach it. Science has been pushed to the side burner in the elementary years due to the increasing pressure on the state tests that focus mainly on reading and mathematics. While, the MSA (Maryland School Assessment) does test for science now, this provision was recently added in 2007, it only tests students in grades 5 and 8 (MSA: Maryland School Assessment, n.d.). This leads administrators to focus their school’s time on those subjects most seen on the tests that reflect their school’s performance and evaluations. In order for a true inquiry science lesson to be conducted teachers and students need more than half an hour once a week to dedicate towards it.

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Lastly, from what I can see in my county’s curriculum, science lessons are not geared towards inquiry learning. Teachers would have to really work on an MCPS lesson to make way for inquiry learning and still stay true to the curriculum. This is something that teachers do not have the time or experience to do in an average day. Having our curriculum being geared towards real discussions and in classroom experimentation based off of students’ knowledge would make it a lot easier for teachers to implement inquiry on a daily basis.

While these are some roadblocks I am seeing in incorporating inquiry- based lessons, I do want to point out that this is a work in progress. School systems and curriculum writers are really just now starting to see the importance and need for a better way to teach science. Hopefully, as they continue to strive towards an inquiry classroom the issues and demands on teachers that I stated above will be addressed as well.

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Works Cited

 Brunsell, E. (n.d.). The Five Features of Science Inquiry:  How do you know?. Edutopia. Retrieved November 17, 2013,                   from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/teaching-science-inquiry-based

MSA: Maryland School Assessment. (n.d.). What does MSA look like? (MSA) ~ Assessments ~ School Improvement in                 Maryland. Retrieved November 17, 2013, from http://mdk12.org/assessments/k_8/index_c.html

 

To Inquiry and Beyond!

In our Master’s program this week our assignment is to address the great idea and current hot topic of INQUIRY SCIENCE…. Here’s some answers to the thought provoking questions related to the Donovan and Bransford book How Students Learn, Science in the Classroom

My first question was this:

Explain the purpose of Box 9-3 “Evaluating the Methods Used in an Experiment” (pp.408-409). How does the example provided in this section support the second principle, “Knowledge of What It Means to Do Science?” Describe a science investigation that you have taught or conducted. How does this investigation support or conflict with the second principle, “Knowledge of What It Means to Do Science?”

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In Box 9-3, the case here is an experiment that people were given to study and critique on. The general idea of what happened in the experiment was that scientists did a trial based on a hypothesis of their own about frogs and their environments. After explaining what the scientists did the audience who this was addressed to was then asked to make remarks on the experiment, both the good and the bad. The answers that they came up with highlighted all the procedural aspects of the experiment; commenting on the time frame of it, the controls used, the variable, and so forth (Donovan & Bransford, 2005). The one thing that the audience did not consider was what you could call the “big picture” of it all. People thought that the results of the experiment were either true or false based on what was done specifically in the experiment. The one thing that they did not think of was the entire life cycle of the frogs in the experiment. They did not connect it to what they knew about the ways of life and think of the experiment in a larger context of how a species survives and reproduces. They were thinking of the problem as literally what it was, they did not as the authors Donovan and Brandford say, “know what it means to do science” (Donovan & Bransford, 2005).

The authors chose this example to highlight what could have been learned or thought of had the participants in the study been introduced to it in a different light, or by using inquiry science. Going through science by simply following a “recipe” MH900040080or only worrying about the specific steps and factors doesn’t allow students to think in the great scheme of things (Donovan & Bransford, 2005). When it comes down to it, science is an interconnected web of ideas and processes. When teachers present topics to their students as individual units they cannot see that bigger picture. They simply memorize the lesson at hand and move on to the next one. It is found that the majority of students have more of a tendency to forget what they specifically learned because it has no meaning or connection to them.

The idea of inquiry-based science is that students are not simply memorizing the boring, basic facts of science. It is that students are questioning, exploring, connecting to the ideas of science and keeping what they learned in their knowledge base, not forgetting it after the next test.  Students need to use the “imagination” piece that Einstein spoke of not only to learn to question and grasp the big pictures to better understand the nitty gritty, but also to make them more enthusiastic learners, to make science more enjoyable.

In my own classroom, I too am guilty of using this “recipe” or “lockstep” kind of science that we use to teach concepts. In a lesson we did the other week we discussed the ways that animals stay safe in their environments. We talked about the ideas of camouflage, warning colors, and more. Overall, the students took the concepts in well. They viewed the pictures and examples of the different ways the animals would hide or protect themselves and it was short and sweet. Did this lesson go along with the idea of “Knowledge of What It Means to Do Science”? I don’t think so. The main problem that I and other teachers have discussed with introducing inquiry science is that the time for it is limited. In a week we only have about an hour of science, spread out over 5 days, at best. Is this enough time to fully give students what they need? Is our curriculum designed and laid out to promote the ideas of inquiry? These are things that I have to think hinder the use of inquiry-based lessons in the classroom. I do think that as time goes on, and as the focus on inquiry science grows across the nation, these things will change. The change though must start with us, in the classroom, every day. That is something my colleagues in my Masters program and myself are realizing we need to work on.

My second question was this:

This chapter highlights the notion that students bring reasonable and productive understandings of everyday phenomena to the classroom but that sometimes these preconceptions can be limited or incorrect. One example the authors provide is that “properties are generally believed to belong to objects rather than to emerge from interactions” (Donovan & Bransford, 2005, pg. 399).  For instance, many of us think of color as an inherent property of objects as opposed to a result of light reflection or emission from objects.

Provide another example of a preconception that students bring to the classroom. Where does that preconception come from? What is a more productive way of thinking about that particular concept? Describe a pedagogical approach to teaching the concept that would reflect Donovan and Bransford’s first principle, “Addressing Preconceptions.”

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Going through an undergraduate education program, the one thing that emerging teachers will hear over and over again is to relate the topic of study to what children already know. Teachers try everyday to make connections in the classroom to their own students’ lives and use  their background knowledge to build upon a new topic. While the general idea of having children relate is great in theory, there is the common notion that children also have incorrect preconceptions that they bring to the classroom too. The difficulty then becomes not only addressing and fixing these preconceptions but also just trying to figure out if students have any to begin with.

In the book How Students Learn, Science in the Classroom the authors provide the example that “students believe objects to ‘be’ a certain color, and light can allow us to see the color or not” (Donovan & Bransford, 2005, pg. 399). The idea of white light and how objects either reflect or absorb different colors is not something the average student has in their background knowledge. Not only do they not know of it but their misconception stated above could hinder them in fully understanding the real reasoning if the teacher does not address it.

With both the good and the bad our students walk through the door each and every day with these ideas of what the worldMH900441932 is and what the world does. The problem we face as teachers is extracting those preconceptions and then determining if they need to be used to build upon or taken back a step and corrected. These preconceptions come from their experiences, their observations, and even their culture as I have seen in my ESOL students and how their thinking on certain topics directly ties to the cultural practices they have in their homes.

When I asked my younger brother what was one thing he had totally the wrong idea about in school when he was younger, he brought up the idea that the “sun was a planet and not a star”. To me, this seems like a logical misconception for students of a younger age to have. If I was teaching this lesson on astronomy, in particularly on stars, I would have to find a way to address this misconception. Following the path of inquiry science I would hope to open the class up with small group discussion or word splash on the question “What is a star?”. After having students share amongst themselves and then out with the whole class we could move on to defining properties of a star. After coming up with a list of attributes from more class discussion the question could switch to “what is the difference between a star and a planet?” and then further to a debate between what we would classify our sun as. In doing this, the teacher would almost hope for some of the misconceptions that the sun is a planet here because it would spark the debate with other students that know it is not. Through an authentic and relatable discussion I would hope to correct these misconceptions in my students’ minds while at the same time teaching my lesson on what a star truly is.

Everything I discussed here today, and more, are things that Donovan and Brandford suggest that we, as teachers, need to start thinking about and planning for more in order to truly advance and teach our students to prepare them for the problems of the future.

Works Cited

Donovan, M. S., & Bransford, J. D. (2005). How students learn. science in the classroom. . Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

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