When experienced using a truly integrated approach, STEM learning is, I believe, the most powerful language arts program there is. The reason so many still struggle with STEM is that they approach it as an “add-on” … something else they have to make time for instead of embracing it as a culture. Yes, it takes time to cultivate that culture where students have learned to work together to solve problems and make things. It also means changing how you run your classroom and you have to give up, at least some of the time, the siloing of subjects and your daily schedule.
Unfortunately, demonstrating and providing experiences for teachers that include even a smattering of the possibilities during a 75 – 90 minute presentation is quite possibly impossible. But we keep trying to do so because we keep being asked to. My boss wants me to set up some 16 hour classes next school year (I’m already overbooked for this year) that will provide more time to experience what that is like from the student point-of-view, so that is definitely on my radar for next year.
Yesterday we were asked again to do our best to make that connection between ELA and STEM at the local Reading Conference for teachers. Here is how we went about it:
We believe it is key to have teachers learn their ABC’s. Not as in the alphabet, but as in Activity Before Content. So we began with an activity. The science reading our students (actually the teachers in our session) would take on was about flight and specifically dealt with lift, drag, thrust and gravity. We did not front load the vocabulary as is common practice, instead we used the activity to give them schema.
We passed out a balsa wood prop plane to each group of 3 to 4 teachers and instructed them to put them together. We gave no other instructions.
We noted that every group actually read, discussed and followed the directions on the package!
Once finished, teachers were asked to discuss and write about the construction experience, then what ways their plane could be “adjusted” to achieve the longest flight possible. We had them share a few of their answers but made no comments on whether their ideas would truly make a difference. Then we found an empty hallway for the 50+ participants to fly the 18 planes we had passed out. We also gave them a 10 meter measuring tape and had then bring the science notebooks we had them make along, but again, did not tell them what to do with them if anything.
The groups staked out spots to fly and we observed intently.
Most groups decided to throw their planes after winding the propeller rubber band what seemed to be the “right number” of spins. One group launched their plane from the ground because they felt that throwing it wasn’t consistent and could skew the data they were collecting. Then we started to see groups were counting the number of turns of the propeller so that their data would be “more comparable.” Next some were making tweaks to the wing position and so on to achieve a straighter flight and more. So they were discovering things about flight and how their planes functioned through experience, NOT because we took class time to lecture and demonstrate the “right” way.
It was a 75 minute presentation, so that was all the time we had for flying. We returned to class and had them journal about their experience for 3 minutes or so and then did a quick debrief. During our discussion it was noted that these planes are not a perfect way to do inquiry science/engineering because there is no way to control all the variables. Even if you wind the propeller the same number of turns each time the way the rubber band winds up is different and could effect the flight. releasing the plane if you give it a toss is problematic because you can’t be sure you gave it the exact same toss and released it at the exact same angle. When it lands (usually crashes) the wings and tail get moved … did you put them back exactly where they were the last time? Launching from the ground is easier to control overall, but did you let go of the propeller and the plane at the same time and way each time …. and more … you get the idea. So this is a great and motivating way to teach the steps of doing inquiry, but just realize the data produced is slightly unreliable at best.
Note that if you did this activity in your classroom, what we did during the presentation would be how you would introduce the activity. You are just letting students have time to become familiar with how these things work. Next you would get into why this isn’t a perfect inquiry piece but ask them for ways to control the variables as best as possible so we can learn how to get the longest, straightest (or whatever you and they decide to learn about – maybe all of these and more). Perhaps you would agree to launch from the ground behind a line. Do you measure to where the plane ended up, or mark where it first hit the ground? All these decisions lead students to understand how inquiry is done … let them figure it out as much as possible with you playing the role of “reluctant guide” – only helping with advice or opinions when you judge you just have to to move things along. HAVE students take photos, video clips, take notes … even though they will balk at that to keep making flight after flight …. solid science and engineering require descriptive note taking and data collection.
Next we handed out some leveled science readers that had the same article about flight, with the same illustrations and charts, just written at different reading levels. Teachers were then instructed to read the article closest to their grade level (K-1, 2-3, 4-6, 6-9 or so) and take notes on the connections between their activity and what they learned from the reading. When they shared out teachers mentioned how the vocabulary was more interesting and meaningful to learn about because they had experienced them during the activity ( lift, drag, thrust and gravity). In addition because the article was about a flight around the world in a propeller powered plane they understood more of the issues the main character had experienced … and they were just more motivated to read it period because they had assembled and flown their own plane.
We quickly made the point that what they had just experienced in 40 minutes would easily be 1 to 2 weeks in the classroom with all the flights, data collection, journaling, creative writing possibilities, analyzing the data in math, re-enginnering to achieve longer or straighter or finding out what the “best” number of turns to put on the rubber band is and on and on. Imagine connecting with another class anywhere in the world doing the same inquiry and sharing data and discussing results and stories of the good, bad and ugly of what happened during all the flights. How could you bring art in? History? Guest speakers?
We next shared some of the connections to the Next generation Science Standards and shared some other resources and our time was up.
Learning is messy!!