STEM-ing the Tide of Education Reform

NOTE: This post was originally published at the Voices from the learning revolution blog.

“Everybody in this room understands that our nation’s success depends on strengthening America’s role as the world’s engine of discovery and innovation. And that leadership tomorrow depends on how we educate our students today—especially in science, technology, engineering, and math.” (STEM)

President Obama to a gathering of CEOs, scientists, teachers, and others. September 16, 2010

STEM is the new education buzz-word, even the president has been talking it up.

I’d have to confess though that this attention also worries me. I’ve been to conferences where everything on the vendor floor displays a sticker announcing how — whatever it is — it’s “aligned to the Common Core State Standards and STEM!” I’ve even visited a school that claims it is a “STEM Academy” because (it brags) teachers are mandated to do at least 15 minutes of science EACH DAY!

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s the same approach and attitude that led to technology getting a shady reputation in education. Another “big idea” that is inevitably reduced to a subject or activity — something teachers must spend another chunk of precious class time on. It’s typical education “reform.” Instead, what we need to do is transform. STEM, done right, can help make that happen.

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is not a separate subject, and you don’t “do” STEM just by doing any one of its pieces. One of the reasons I took my current position was that I recognized that STEM education has promise in leading us away from each subject only having a singular focus — its own chunk of time in the schedule. STEM demands that we teach lessons and pursue projects that connect all the subjects represented in its acronym. In this day of narrowed curriculum, that is a very important distinction!

The STEM connection
So how does STEM education differ, and what does it have to do with connected learning? One way to think about STEM is in the context of that desirable learning strategy we hear about now and again: “taking the time to go deep.” One of the big complaints about NCLB “reform” has been the narrow “surface” learning its accountability mechanisms have produced as a by-product. STEM provides in-depth experiences that students share and can therefore discuss, explain and argue about.

A STEM unit often starts off with a science activity that introduces the concept and leads to the initial research. Besides library books and internet searches, that research should now include communicating with experts. Email, blogs, chats, video-conferencing and other social networking tools and strategies not only add to the learning by involving advisors and collaborators, but teach students how being connected should be part of their learning process.

In addition, a true STEM experience involves the “E” – Engineering. Students should be building something or improving a design. Solving a problem through building and improving involves trials and testing things out, in other words, collecting data, the “M” or math component of STEM. By analyzing performance data, students can make adjustments to their design — quantifying what is really best or most efficient.

Students working in small groups will learn as they note differences in design and efficiency between their creation and those of other groups in the room. And we can up the “connected learning” factor by having them partner with peers beyond the room — students anywhere in the world who are working on the same or a similar activity.

Taking it one step further: what if the groups our students are working in include students in other locations? What if the groups in my class in Nevada have virtual members who are in British Columbia or Scotland or India?

Now the challenge of STEM collaboration takes on new dimensions … staying in communication across time zones, being responsible for getting your part done, being able to share your learning in a way that is understandable to students in different contexts and cultures. Will connected teams use blogs? wikis? email? Google groups? Dropbox? Live meeting spaces? Weighing the advantages and disadvantages of various combinations of virtual partnering is all part of the learning.

Now imagine connecting with an expert in the field you are working in… asking questions, sharing insights, getting tips on design, learning from their experience. All this connectedness can be a huge asset; done well, it can become a vital and very “sticky” part of the learning.

Expanding STEM across the curriculum
As the overall project continues, the potential connections afford many opportunities to vocalize and clarify thinking, as well as the motivation to do quality work because you have authentic audiences. The writing and communications work should also be deep. This can involve creative writing and sharing experiences through stories, poetry, music, video, art of various kinds (STEAM!), and more.

Blending STEM with “connected classroom” strategies is a powerful learning model — a highly active learning model. For this to work well in schools, however, we have to have innovative thinking, teacher autonomy and flexibility in scheduling. These essential components of “going deep” with teaching and learning have been eroded away in the last decade. If we are truly going to integrate and embrace STEM education and innovation, we will have to revive them.

The possibilities of authentic, globally connected STEM projects that flatten curriculum walls, engage students through curiosity, and ignite their natural desire to solve challenging, worthwhile problems is why I am personally promoting the STEM concept. I see it as a way to bypass the most misguided aspects of current “reform” movements while promoting — even requiring — critical and creative thinking and true innovation.

Learning is messy!

Posted in Brian Crosby, Cooperative Learning, Education, Field Trips, Inclusion, Messy Learning, STEM, Student Access, Teacher Access, Technology | 1 Comment

A “Crushing” STEM Experience

Today was one of those great days when I get to work in classrooms … 3 fourth grade classes … 2 of them in the same school I visited, and 1 class 2,000 miles away. First I helped set up a “Mystery Skype” call with a class in Illinois so they could basically play the 20 questions game to figure out where each class was. Maps and questioning techniques came into play and new friends were made.

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the Skype call I stuck around and another 4th grade class joined us so we could continue their study of the atmosphere. Both classes were recently involved in the PongSat program that sends experiments to near space in ping pong balls with weather balloons. We crushed a few soda cans, which was a review for them … although they had never had an explanation as to why the cans crush … they have only been thinking and writing their ideas about what is going on.

So today to give them something else to think about – we did this:

 

Next students shared their thinking about the science behind what happened, and then I led a discussion using their ideas to get them to a better understanding. Then the teachers had me show them a video of a high altitude balloon bursting from the air pressure and asked them to explain how that was related. All in all a great experience.

Learning is messy!

Posted in Education, Messy Learning, STEM, Student Access, Teacher Access, Technology, Video Skype | 2 Comments

RECON – Recruiting citizen scientists to explore the outer solar system!

I’ve been busy of late. This week is the NSTA conference, but last week I was included in a team being trained to be part of a project funded in part by the National Science Foundation (NSF) called RECON – Research and Education Cooperative Occultation Network.

Each of the initial 10 teams (which will expand to 40 during the project) was given a Celestron CPC1100 telescope, a  MallinCam B&W Special video camera and more. We spent 4 days last week training at the WNC Jack C. Davis Observatory in Carson City, Nevada. When we do our assigned/scheduled observations we will include middle and high school students in our teams and train them to set up and use the telescopes, cameras and other equipment, as well as the science behind the project. So the students will help collect the data for the project … sometimes at 2 or 3 in the morning!

Setting up telescopes for a practice observation as part of our training.

So exactly what will we be doing? From the project web site: “Our project will consist of a linked network of 10 telescope sites and eventually 40 sites, across the western United States. Each community participating in RECON will be expected to gather a team of 2-6 members. As a team member, you will be working within your community and collaborating with others in our network to collect astronomical data.”

And: “RECON – the Research and Education Cooperative Occultation Network – is a citizen science research project aimed at exploring the outer solar system. Funded by theNational Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Astronomical Sciences, this project involves teachers, students, amateur astronomers, and community members from across the Western United States to conduct coordinated telescope observations to measure the sizes of objects from a region called the Kuiper Belt. *

Our goal and mission is to measure the size of many trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs), while making authentic scientific research more accessible to local communities. We are discovering more about our solar system – and we couldn’t do it without the help of our citizen scientists. We’d love to have you on board – to get involved, please contact us.

*To find out more about the Kuiper Belt and our 500-km long citizen science observation network, visit our Project Description page.”

It will be interesting to see how I do at work the day after an early morning observation! Fortunately the observation site for my team is at an observatory less than a mile from my house. I’ll hopefully report back as we make observations … the first one should happen in May.

The Reno Recon telescope set up and ready to go as soon as it gets dark.

Learning is messy!

Posted in Digital Video, Education, Messy Learning, STEM, Student Access, Teacher Access, Web 2.0 | Leave a comment

NSTA 2013

 

 

 

 

 

I’m in San Antonio, Texas, this week to attend  the National Science Teachers Association conference. I might help during a presentation or 2, but other than that I get to be a conference attendee without many commitments to be anywhere specific, so I’m planning right now which sessions to participate in.

I used to attend NSTA conferences regularly, and have presented at a few. But something happened 10 or so years ago that made attending science conferences, or even science trainings rather moot. The good news is that, at least right now, there appears to be a realization that narrowing the curriculum had some disadvantages. School districts I work with that block anything that is “social” – are now taking a second look in light of the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards that were released the day before this conference began – and that is good as well. The collaboration and communication pieces that the CCSS and NGSS both tout are the main reasons behind this epiphany, so I’ve jumped on the bandwagon and am riding it as hard as I can before the powers-that-be change their minds.

Well I’d better get going or I’ll miss my next session.

Learning is messy!

Posted in Education, STEM | Leave a comment

STEM in the Connected Classroom

I was gone to Boston last week to an “Engineering is Elementary” training so I was remiss in sharing my newest post at the “Voices from the Learning Revolution” blog. The post is entitled “Going Deep: STEM in the Connected Classroom.” It’s my brief attempt at discussing where we are with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and some of what needs to happen if the promise of STEM education is to be realized. Head over and leave a comment if it strikes a chord with you.

Learning is messy!

Posted in Education, Reform, STEM | Leave a comment

Help make sense of this (Updated)

UPDATE 2/12/2013: I’ve had several responses to this post through Twitter and face to face that have used logic to make their point. I totally agree this is nonsense, but I’m looking for written or spoken authority that has clout … something I’ve missed so far in the CCSS or education policy or law or ??? that is unequivocal on this point. I’ve also gotten an earful from middle and high school teachers of content that point out that they then are responsible for their content area not just at their grade level, but in this case students that have almost NO background K-5 that show up in their classrooms … YEP, that’s a big point here, besides the engaging content and more that is missed. Original post below:

I hear occasionally that K – 5 teachers are told that they no longer teach content area standards in science and social studies because they “teach the Common Core”. They are to address the science and social studies only through the CCSS in English/Language Arts. This is proved, they are told, because the Introduction to the CCSS ELA specifically states in the fifth paragraph:

“Literacy standards for grade 6 and above are predicated on teachers of ELA, history/social studies, science, and technical subjects using their content area expertise to help students meet the particular challenges of reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language in their respective fields. It is important to note that the 6–12 literacy standards in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects are not meant to replace content standards in those areas but rather to supplement them.”

Note, it specifically states “…that the 6-12 literacy standards in history/social studies, science and technical subjects are not meant to replace content standards in those subjects…”. Therefore since K-5 is not mentioned in the same way, some are using that omission to mean that the CCSS can (and in the case of a school not making AYP – should) be used to narrow K-5 curriculum to only the literacy standards in social studies, science and even the arts – but not their content. I’ve even heard, “When a teacher walks through the door of a K-5  Title 1 school, they give up their right to teach content beyond ELA and Math.”

So, beyond common sense and logic unfortunately, how do we help teachers under these restrictions disprove this interpretation? What can we point to that has authority? Please share in the comments!

Learning is messy!

Posted in Change, Education, Inclusion, Literacy, STEM, Student Access, Teacher Access | 3 Comments

Trout In The Classroom

Trout in the Classroom from Nevada Department of Wildlife on Vimeo.

 

 

One of the more engaging aspects of my job is supporting teachers doing science in their classrooms. Today I helped deliver trout eggs to 2 fourth grade classrooms at Caughlin Ranch Elementary School – Ms. Miller’s and Ms. Fryer’s classes that are participating in the Trout In The Classroom program. We swung by the Nevada Department of Wildlife building in Reno and picked up fertilized Rainbow Trout eggs, packed them in ice, and quickly got them to the school.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The specially chilled tanks had been delivered and set up weeks before in the 2 classrooms so the water could filter and stabilize at the correct temperature. The eggs are very light sensitive so the classes had each designed a box that will fit over the tank to keep it dark until the eggs hatch … probably by this Monday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part of the program involves the students’ calculating the hatching date based on information they are given on dates, temperatures and more. Once the eggs hatch the fry are allowed to grow for about 5 weeks when the class will go on a field trip to the Truckee River, or a few other possible spots, to set the trout free.

We’ll go back after the eggs hatch to see how things are going. We might also set up a blog for the classes to share their experiences.

Learning is messy!

Posted in Education, Messy Learning, Project Based, STEM, Student Access, Teacher Access | 1 Comment

Hand Held Windmills – Messy Learning At Its Finest

A few weeks back I posted about a training we did with teachers using windmills and wind turbines. This past week Lou Loftin and I were the show at a local school’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Night designed to get families fired up about STEM education. Instead of the standing kits we used with the teachers that can be used as windmills and turbines, and because we only had 50 minutes for this activity, we utilized hand held wind mills we had constructed ourselves the day before … 50 of them … now we have them for future trainings as well.

Video  – Click here to see video of the windmills in action.

The hand held windmills are made from wood dowels, closet rod, PVC pipe, swimming “noodles” cut 3 inches wide, a washer, and hot glue. Using a power saw , drill press and a hot glue gun it took us about 4 hours to make 50 windmills.

 

Hand held windmills ready for use … note fans set up on tables in the background.

Lou introduced the activity … he pointed out the materials they could choose from to design the blades for the windmills – wooden skewers like you would use for shish-ka-bob, and various materials for blades (paper plates, cups, cardboard, plastic sheets and more). It was explained that once engineered and constructed the windmills would be tested to see how much work they could do. A cup would be attached with string and marbles would be lifted by the wind power. Data would be collected on how many marbles could be lifted and then redesign would be encouraged to lift more marbles.

NOTE: Click on the photos below to see them larger.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once we gave the go ahead to start hands got busy. Materials were organized, discussions on design commenced, and within five minutes windmills began taking shape. Soon fans were being turned on to test early designs. Redesign and strengthening of or reattachment of the blades usually followed. Next strings tied to plastic cups were attached so it could be determined just how much work the design could really accomplish. After 10 or so marbles were lifted and it was determined that was the maximum the design could accomplish, many thought through changes that could be made to improve the design to lift more weight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When time was up we re-seated everyone for a quick debrief. It was noted how different many of the designs were. We also explained how in the classroom this activity could go on for days. This could be the introductory experience, but then only one material could be allowed so that the exact blade design could be tested to see what shape, angle (we actually have protractor-like measuring devices to adjust the angle), size and more. Then materials could be tried to find which material made the most efficient design. Lots of messy learning as well as writing and sharing opportunities here. Think of video-conferencing with other schools to share designs or talking with experts. Blogging to share experiences, photographs and more. Add your own experiences and ideas in the comments.

Learning is messy!

 

Posted in Blogging, Cooperative Learning, Education, Messy Learning, Project Based, STEM, TEDxNYED, Twitter, Video Skype | 4 Comments

6 Year Anniversary – If A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words, What Is A Video Worth?

This snuck up on me this year.  THIS happened 6 years ago now when we Skyped a classmate into our class most days … a student that had leukemia and couldn’t attend school because of the chemo therapy. We still get contacted about it. 4th graders sharing their experience – they are 10th graders now. Whoa!

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

STEM Education – What Could/Should That Look Like?

As I started my new job as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) facilitator for six counties in northern Nevada not long ago, one of my first self assigned tasks has been to clarify just what being a  STEM school (or its other itinerations STEAM and STREAM and there are others) means … or can mean or should mean. Partly because I’ve been asked that question, so obviously I better have a clear idea of what STEM is how STEM education is perceived by all concerned, but also so I have a feel for just how far I can push the edge and I can facilitate others in pushing the edges.

In discussions here and online I’ve heard some interesting interpretations. I was told by teachers at one school, for example, that considers itself a “STEM Academy” that they teach science at every grade for at least 15 minutes every day … so that makes them a STEM school. Hmmmm.

My favorite definition of STEM so far has actually come from the Nevada Department of Education and the Gathering Genius web site published by the Nevada STEM Coalition:

The Nevada Department of Education defines STEM:

“STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education focuses on active teaching and learning, centered on relevant experiences, problem-solving, and critical thinking processes.  STEM education emphasizes the natural interconnectedness of science, technology, engineering and mathematics and their connection to other disciplines, to produce informed citizens that posses and apply the necessary understandings to expand Nevada’s STEM-capable workforce in order to compete in a global society.”

“… and their connection to other disciplines, …” to me is key. STEM is not just doing science, technology, engineering and math – it is reading, writing, sharing learning, collaborating, discussing and even arguing about outcomes and perceptions (and more). It’s making mistakes … being messy if you will … and then learning from the mistakes and making things work and refining whatever you are working on.

There’s so much more to what STEM is, but what is it to you? This whole STEM piece has been around for a long time … it’s been ignored for a long time as well during the not leaving anyone behind era …. and as we race to the top. But now it is coming back. How can that STEM piece look or what should that STEM piece look like in our schools? How would you answer the question, “What does a STEM school look like?” Are there additions or changes you would make to Nevada’s description of STEM above?

Learning is messy!

Posted in Change, Education, Messy Learning, STEM | 1 Comment