Anne Jolly began her career as a lab scientist, caught the science teaching bug and became an award-winning middle grades science teacher. Today she works on an NSF-supported team, developing standards-based STEM curricula for grades 6-8. Anne’s blog appears weekly at MiddleWeb, and one important focus is to engage readers in chats around STEM subjects. See all of Anne’s posts here.
Thanks for all the comments in my first post! I’ve been chewing on the question Marsha Ratzel raised there:
”What if you’re the math teacher who is having to work in isolation from the science teachers? Are STEM lessons still a possibility? Or are these lessons and this idea only possible in a school where the different content areas are willing to collaborate?”
Great question, Marsha. STEM lessons are always a possibility in any situation. In fact, I’m taking a wild guess that not many of you readers work in a school where math and science teachers meet together to integrate their teaching and develop STEM curriculum.
Based on some work I’ve done with 6th and 7th grade teachers (and will be doing with 8th grade teachers), I’ll share some of my takeaways.
First, you can always search out STEM curriculum that’s already been developed. A lot of good lessons appear online at sites such as eGFI, Try Engineering, and Teach Engineering. But be watchful! Not everything that is called a STEM lesson actually involves engineering. Some are just good science experiments.
So how do you know if it’s a STEM lesson? STEM is a type of project-based learning that focuses on real-world problems. Students explore and apply science and math knowledge using the engineering design process (more on that below). Students use what they learn in math and science to create a technology or a solution for a problem. Technology, by the way, is anything created to meet a human want or need. A chair is technology. A pencil is technology. A Pez dispenser is technology!
One example, to clarify:
Suppose: You ask student teams to build clay barriers in a piece of guttering and conduct a controlled experiment to determine the effect of shape, size, and number of barriers on the flow rate of water. They’ve just conducted a good science/math experiment. Then: If teams use that information to design and construct a system of barriers in a model streambed (the gutter) to try to slow down the rate at which water dumps sediment into the watershed (a bucket), that’s an engineering challenge. See the difference? STEM lessons focus on using science, math, and technology to solve a problem. If you want to do a STEM lesson, be sure you have the E in STEM – the engineering approach.
Second, you can write and implement STEM lessons, even without collaboration with other teachers. A few hopefully helpful hints:
• Stay on track with your course of study and pacing guides by checking out the math and science objectives for the quarter you plan to use the STEM lesson/unit. Try to incorporate some of these objectives. In the lesson example above, math objectives included rate and unit rate, and science objectives included environmental pollution. A savvy teacher, looking to help kids make connections, could build a strong math STEM activity around a science topic students are studying.
• Plan for students to work in teams, and give them good strategies for doing that successfully. I’ll be happy to post some things students should be able to do to become good team players if anyone wants that information.
• Get your students engaged with hands-on activities. Imagine those student teams in their math classroom, pouring water down guttering to measure flow rate with and without barriers. Brave math teachers, indeed! And highly engaged students as well.
• Use an engineering design process to organize your lesson. The description of the process varies, but the basic elements of the engineering method are generally the ones listed below. (Keep in mind that this is not a linear process – engineers frequently jump back and forth between steps.)
- Identify the problem or need
- Do background research
- Generate alternative solutions
- Choose the best solution
- Create a model or prototype
- Test and evaluate
You’ve just read my thinking about STEM lessons. Feel free to disagree! Why not add your thoughts, or a description of a STEM lesson you’ve done? And, while you’re at it, some of your favorite STEM lesson websites as well.