Effective Student STEM Teams
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.
In this post let’s begin tackling the STEM challenge by looking at student teaming. I know from many years of working with and among teachers that putting students into teams for active learning is not something everyone looks forward to — and that it can be even more worrisome for teachers just starting out. I have some starter ideas and a draft 7-step guide you can download.
But first: Just what is the STEM challenge?
You’ve heard on all fronts that we need to engage our students in STEM lessons because that’s the way to prepare them for the 21st century workforce. So what, exactly, will this workforce need to do? Of course, we don’t know the full answer to that, but the National Academy of Engineering has identified Fourteen Grand Challenges we face that will affect our health, security and enjoyment of living, and perhaps human survival.
Challenges our students face
Behold the 14 challenges for which our students need to be prepared to invent solutions:
I’m looking at some of those challenges and wondering, “What does that one mean?” Or, “Why is that so important?” If you have the same questions, check out this report that explains the What and Why. It’s actually readable and interesting.
Challenges teachers face
To find solutions for these challenges, citizens from many professions will be working together. Guess who’s responsible for preparing the foundation for these future citizens to be able to work in teams, identify problems, research and use information, make decisions, create solutions, test those solutions, and redesign until they have solved the problem?
If you’re a K-12 educator, look in the mirror.
So, how do you feel about this? Do you feel prepared to help your students learn to tackle STEM challenges and design solutions? If not, then cheer up. I doubt if any of us do at this point. We’re actually at the beginning of a learning journey. And. . .we may finally be on the verge of helping our students see real-world value of the content we teach. Together, let’s tackle the daunting challenge of learning/designing/teaching STEM curriculum for our middle schoolers one step at a time.
As an aside – I think the ideal professional learning for teachers involves teams of teachers in working together to design, implement, and evaluate STEM curriculum. Maybe we’ll have time down the road to look at teacher teaming. In the meantime, you might want to take a look at this book for some “how tos” on setting up and conducting successful teacher teams in your school. If you work together, you’ll make faster inroads and the material will seem more authentic to the students.
Facilitate productive student teams
Student teaming is an essential skill in the workforce and in problem-solving. How do you put students together in teams and help those teams learn to work together productively, and in a self-directed manner? That’s a challenge for which we all have some solutions, if we can begin to amass our ideas. I’ll contribute a few of my own for starters.
Keep the teams small. Don’t put more than four students in a team if you can help it.
Give individual teams time to set ground rules for how they will work together. Start by asking members in each team to share behaviors they value in other team members. Then ask a team member to write down the behaviors that team values to make a set of team rules. They might set rules like these: All team members will listen to one another, respect other team members, share responsibilities, do his or her job well, have a good attitude, and so forth. Teams can add new rules as needed to make their work productive.
Give students guides for assessing their teamwork from time to time. Self-assessments can help students understand how team members might ideally work together.
I don’t pretend to be the know-all and be-all of student teaming, but I have started putting together a guide that I hope will be useful in establishing productive student teams for STEM projects. It’s still a draft. I’ve identified 7 steps… maybe there are 10!
- Step 1: Organize and plan for teamwork
- Step 2: Introduce a teamwork rationale (Why are we working in teams?)
- Step 3: Establish a purpose for the teams’ work (What is our purpose?)
- Step 4: Establish teamwork procedures (How will we do the work?)
- Step 5: Develop teamwork skills
- Step 6: Monitor teamwork
- Step 7: Check teamwork progress
Feel free to download my draft guide here (in PDF form) and try out some of the ideas. As you’ll see, I’ve added tips and discussion under each step. There are also several tools (handouts) at the end: a team skills inventory (to be done together); an individual team member self-evaluation; a full-team evaluation; and finally a Teamwork Skills Assessment sheet that teachers can use when they’re observing how well a team is working together.
Add ideas and notes of your own in the margins of my draft. Share freely on one condition: You share here first, in our comments section!