My guest blogger this week is Caroline (Cal) Goode. Over a year ago, Cal joined me in writing STEM lessons for Engaging Youth through Engineering (EYE) and the large Mobile County Public School System. What a valuable colleague she is, whether we are working together virtually or face to face to create strong middle school STEM lessons.
Great science teaching is Cal’s trademark. She was a Christa McAuliffe Center Teacher of the Year and also a Challenger Center for Space Education Teacher of the Year. Currently Cal is the State Coordinator for NSTA’s Science Matters Massachusetts. I am most fascinated by Cal’s work with the New Teacher Center’s e-Mentoring for Student Success program. As a STEM Learning Consultant, Cal works with teachers virtually and mentors them through challenges with STEM teaching (among other teaching challenges.) I asked her to write about her eMentoring in this blog post. Take it away, Cal!
STEM Students Learn Best in Collaborative Teams
As I skimmed the recently published Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) the other day, I realized that the inclusion of STEM’s “E” (engineering) throughout the standards will be a game-changer for both new and veteran science teachers.
As an online mentor for The New Teacher Center in Santa Cruz, CA, I work frequently with novice and out-of-field teachers involved in STEM-related teaching. I’m able to share my experiences, strategies and best practices with as many as eight new teachers each year. In our private discussion area, called Our Place, mentees can openly share frustrations, ask for help and ideas, and know that they are not alone. Over time, as you might imagine, I’ve gained some insight into STEM teacher preparedness.
Drawing on this background, as well as my work as a STEM curriculum writer, I began to think about the tools and skills every STEM teacher will need to possess to be prepared for the shifts in classroom practice implied by NGSS — including the expectation that they will routinely incorporate the engineering design process into their lesson planning.
Creating a strong, harmonious STEM classroom will require many different teaching capacities, including STEM-specific classroom management skills that in my experience are not routinely found in middle grades teachers’ pedagogical toolkits — especially those of novices.
Expectations for 21st Century learners
Let’s think about where a new teacher begins to acquire the skills and tools she needs to provide today’s students with the ability to become successful members of the 21st century workforce.
The Framework for 21st Century Learning overview outlines the student outcomes for success in today’s global markets. First and foremost, STEM teachers will need to build a strong foundation for what the framework labels as “Learning and Innovation Skills.” These are the skills students will need to pursue careers in the “increasingly complex life and work environments in today’s world.”
And it’s equally critical that teachers are prepared to model these skills in the STEM classroom so that, over time, students assimilate the skills into their daily lives. Having the capacity to adequately model and teach these essential skills will create a STEM environment that engages students in Creativity & Innovation, Critical Thinking & Problem Solving, and Communication & Collaboration.
As I think about NGSS and the engineering design process, Communication & Collaboration immediately leap to the top of the toolbox for me. Without the ability to work as a team and communicate effectively, the skills associated with Creativity & Innovation and Critical Thinking & Problem Solving will be very difficult to achieve.
Teamwork is a top priority in business and industry today, and if we are not teaching the art of collaboration in our classrooms, we are failing to prepare our students for success in the today’s world. Anne Jolly’s MiddleWeb blog post “Effective Student STEM Teams” details the importance of teamwork, and I recommend that every teacher download her “Seven Student Teaming Tips and Tools” guide to assist as they integrate collaboration skills into their classrooms.
Knowing how to get students to work together effectively is the first and most basic tool every in STEM teacher’s best-practice toolkit.
The basics of student collaboration
“As a new STEM teacher, what comes to your mind when you hear the words collaboration or teamwork?” When I ask my e-mentees this question, I get responses that run the gamut from “working in groups” or “working with a partner” all the way to “losing control,” “too much chaos” and “too much bickering.”
These responses tell me that these teachers have had little if any pre-service training or PD on how to establish a collaborative environment in their classrooms. Assuming that this is the case with most new teachers (and many experienced teachers who are newly assigned to the STEM classroom), I begin with the basics.
So what are the basics? Let me share the model that I found works best for me and see what you think. After trying groups of 2, 3, 4, and 5, I found that the 6/3 model was the most effective because it allowed teams (teams, not groups) of students to come together in a grouping of 6 for brainstorming and idea-sharing and to split off into subgroups of 3 for labs and more focused work. The beauty of this model is that when the subgroups come back together, they are able share, communicate, and learn from each other. (Here’s a detailed description of the 6/3 Model.)
Here’s what I say to my mentees: Gone are the days when talking to another student or sharing work was a punishable offense. We are working with students who are used to speaking their minds, questioning things they don’t understand (or sometimes don’t agree with). The 21st century student comes to us seeking structure and knowledge, not as vessels to be filled by the transfer of our knowledge into their minds.
So I’ve got the 6/3 model – but I’ve got 30 kids!
Many teachers wonder, of course, how in the world they’ll manage a class of 30 or so students working together. It’s a great question, and I quickly admit that teaching and modeling teamwork with middle school students takes time. These are some tips I offer:
• Teams should be heterogeneously grouped. Taking the time and effort to look at your student’s ability levels helps to insure that your classroom reflects the “all students can learn” philosophy. You will be amazed at the relationships that form among students of varying talents and experience when all ability levels come together to solve problems and think creatively.
• Establish protocols. Before embarking on the road to teamwork, think about how comfortable you are with student interaction. When you have 30+ students brainstorming, discussing, sharing and working, expect the noise level in the classroom to rise. Giving my students fair warning that when working as a team they are to use their “one-foot voices” (meaning that their voice should only be heard by a person one foot away) has helped to keep me in my comfort zone. When the noise level rises, be ready to remind the too-loud team or teams to use their “one foot voice.” If this isn’t sinking in, feel free to shut the lab or discussion down.
• Assign team roles. In order to function as a “team,” students need to know that everyone contributes to the end product. By defining roles, you are giving each member of team ownership in the work to be done. Roles change weekly so that each member of the team assumes responsibility of the work on a rotating basis. This system prevents the shy, quiet student from being shut down by the more aggressive students on the team. Everyone has a voice and everyone is respected.
Creating an effective STEM classroom that has rich content, incorporates 21st century skills, and is inquiry-based will be a challenge for both new and veteran teachers, but mastering the process of effective teaming and collaboration is a tremendous first “tool” for the teacher’s STEM toolkit.
Developing a collaborative model that works for a particular teacher in a particular classroom in a particular school takes time. I spent many years “stealing from the best” to tweak and develop the model that worked well for me. Every successful STEM teacher will do the same. I hope these ideas and resources will help accelerate the process!