Category Archives: children as scientists

In Need of Inspiration? Meet Eva.

Last Friday found me at Lincoln Elementary School in Calumet City, Illinois. Lincoln is one of our STEM Institute partner schools, sending eight teachers through last summer’s Introduction to Inquiry. One of the benefits and joys of the program is the relationships we build with each of our teacher participants over the two years of the program, as we visit their classes to support their transition to the NGSS and a more inquiry-based practice.

Evangelina Sfura teaches 4th grade at Lincoln and is on Lincoln’s iTEAM.  I stopped by her classroom to see the STEM Career Fair her students were putting on for each other and for students in other classes. Eva is an extraordinary teacher, and her passion for teaching, and for teaching science in particular, is contagious. I asked her if I could interview her and share her journey. Happily, she said yes.

Eva Sfura in her Classroom

I was fascinated to see the students engaging each other in your STEM Career Fair. They were riveted. How did that come about?

“My class participated in the event ‘Hour of Code.’ Afterwards, I was talking about STEM careers and why they are so important. One of my students raised her hand and said, ‘I know what STEM is but what kind of jobs do people have in STEM?’ That stopped me in my tracks, and I realized what a profound question that was. Students know what doctors, lawyers and teachers are, but they know nothing of engineers, analysts and programmers. How can students aspire to professions that they have never heard of?

I decided to turn that question into a project. We looked up a list of STEM careers. Student pairs were given a chance to look over the list and do some quick research to find a career they were interested in. Once they settled on a career, they used Google Slides to create a presentation. The students were especially interested in salary information, but I wanted to put that information in context so that it would have an impact. We researched 2010 US Census Data for our city to find the average salary of a person living here. We looked at the 2010 US Census Economic Data and found that the average income of a full time worker in Calumet City, Illinois, is $18,900 a year. They thought that was huge until they investigated their STEM careers. The careers the students researched had average starting salaries between $58,000 and $120,000. As one of my students told me, ‘Wow, college really is worth my time!’

During the course of their research, many groups came across the word ‘resume’ and had no idea what it meant. That led to lessons on what a resume is and how to create one. Students used a template on Google Docs to make their own resumes which became part of their presentations. The students asked me if they could present their projects to other classes. Thus, the idea of a STEM career fair was born. The groups made posters announcing their career and other classrooms were invited. My class did an amazing job presenting their information over three days.”

Two Students Learn about Environmental Engineering on STEM Career Day

Can you tell us about the Dyson connection you made, what that was like for your students, and what impact it had on them and on you?

“A colleague told me about the James Dyson Foundation and how they are promoting STEM in classrooms. Any teacher can go on their website and put themselves on a waiting list for a Dyson Ideas Box. This box contains a free month long engineering unit that allows students to explore the idea of product design. They used Dyson products as an inspiration point. My class and I were able to investigate an actual Dyson Air Multiplier to compare it to a conventional fan. This allowed my students to see that many inventions are as simple as taking an already existing product and making it more useful and efficient. By the end of the unit, students were redesigning products that are used in a classroom. My favorite was the group that decided the worst thing about a pencil is how small the eraser is. They came up with a model that had a longer, encased eraser that twisted up as the need for more arose. It was quite ingenuous!

My students loved this unit and begged me not to send the Ideas Box back. I know that it had an impact on my students. The very first lesson in the idea box had the students drawing what they thought an engineer looked like. They all drew men in suits with briefcases. The lesson was repeated at the very end of the unit. This time, without any input from me, they drew themselves, explaining that they realized they could be engineers if they wanted to!”

4th Graders in Ms. Sfura’s Class at Lincoln Elementary in Calumet City, Illinois, Exploring Engineering (Thank you, Dyson!)

What have you learned since completing year one of STEM Institute? Have you changed as a teacher? If so, in what ways?

“I have learned so much that I hardly know where to start. Science was my least favorite subject to teach. I really had no idea how to make it come alive the way I could do with reading or math. That is why I jumped at the chance to be part of the STEM Institute. I feel like I understand Science more than I did before. By learning to make these topics engaging for my students, I understand them better as well.

I love how the STEM Institute presents information. Instead of the usual lectures, everything is presented the way teachers should present in their own classrooms. This made me feel confidant that I could actually implement changes in my teaching immediately. My first science lesson this year involved using glow sticks to understand chemical energy! It was messy and noisy, but now at the end of the year, my students are still talking about that!

If fact, the most productive tidbit I learned is that a little chaos, noise and mess can lead to some of the most amazing conversations and explorations with my students. It is now so important to me that students get a chance to explore, investigate or research a topic before I explicitly teach it.”

What has been the most valuable take away from the program?

“One of the biggest takeaways has been to place more trust in my students. They know and can handle more than I ever gave them credit for. I am so much more comfortable letting them take the lead on investigations and projects. It is an awesome experience to sit back and watch what they are able to come up with without me guiding them step by step.

We start every topic in Science with an inquiry lesson. I often just give them the supplies and let them explore before I teach anything. By the time we get to the textbook, they already have a real world understanding of the concepts, and it makes the reading less confusing and dry. This has also changed the way the students take their science tests. I leave out any materials or equipment we used during the unit. During testing, they will often get up and repeat an experiment quickly to make sure their answer is correct! I love it!

I am using this exploration time in other subjects as well. For example, in math, I will display a problem for the students on a topic they have never seen. I have them work in groups to try to figure out the problem using what they already know. At first this scared my students. I heard a lot of whining and complaints, but I just kept reassuring them that they could figure out something and to keep trying. As they explored, they got more confident, and it was exciting to watch their enthusiasm grow. Now, they love new problems and can’t wait to tackle them. They view it as a challenge rather than a chore. My scores in math have improved dramatically as well!”

Experimenting with Circuits in the Dyson Engineering Lab Ms. Sfura Brought to Her Classroom

How has your thinking about STEM changed over the past year?

“I was mostly drawn to the technology aspect of STEM. I, personally, love technology and have enjoyed implementing it in my class where I am lucky to have one-to-one computing. My school has provided me with a large amount of math professional development. It was the engineering and science that I was having trouble incorporating. I will admit that I made a lot of excuses. My students were too young or too noisy. The students would act up if I tried it. They probably wouldn’t get it anyway. The truth was that I lacked the confidence to try.

Being part of the STEM Institute changed that, and not one of my excuses came to pass. My students rose higher than my expectations most of the time. Sure it was noisy, but the students were on task and excited about what they were doing. They understood what we were doing and could articulate why. I didn’t have any behavior problems during these lessons because they were so intrigued and engaged! STEM and by extension inquiry-based learning has become a large part of classroom routine. I would never revert to the way things were.”

Is there anything you want to share with other teachers who might be considering an inquiry-based approach or a more STEM-based curriculum? Any words of wisdom based on your own experience?

“My first bit of advice is to learn to be more comfortable giving up some control to your students. Set the expectation and then trust them to accomplish it. Not only will learning improve, but it has the side benefit of improving your relationship with your students. When trust is running both ways, you can accomplish more than you can imagine. I am so bonded to this class and I think it is because they feel safe, heard and trusted. They have made me so proud that on a few occassions I have teared up!

The second bit of advice would be so stop being afraid of chaos. There is such a thing a purposeful chaos. Loud is okay if students are on task and collaborating. Messy is okay if it leads to better understanding. The world will not end if students are out of their seats, exploring concepts together.”

What has been the impact on your students of your more STEM focused and inquiry-based approach? Do you see any changes in them compared with previous years’ students?

“Several times a year, I send a survey to my students asking questions about the classroom, their likes and dislikes, any changes they would like to see, etc. Every year, when I asked about their favorite subjects, science was dead last. No one really liked it. This year, however, most of the class put science first! I am really proud of that because it means the students and I both agree that changes I have made are positive ones.

I can see a change in the students themselves. They are not afraid to explore topics. In fact, they have no problem asking me if we can extend a topic or take it in a different direction than I intended. They really enjoy a challenge instead of shying away from it. I have heard conversations where my students have discussed and debated the best type of engineer to be. They discuss the best ways to code on computers and even now suggest experiments they would like to try! They are so much more involved in their learning than any group I have previously taught.

I teach many ELL students who are typically shy and do not like to speak. It has been particularly gratifying to see those students gain more self confidence. I was so proud to see all of them talking to groups during the STEM career fair as much as the students who are native English speakers!”

You Simply Can’t Make Up This Level of Engagement

Eva, it is so inspiring to hear about your evolution as a teacher. I’m curious about how long you’ve been teaching and what brought you to this profession.

“I am finishing up my 11th year of teaching! I have only taught at Lincoln. Teaching is my second career. I was a marketing executive for five years before I realized that I was very unfulfilled. I was influenced by my father who had been a teacher in East Chicago, Indiana, for 42 years. We couldn’t go anywhere when I was child without running into his former students. Once we went to Atlanta, Georgia, and we still ran into a former student! All of his students adored him. He died when I was 19, and his funeral was packed with former students from all over the country. I couldn’t help thinking that he died having made a huge impact on so many people, while I was sitting in front of a computer all day. I got laid-off from my job, found a program at Roosevelt University that allowed business professionals to obtain a teaching license and never once looked back!”

What a legacy! And how proud Eva’s father would have been.

~ Penny

You can learn more about STEM Institute here.


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Filed under Calumet City, children as engineers, children as scientists, Dyson Education Foundation, inquiry science, professional development, resources, science teaching, STEM education, Uncategorized

Cats are Girls and Dogs are Boys

When I was maybe three years old, I had an epiphany. I came to the absolute conviction that the pets I was seeing around my neighborhood were like human beings. They came in two different genders, just like me and my mother and my brother and father. The cats were the girls and the dogs were the boys. It took a little longer for me to understand the concept of species as a means for sorting. In my mental file cabinet, gender came earlier than species.

Children are all little scientists. How could they not be? Fresh to this wonderful life, they are constantly observing the world around them, and much more closely than we adults do, hence the popularity of the Where’s Waldo books and the fact that most children are far more successful than their parents in finding the little guy in the midst of so many other people.

The Youngest Scientist is a Small Child

We freely admit that children are curious, that they can drive us to distraction with their constant questions. I recently read that preschool children ask their parents around 100 questions a day. You know the kinds: Where does the sun go at night? Why aren’t there any more dinosaurs? Why do people get sick? Why don’t birds sing at night? Can dogs be girls? And every answer is followed by another question, until the conversation can become almost philosophical if not outright surreal.

Many a harried parent has wondered, “Why do children ask so many questions?” They seem hardwired to do so. In short, children are trying to make sense of the world. Imagine yourself landing on an alien planet, something like the moon Pandora in the film Avatar. What would cause you to wonder, to ask questions? Probably pretty much everything around you. And so with children, still strangers in a strange new land.

So in the process of asking all those questions, children are learning a lot of valuable things about the world, not the least of which is how to ask interesting questions that don’t have easy answers, an essential skill for success in life. And, as a result of following their inborn curiosity, children enter school with many of the “building blocks of scientific understanding” already in place.

That is why starting science in preschool and continuing science in kindergarten and the primary grades is absolutely essential. It’s a case of striking while the iron is hot. The natural curiosity children bring to school, their hunger to make sense of this world, makes them natural students of science, more than they are natural readers or writers or mathematicians. Why not let children’s inborn inclination to learn about the world drive their learning of those other essential skills, reading, writing, and arithmetic? Why not let their inherent need to know drive them to learn the skills they need to better understand what they are observing and communicate their budding understanding to others.

But there is another essential reason to start early and to emphasize science with very young children. Being observers and novice scientists doesn’t necessarily mean they will get the science right or that the sense they make of things is accurate. Letting them carry those misconceptions forward into middle school without addressing them immediately, not only risks dampening children’s natural curiosity by making science just another school subject rather than the act of grasping life itself, but it also risks their carrying forward uncorrected any misconceptions they might have. We all know that it’s more difficult to erase longstanding assumptions with new and more accurate constructions the longer we wait.

And speaking of misconceptions, the National Research Council’s landmark report, Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8 (2007) makes a compelling case for beginning science instruction in the primary grades, starting with kindergarten. (Free here.)

  • In contrast to the commonly held and outmoded view that young children are concrete and simplistic thinkers, the research evidence now shows that their thinking is surprisingly sophisticated. Important building blocks for learning science are in place before they enter school.
  • Children entering school already have substantial knowledge of the natural world, which can be built on to develop their understanding of scientific concepts. Some areas of knowledge may provide more robust foundations to build on than others, because they appear very early and have some universal characteristics across cultures throughout the world.
  • By the end of preschool, children can reason in ways that provide helpful starting points for developing scientific reasoning. However, their reasoning abilities are constrained by their conceptual knowledge, the nature of the task, and their awareness of their own thinking.

Free Download from the National Research Council

Cats are both boys and girls and so are dogs. Children will, as I did, figure that out fairly quickly. But what about less obvious misconceptions, like those people often have about what causes seasons or what the relationship is between the sun and the earth in that scheme? Those misconceptions can take root early and remain uncorrected through university, if students are left to their own devices.

Far too often, we adults have already stopped challenging our own assumptions … about science, about society, about politics, about a lot of the things that matter. In the case of children, their inborn curiosity, their countless questions, seem to peter out around third grade, if they haven’t been encouraged and nurtured before that. What an incredible waste!

In fact, and to reiterate, we now know a lot more about knowledge acquisition in young children than we did when we believed the following falsehoods about children and science:

  • Elementary schoolchildren think in concrete as opposed to abstract terms.
  • Elementary schoolchildren can make sense of their world primarily in terms of ordering and classifying objects and relations and not in terms of explanatory understanding or the building of intuitive theories.
  • Elementary schoolchildren cannot use experimentation to develop their ideas.

Elementary children can do all of the above, from thinking more abstractly to developing explanations and theories, to using experimentation! “All three of these views, as well as other views of broad cognitive limitations of elementary schoolchildren, and even many preschoolers, are no longer accepted by the cognitive developmental research community.” So says the National Research Council’s Committee on Science Learning, Kindergarten Through Eighth Grade. (See above for a link.)

Kindergarten Scientists Experimenting with the Properties of Matter in Jessica Manaois’s Class at Kipling Elementary in Chicago

Those early years are precious. If your school doesn’t have a strong emphasis on science in the primary grades, beginning one would be a laudable goal for the coming school year. In fact, principals joining Golden Apple STEM Institute often focus their professional development support on primary and early elementary teachers in order to build a strong foundation in children for doing science in the middle and upper grades. Young children deserve to have rich, engaging science experiences at school, and what’s more, they love it when they do!

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.  If you are in the Chicago metro area, please contact us to learn how to become a partner school.

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Filed under children as scientists, Early Elementary Science, primary science, Uncategorized

In the beginning …

“All young children have the intellectual capability to learn science. Even when they enter school, young children have rich knowledge of the natural world, demonstrate causal reasoning, and are able to discriminate between reliable and unreliable sources of knowledge. In other words, children come to school with the cognitive capacity to engage in serious ways with the enterprise of science.”


“Very little if anything is expected to be accomplished in science during the K-2 years in most U.S. elementary school classrooms, where the overwhelming focus is on developing early literacy and numeracy. Most science activities are short (one lesson long) rather than coherent units.”

Both quotations are from the landmark 2007 report by the National Research Council of The National Academies, Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science Grades K – 8. (Free download here.)

A Good Introduction to Early Elementary Science Education

An Important Introduction to Early Elementary Science Education

It would seem from reading these two statements, that if we aren’t teaching very much science to young children in our schools, we are missing a hugely significant opportunity to build on their inherent interest in the world around them and the preliminary sense they’ve already made of it. After all, when the students are ready, isn’t the teacher supposed to appear? Cue the crickets.

Why is there such a profound disconnect in our schools between the reality of millions of science curious students who enter the school as budding little scientists and the actuality of nominal and often poor quality science instruction those children too often receive during those critical primary years? What does science look like at the beginning of schooling? What should it look like?

There’s a hint of an answer in the second quotation. Since the advent of No Child Left Behind, U. S. schools have marginalized non-tested subjects, feeling the need to prove that their students are literate and numerate more than they feel the need to educate children in other subject areas children might find engaging and relevant to their lives, subjects like science, the arts, and social studies.

To begin to address these questions, I want to focus on what I saw in a kindergarten classroom I recently visited.

In Raquel Martinez’s Kindergarten classroom at Washington Elementary in Chicago, where students are learning about weather in a coherent ongoing unit, I see and hear children engaging in science and engineering practices.

Their teacher says to them, “You were good observers, good explorers yesterday.” She asks them, “Do you think the sun comes out everyday? Let’s take some time to think. (wait time) Now, turn to your partner. This is a tough question. You have to know why. ‘Does the sun come out everyday?’”

In many ways, it’s a subtle question Ms. Martinez poses to get her students thinking about what they have observed during their young lives. Ultimately, this lesson will lead children to an understanding of why the sun appears to come out each day — the result of the earth rotating on its axis as it revolves around the sun. But first she must tap their prior experience of the phenomenon.

I saw children keeping their observations in science notebooks.

I saw data gathered as part of the “Daily Weather Watch” and added to the weather observation chart, a bar graph, indicating whether the day is sunny, cloudy, or rainy.

Little Alana, “today’s weather watcher,” reports to her classmates after observing at the window, “It’s sunny.” By the next time I visit Washington, the “weather watcher” is being called “today’s meteorologist.”

A Budding Meteorologist Gathers Data Through Observation

A Budding Meteorologist Gathers Data Through Observation

Children color flash cards with the following words and images on them: Windy, Cloudy, Rainy, Stormy, Sunny, and Snowy. They cut them out with scissors, great for developing fine motor skills, and place them in a little pocket in their science notebooks. They have the words, “A scientists knows … in our world” before their eyes as they work.


Keeping A Science Notebook Is Something Scientists Do

There was more. But I hope this captures a sense of what should be happening at the very beginning of every child’s schooling to lay the foundation for all of the science learning that needs to take place over the course of the next twelve years and beyond. Above all, science should not be neglected. Very young children are ripe for learning science because they are inherently curious about their world and eager to understand how it works. And Raquel Martinez is there for them, expertly guiding their science experiences.

But let’s ask another expert.

Tonti Elementary 1st grade teacher and STEM Institute alum Stacy Gibson had this to say about why teaching science in the primary grades is so important:

“I love teaching science so much. First of all, it is so much fun for the kids. I feel a lot of people push science off because it isn’t tested in first grade. I feel that it teaches all the skills that are tested/important to be successful thinkers. In science, students are reading and comprehending what they are reading. We also include math (measurement, graphing, addition/subtraction, etc.) and most importantly working together and critical thinking. Science teaches kids ‘productive struggle.’ Students are working through challenging problems to come to a deeper understanding. It’s about trying things and learning from mistakes.

Stacy Gibson and Her First Grade Scientists

Stacy Gibson and Her First Grade Scientists

Planning science units is the hard part. It takes extra time and materials. At our school we don’t have a science curriculum, so we just have to find our own stuff. I spend a lot of time looking things up online and talking with other teachers. Science needs to be hands on, not just watching a video or reading a textbook everyday but instead having kids do the exploring. We used to use FOSS kits, and I loved that because we had all of the materials we needed in one place. After we got the new NGSS standards, our school stopped purchasing FOSS kits. We are still trying different lessons, and some work and some don’t. It is a work in process, and we are learning along with the students.

I do wish everyone saw the importance of science like see it. I wish materials were included when we are buying our math and reading materials every year. I have gotten a ton of great materials from different PDs and workshops, but I would love having ones that are focused on the first grade topics. and Mystery Science have been helpful resources.

It is full time job planning and teaching science, and we have to do it along with all the other subjects. I am always re energized when I see the kids problem solving and working together and how excited they are, and I love working with other teachers who value science and the opportunities to explore teaching science with other adults.”

Stacy Gibson Meeting with her Principal, Gerardo Arriago of Tonti Elementary, and Steven Walsh, STEM Institute Coach

Stacy Gibson Meeting with Her Principal, Gerardo Arriago of Tonti Elementary, and Steven Walsh, STEM Institute Coach

By the way, Stacy and her fellow first grade teachers have common planning time, and Stacy helps her colleagues by designing much of the science that she and her colleagues will teach. Both are excellent strategies for building an excellent science program, and Tonti has done a great job of that.

NSTA, the National Science Teachers Association, a leading developer of the Next Generation Science Standards, updated its Position Statement on Early Childhood Science Education in light of the NGSS. It’s well worth reading, if you are looking for support for doing more science in your classroom, an understanding of what that science should look like, and a guide to the kind of professional development that would best foster your own growth as a classroom teacher responsible for developing science understandings in young children. (By the way, STEM Institute meets all of the criteria.)

But to give you a sense of the critical elements NSTA recommends, here is an excerpt:

NSTA recommends that teachers and other education providers who support children’s learning in any early childhood setting should
• recognize the value and importance of nurturing young children’s curiosity and provide experiences in the early years that focus on the content and practices of science with an understanding of how these experiences connect to the science content defined in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) (NGSS Lead States 2013);
• understand that science experiences are already a part of what young children encounter every day through play and interactions with others, but that teachers and other education providers need to provide a learning environment that encourages children to ask questions, plan investigations, and record and discuss findings;
• tap into, guide, and focus children’s natural interests and abilities through carefully planned open-ended, inquiry-based explorations;
• provide numerous opportunities every day for young children to engage in science inquiry and learning by intentionally designing a rich, positive, and safe environment for exploration and discovery;
• emphasize the learning of science and engineering practices, including asking questions and defining problems; developing and using models; planning and carrying out investigations; analyzing and interpreting data; using mathematics and computational thinking; constructing explanations and designing solutions; engaging in argument from evidence; and obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information (NRC 2012, NGSS Lead States 2013);
• recognize that science provides a purposeful context for developing literacy skills and concepts, including speaking, listening, vocabulary development, and many others; and
recognize that science provides a purposeful context for use of math skills and concepts.

Some good guidance there, as you plan your own science units. You can read the entire position statement here.

~ Penny

You can learn more about STEM Institute here. We are currently recruiting Chicago area schools to join our 2017 cohort. Contact for more information or call 312-477-7522. Looking forward!

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Filed under children as scientists, Early Elementary Science, Taking Science to School, Tonti Elementary School, Uncategorized, Washington Elementary School

Further Confessions of a Science Fair Judge (and a Very Cool Resource)

It’s that season again. Many teachers, anticipating science fairs later in the year, are beginning to think about making their science fair assignments.

If you’ve been following this blog at all, you probably know that I am not a big fan of science fairs as they often play out. One reason for my antipathy is the fact that I often find myself discussing a science fair project with a student who doesn’t have any real personal connection to the work. Invariably, the student has found the project on the Internet and it seemed quick and easy to do. The problem for me in that is that without real engagement, a specific personal connection, the whole process seems more likely to turn a student away from science than generating any long lasting enthusiasm for doing science. Based on those experiences, I’ve tended to dismiss the Internet as a resource for students to use in developing a science fair project, leaning more toward having students build on scientific investigations they’ve done with their teacher but exploring a new variable or investigating something about which they’ve become curious through personal experience.

But ideas should be revisited in the light of new evidence. And students sometimes do need help in coming up with an interesting topic.

Enter Science Buddies’ Topic Selection Wizard. And with that, I’m confessing I was wrong about Internet generated science fair topics.

The Wizard begins by asking 3 questions with pull down menus. How much time do you have for this project? What grade are you in? Did your teacher assign you a specific area for your project? I responded as a 5th grader, said I had a month to do my project and that I could pick my own topic, rather than a teacher assigned one in physical science, or life science, or engineering/invention, for example.

I then answered 26 question about my own interests with either Yes, Sometimes, or No, and 3 demographic questions. I didn’t make up these interests, by the way. When I hit the Make Recommendations button, I was presented with 459 project ideas matched to my preferences.

A simple fun questionnaire gets students to projects that reflect their individual interests.

A  fun questionnaire directs students to projects that reflect their own interests.

Here’s the thing: As I read the recommendations, I could feel my heart race (yes, I’m a geek) because they sounded genuinely interesting to me! Paw Preference in Pets: I have three at home I could test right now, and I really wonder about what I would discover. Are Merlin, Cacie, and Elvis right or left pawed, and what, if anything, does that mean in terms of other aspects of their personalities? Movie Music: I’m a lifelong movie buff and have bought my share of movie soundtracks, beginning, when I was a teenager, with the lush Max Steiner score for Gone with the Wind. Pedigree Analysis: A Family Tree of Traits: I joined a couple of months ago to see where the Wilsons came from, not to mention the Tkachs. I never thought to look at photographs to check ear lobes to find if our tend to be connected or not. But the first project idea I opened was Testing Ant Repellents because, guess what?, I just went into the kitchen for a hot cup of coffee and noticed that the ants were back, after I thought the coffee grounds I had tucked around had worked to drive them away, garlic to their relentless, aggravating vampiric march.

Another thing I love about this tool is what happens when you open up a topic that has captured your interest. There is so much there to draw on.

The tool provides a summary, which includes an abstract and a citation of the project in either MLA or APA style. The “Background” tab includes a bibliography and terms. There are also tabs for “Materials” and “Procedure,” which includes a sample data table. “Help” connects you to “Ask an Expert,” along with related links, and “Learn More” suggests science careers you might like if this type of project appeals to you. My favorite tab is “Make It Your Own,” which offers ways to adapt the project or extend it.

Science Buddies’ Topic Selection Wizard solves one problem I find with science fairs — that they fail to engage students in ways that are genuinely relevant to the student. They are also really good science, and the “Background” page does an excellent job of teaching important concepts. You could get lost for days exploring this site and learn a great deal of science in the process.

But I do have a caveat. While I think the Wizard is a good starting point for students new to science fairs, students who may not have found their science investigation chops quite yet, Science Buddies’ thoroughness in providing all the parts of the typical science fair project requirements, even down to the proper MLA or APA citations, could lead to it becoming a crutch and to outright plagiarism, the student simply copying the abstract, for example, if the teacher is not on top of the assignment and aware of the tool.

I think we would want students to use the Wizard suggested projects as models that they would eventually grow beyond, once they’ve had the positive experience of investigating something in which they are genuinely interested. Then they could simply apply the model to their own topics. Also, as teachers, we would want to facilitate and guide their experience with the Wizard, using it as a means to have substantive conversations with students about the topics that fascinate them. This borders on personalized learning. Used appropriately, Science Buddies Topic Selection Wizard is a great resource and if it’s new to you, it’s definitely one you should explore so that you can decide whether or not or how to share it with your students. Guaranteed, you will have fewer of the same project, fewer formulaic projects, and, mercifully, no more testing of paper towel absorbency. And those will be blessings indeed, at least to this science fair judge.

Which Paper Towel is Best? Do you really care?

Which Paper Towel is Best? Do you really care?

A big thanks to Mary Bianchi-Chlada, one of our amazing STEM Institute coaches, for calling my attention to this great resource.


You can learn more about STEM Institute here.

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Filed under children as scientists, resources, Science Buddies, science fair, science fair projects, teacher resources

A New Tool for Teachers and Principals from STEM Institute

If you are looking for clear evidence that a classroom, including your own, is on its way to becoming inquiry-based, NGSS aligned, and just plain supportive of students developing their science and engineering skills, ask yourself these questions

  • Are the students seen as scientists and engineers by themselves and by adults?
Sending a Clear Message That Students are Engineers

Sending a Clear Message That Students are Engineers (Kozminski Elementary Community Academy, Chicago)

  • Are the students gathering, organizing, and analyzing data and in other ways experiencing the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices (SEP)?
NGSS Science and Engineering Practices — Are Students Using Them?

NGSS Science and Engineering Practices — Are Students Doing These Things?

  • Is the science instruction inquiry-based and hands-on rather than textbook based? (You know, the old memorize the vocabulary, read the book out loud, and answer the questions at the end of the chapter?) How often are students engaged in hands-on, minds-on work? (This should be frequent, not once or twice a month.)
  • Are the students keeping science journals/notebooks, recording their observations, doing scientific drawings or designing solutions to engineering challenges, and reflecting on their observations and experiences, and is this a consistent practice? (For example, “Three months into the school year, when I look at their science notebooks, do I see pages and pages of recorded experiences of the children doing science rather than simply content notes, vocabulary, or pasted in worksheets?”)
  • Are the students using the Wheel of Inquiry to develop investigable questions? Are they asking, “How does ________ effect ________?”
Student Developed Wheels of Inquiry (Steven Taylor, Crowne Community Academy, Chicago)

Student Developed Wheels of Inquiry (Stephen Taylor, Crowne Community Academy, Chicago)

  • Are there photos in the classroom of students doing science? Are students’ scientific drawings posted? Are their engineering solutions on display? In other words, is there a visible documentary record that these are valued activities and engaging to students and that the students are doing hands-on, inquiry-based science/engineering on a regular basis?
At Tonti Elementary in Chicago, Photos of Students Doing Science are Nested Among those of Adult Scientists, Answering the Question "Who is a Scientist?

At Tonti Elementary in Chicago, Photos of Students Doing Science are Nested Among those of Adult Scientists, Answering the Question “Who Is A Scientist?”

  • Is the science/STEM question-driven? Is there a central question being explored through the activity? (This might be called the framing question, essential question, or focus question.) Are there more high-order questions (Bloom’s Taxonomy) being asked? Are students asking high-order questions too? Is there appropriate wait time so that all students have the opportunity to reflect and respond? Is the classroom management conducive to the questioning process and to students conducting scientific investigations or responding to engineering challenges?
  • Are the lessons based on the 5 E approach? Are they Engaging the students in an intriguing observation or question, giving the students ample time to Explore the materials up front before proceeding to have them conduct an investigation and Explain what they observe? Are students given opportunities to Extend their investigation (possibly by using the Wheel of Inquiry and reflecting in their science notebooks) and Evaluate their results and understanding?
  • Are the students excited when they hear they are going to be doing an investigation? Do they know what to do and immediately spring into action? Do they clearly understand the process and procedures because they are doing science and engineering on a frequent, preferably daily, basis? How much ownership do you see students taking for their own learning? Are students framing questions? Are students suggesting other possible investigations? Can students discuss their learning or communicate their understanding in a variety of ways?
Tonti Children

Tonti Elementary Students Learn about the Properties of Water by Building Pencil Rafts … Hands On and Engaged!

  • Was the lesson or unit constructed using backward design? Is there evidence of a clear instructional goal, an assessment, and something to hook the interest of students … rather than simply an activity? Are the NGSS and CCSS clearly identified and tied to the lesson or activity in a meaningful way and with multiple standards addressed? Are the subjects integrated in such a way that more science and engineering can be done because language arts and math support them and vice versa?
  • Are students generally working in groups with clearly defined roles for each student in the group? Is it clear that the students know what to do, the protocols and procedures, when it’s time to conduct an investigation or meet an engineering challenge? Are materials managed in a timely and efficient way?

Using an inquiry-based, constructivist approach takes time because it’s a new way of teaching for many teachers. Seeing four or five of these success indicators in a classroom is a good sign. With enough time and encouragement, teachers are likely to build out their repertoire of inquiry-based activities and lessons into entire units of study and to increase student ownership of learning. Getting to that point is a multi-year process even for highly talented, committed, and experienced teachers. So be prepared to give it time and patience. Working with colleagues as a team to develop a lesson or unit can help speed the process along. To assist you along the way, our Partners in Inquiry website includes many activities from our summer institutes and school year follow-up sessions that teachers are free to use, activities that are already aligned with the above principles.

To make it even easier to gauge whether or not the principles STEM Institute promotes are present in a classroom, we’ve developed an infographic that can serve as a reminder of the things we think you should see.

Our New Info Graphic Reminder of What to Look For

Our New Infographic Reminder of What to Look for in a Great STEM Classroom

I hope it proves useful to you. I’d love to hear from you if you do use it or have suggestions to make it better.

Have a great start to your new school year!


You can learn more about Golden Apple’s STEM Institute here.

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Filed under 5 E Model, children as engineers, children as scientists, Crowne Community Academy, inquiry science, Kozminski Elementary, NGSS, professional development, resources, science teaching, STEM education, teacher resources, Tonti Elementary School, Uncategorized

Hooking Students on STEM: Make it Real! (Part 4 of 4)

The University of Texas at Austin is an outstanding research institution with a “CURE” for the high attrition rate among students who, when they enter university, plan to graduate with STEM degrees.  The Freshman Research Initiative (FRI), which provides first year students with genuine research experiences, is an innovative program which has produced a significantly higher rate of graduates with STEM degrees than the more traditional programs of textbook, lecture, and cookbook experiments. A post on the Freshman Research Initiative led off this series.

I became curious about the work the University was doing to engage students in STEM early on, programs at the elementary, middle, or high school level that might encourage young people to consider majoring in a STEM discipline when they get to college.

I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to interview Greg Clark, Senior Lecturer and Research Scientist at the University, who developed and leads several of the University’s outreach programs to middle and high school students.

Middle school students participated in the FRI Shadow a Scientist summer program at UT Austin's College of Natural Sciences on July 20, 2016. Instructor: Gwen Stovall's Lab (not present in photos) UT Student scientist: Dorothy Nguyen (released)f Location: Painter 2.14 Students: Nathan Gantala in stripes (released), Tre’von Martin Smith grey t-shirt (released)

Middle school students participated in the FRI Shadow a Scientist summer program at UT Austin’s College of Natural Sciences on July 20, 2016.
Instructor: Gwen Stovall’s Lab (not present in photos)
UT Student scientist: Dorothy Nguyen (released)
Students: Nathan Gantala in stripes (released)

As you work with University Freshmen in FRI, get nominations from high school teachers and counselors for the program, or arrange mentorships for high school or middle school students, do you notice any common denominators? What experiences guide young people into STEM? What positively influences them to consider a STEM career for themselves? 

“I believe that encouraging young students to embrace their curiosity and creativity in STEM makes them more likely to persist in a STEM career. This is why using inquiry-based teaching instead of content-based teaching is helpful in getting young students to enjoy science. From my limited perspective, the opportunity to meet and talk to scientists at a young age also has a positive effect because it helps young students to dispel stereotypes they have about scientists.”

Please say a little about your role at the University of Texas and your work with middle and high school students?

“I’m a research educator in the FRI. This is a unique role at the University. One of the reasons it’s so effective is that you get principal investigators who want to work with students. These are PhD scientists who are teaching at the University who directly interact with freshman students to give the undergraduates an authentic research experience.

I strongly believe that inquiry-based teaching and learning is very powerful in the STEM disciplines. When I started in the FRI, I chose as my additional component K-12 STEM outreach. So I’ve been doing that in addition to teaching in the FRI for the past ten years or so. I’ve also done work across the grade levels, mostly middle and high school.

I’ve had a long tradition of having high school students doing real novel research in the lab with me. This summer I’m working with nine students on research that is potentially publishable.

There are two middle school programs I’m associated with and helped develop. Shadow a Scientist is one I had the idea for, and it’s been running for six summers now. The program matches two middle school students with a scientist for a two-hour tour of the scientist’s lab and experiments in progress. Middle school is a very creative open age. Shadowing a scientist gives middle school students the opportunity to visit laboratories on a university campus and interact with scientists. The middle school students — who have come from private, public, and home schools — visit one scientist who is selected based on their personal interests. On a typical visit, the students meet with the scientist and are introduced to his or her research. The students ask questions about research, do hands-on tasks in the lab, and are shown lab equipment.

The program has brought about 100 middle school students each summer to come one Wednesday to shadow a scientist for a couple of hours. To give as many students as possible the opportunity, each student can only do it once. It’s been a lot of fun and very successful. It’s a free program, offered only during the summer. It takes a little time to coordinate between the teachers, the parents, and the scientists. I have some undergraduate volunteers who are science majors who pick up the students at the pick-up spot and deliver them to their scientist, and the middle school student gets to talk with both the undergraduate and the scientist. It’s entirely voluntary.

Some scientists may not want to work with middle school students. I want scientists who are excited to show their labs to middle school students. In fact, a wide range of scientists participate, physicists, computer scientists, astronomers, biologists, so I’m able to pair a middle school student with the appropriate scientist to match the student’s own interest.”

Middle school students participated in the FRI Shadow a Scientist summer program at UT Austin's College of Natural Sciences on July 20, 2016. Instructor: Gwen Stovall's Lab (not present in photos) UT Student scientist: Dorothy Nguyen (released)f Location: Painter 2.14 Students: Nathan Gantala in stripes (released), Tre’von Martin Smith grey t-shirt (released)

Middle school students participated in the FRI Shadow a Scientist summer program at UT Austin’s College of Natural Sciences on July 20, 2016.
Instructor: Gwen Stovall’s Lab (not present in photos)
Students: Nathan Gantala in stripes (released), Tre’von Martin Smith grey t-shirt (released)

As you assess STEM in the elementary and highs schools of this country, do you see signs of hope for the future state of science in the U.S.? What are the challenges that are most concerning to you? What recommendations would you make to the “powers that be” to improve the state and status of STEM in American education?

“The new movement in science communication is great. I’m trying to launch a course on that at the University of Texas. I’d love to teach that. But in the meantime, a second program I participate in is ‘Present your PhD Thesis to a 12 Year Old.’ Graduate students present a simplified version of their PhD thesis in middle school classrooms or community centers. This program gives emerging scientists the opportunity to communicate their discoveries to middle school students and fuel students’ curiosity and enthusiasm for science. Importantly, the program also provides a framework for graduate students to participate in community outreach and develop their science communication skills at an early stage in their science careers.

Presenters develop a visual, interactive presentation on their PhD thesis that can be easily understood by middle school students. Each presentation is approximately 20 minutes long, and an engaging interactive format is encouraged. Previous exemplary presentation samples are available for viewing, and new presentations are carefully vetted during practice sessions aimed at helping the new presenter develop a high-quality presentation. During practice talks for each new presenter, there is an audience of three or more experienced graduate student presenters from the program. This setting provides ample opportunities for the new presenters to meet the outreach group and to benefit from feedback from more experienced presenters with multiple perspectives based on lessons they have learned and feedback from their previous presentations.

The grad students of today are going to become the professors of tomorrow. If they already have the skills to communicate their scientific research to lay audiences, that’s a good thing. Scientists have to do a better job of communicating with non-scientists.

Another positive development is that CURE is starting to catch on. CURE stands for course-based undergraduate research experience. At the University of Texas Austen, the Freshman Research Initiative is an example of this novel idea, which is now being adopted at other universities and at local high schools. I see it first hand with my high school students who work with me here in the lab every summer. Engaging students in doing real scientific research can be a real remedy for the problems we’re having with STEM education in America.”

Middle school students participated in the FRI Shadow a Scientist summer program at UT Austin's College of Natural Sciences on July 20, 2016. Instructor: Dr. Hong Qiao (Bo Zhao) Location: NMS 5.324 Students: Alexander Steyaert in blue soccer shirt (released) , Sruti Ramachandran in light blue shirt (released)

Middle school students participated in the FRI Shadow a Scientist summer program at UT Austin’s College of Natural Sciences on July 20, 2016.
Instructor: Dr. Hong Qiao (Bo Zhao)
Student:  Sruti Ramachandran in light blue shirt (released)

What advice do you have for elementary, middle, and high school teachers who want to better prepare their students to be successful in STEM at the university level? What would you like to see them do more of with their students? 
“I would encourage teachers to do more inquiry-based instruction. My wife was an elementary school teacher and now is a specialist at a low SES school. I have great respect for the work they do. There is so much pressure in schools today, particularly in low SES schools, that teachers often don’t want to venture into inquiry-based instruction because of the fear that their students won’t score well on the standardized tests.

However, even at the younger age an inquiry-based teaching approach has a lot of advantages. Active learning, hands-on learning works at that age level, gets them engaged. Inquiry-based (as opposed to content-based) teaching in particular has been shown to result in both higher content retention and more positive attitudes toward the subject matter on the part of the students, so definitely I would advise teachers to become more inquiry-based as they plan their teaching at all grade levels.”

Could you comment specifically on science fairs … what is good, as well as what isn’t so good. Is there a place for Science Fairs today or is that an idea that has outlived its time? Is there a better way to generate student creativity in science and engineering at the elementary and high school level? How would you make them better?

“Involve university undergraduate science students in helping younger children do science fair projects. At the elementary school level, I think very highly of science fair projects, but I am less enthusiastic about science fair projects at the high school. For younger students it’s a way of doing science and finding the thrill of discovery. You don’t get the same thrill doing an experiment in a class. But to pursue something you’re interested in and find answers to the questions you have can be exciting. They are doing a form of science.

However, I don’t like the politics that often go into judging science fair projects. How much did the student do vs. how much did the parents do? But a lot of times it is the first place where a student does an experiment where they don’t know the outcome and they have an interest in finding out. They are collecting data and trying to find an answer to a question they are interested in, and it’s a great introduction to science.”

Middle school students participated in the FRI Shadow a Scientist summer program at UT Austin's College of Natural Sciences on July 20, 2016. Instructor: Tony Gonzales Location: NMS 1.228 Students: Jan MacGregor in white t-shirt (released) , Elena Alvarado in pink glasses (released)

Middle school students participated in the FRI Shadow a Scientist summer program at UT Austin’s College of Natural Sciences on July 20, 2016.
Instructor: Tony Gonzales
Students: Jan MacGregor in white t-shirt (released) , Elena Alvarado in pink glasses (released)

How does a child grow up to become a scientist? How did you?

“When I was in high school I had a great biology teacher. Students really like subjects they had a great teacher for. My teacher in high school was passionate about Biology and his enthusiasm for the subject made coming to class the highlight of the school day. I came to UT as a pre-med major because of the excitement I experienced as a high school biology student. When I got to the University, I was a really good test taker, multiple choice, short answer, making really good grades, straight As, which is important in pre-med. Then, I took as an elective a plant anatomy class with a plant anatomist who was one of the leaders in the world. His test was a two-question essay test. I did really poorly on my first test with him. It was a wake-up call for me. I realized I wasn’t really learning the concepts, just memorizing. I ended up taking another plant physiology course, and I started doing research with the teacher of that class and ended up not going to medical school. Today, I’m a plant biologist. I’m interested in how plants respond to signals in their environment. It’s called signal transduction. Any signals that a cell responds to first have to be perceived by the cell’s receptors, typically on the cell surface. The receptors trigger a biochemical chain of events inside the cell that allow the cells respond. So light can be a signal or temperature. And the plant responds accordingly. Plants have evolved exquisite signaling pathways to respond to a variety of signals including stress signals. Plants can integrate many signals that are occurring simultaneously. For example a recent report shows that the tip of a plant root can sense and respond to up to 15 different signals at the same time. Basic research on plant cell signaling is very important for our future. As our global population increases we will need to grow crops in nutrient-poor soils in areas subject to drought. Our understanding of how plants respond to signals could be the key to successfully growing crops in these less desirable locations.

Young students really get interested in science by doing science. They have some kind of special ability, a kind of radar. They know whether they are doing real science or not, whether what they are doing leads to new knowledge or is just a rehash of something that’s already known. They have the potential for discovery. They have the potential to be published. I publish papers with students. 

That’s the secret sauce as far as getting young students interested in science: Make it real.”

Wise words from Greg Clark: “Make it real.”

You might enjoy reading a student’s description of his experience with the Shadow a Scientist program. You can find it here and see some more photos. I look forward to seeing other similar programs springing up around the country. What a fantastic way to inspire students to see themselves as future STEM professionals. Doesn’t it make you wonder if there is any way you could connect your students to similar experiences?

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.

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Filed under children as scientists, FRI, Greg Clark, inquiry science, science fair, Shadow a Scientist, Uncategorized, University of Texas, University of Texas Austin

Golden Apple STEM Institute TED Playlist: 10 Inspiring Talks for Inquiry-Based STEM Teachers

If you’re a follower of TED talks you are probably already familiar with TED playlists, TED or curator created groupings of TED talks around a particular theme. You know the power of these collections to spark your thinking about a  topic. If you aren’t familiar with TED, the following short videos will provide you with an introduction to these inspiring and entertaining talks on the cutting edge of human understanding.

By the way, TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, but the talks are much more wide-ranging that those three words suggest, delving into science, mathematics, education, and numerous other fields. The talks themselves are given at an annual TED conference. This year’s TED conference was in Vancouver and just just concluded. Attending the conference is by application and invitation and costs $8,500, not including airfare, lodging and food. In the coming weeks, the talks from that conference will be posted online and are free. Cities around the world have created their own TED conferences called TEDex, and those talks are posted on the TED site as well.

STEM Institute has assembled the following ten TED talks that capture the spirit of inquiry, curiosity, and fun that are at the heart of our program. They suggest what we hope students will experience in their STEM classes.


Why we need the explorers

This talk could be subtitled “on the importance of curiosity driven science.”


Three rules to spark learning

A high school chemistry teacher shares insights he learned from his surgeon that changed how he practices the craft of teaching.


Hey science teachers – make it fun

Why textbook driven instruction isn’t the way to go — be playful and use storytelling to awaken your students’ interest.


Science is for everyone, kids included

This talk is on the importance of play; science as a way of being; children’s questioning; and experiments as play.


Math class needs a makeover

Although this talk is about high school math, the takeaways apply equally to elementary math and science – the importance to students of formulating the problems; here’s some great teaching advice to lead students to patient problem solving.


Hands-on science with squishy circuits

Make some homemade play dough for little kids to build circuits.


Kids can teach themselves

Sugata Mitra explores how you can indeed feel confident in turning over more responsibility for learning to kids themselves.


How I harnessed the wind

Inspiring talk by a young man from Malawi that could lead students to explore the maker movement, engineering, and the power of young people to make real world contributions; a good hook for a unit on energy or for Earth Day.


Biomimicry’s surprising lessons from nature’s engineers

Why immerse students in nature? This talk explores the intersection between science, design, and engineering.“Learning about the natural world is one thing; learning from the natural world, that’s the profound switch.”


Do schools kill creativity?

Saving the best for last, I close with the most popular TED talk of all time. It gets to the heart of what is wrong with most schools, the deadening impact they have on students’ creativity, creativity that is essential to success in the STEM fields.


Enjoy! And if you have a favorite TED talk or comments about any of these, please share in a comment below.


You can learn more about STEM Institute here.

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Filed under children as engineers, children as scientists, creativity, curiosity, engineering, innovation, inquiry science, professional development, resources, science teaching, scientist, STEM education, teacher resources, TED, Uncategorized