Category Archives: creativity

Dumpster Diving for Science (and Engineering)

Summer is a great time for teachers to plan for the coming school year and gather materials for all the great learning experiences you are developing for your students. In the spirit of “Recycle, Re-use, Re-purpose,” and in recognition of the difficult financial straits so many schools find themselves in, I’d like to propose “Dumpster Diving for Science.”

Our intrepid STEM Institute faculty has made an art form of it, all in the name of giving their students richer learning experiences and the teachers in their professional development sessions some creative solutions for those limited budgets they face.

Jim with Box

Jim Effinger with the Dumpster Box that Started It All — We Needed a Box Large Enough to Hold Wayne Wittenberg

To inspire your own participation in this soon to be Olympic sport, somewhat akin in a twisted sort of way to Pokemon Go, here are a few of our faculty’s favorite memories, their most fabulous finds.

Wayne Wittenberg said of the dumpster dive strategy for equipping his science armamentarium, “that’s how I got my first science equipment. My district just got rid of a whole bunch of science equipment and I grabbed it. That was 30 years ago, and I still use the equipment. Magnets, aquariums, and electric circuit boards, all of it was there. Districts have stopped doing this because it’s taxpayers’ money. But when a school transitions from one program to another, you can still snag some pretty good things.”

Howie Templer told me, “I’ve never gone dumpster diving except at my school when people throw random stuff away at the beginning of the year, but on days when people throw things out in their alleys in my community, I pick up things I can use in my classroom. You can’t ever look for something specific, but you can find things you can use. My best find was a tent. It’s the only thing I used intact. Everything else I used for parts in building stuff. Ice keeper stuff, for example, like foam, foam floaters, cardboard, bubble wrap. The tent was a discarded IKEA pop-up tent that I challenged my students to find the volume of. Then my students used the poles as a framework for building a structure they had to engineer to be freestanding. It was an architectural design problem. I’m always just looking. One of the most useful typical finds is the plastic storage containers people put things in to dispose of. I dump the contents and use the containers to organize and store my science supplies. Cardboard bankers boxes for paper storage are also easy to find in the alley.”

John Lewis said, “It’s pretty much my life. It’s pretty amazing how someone else’s garbage can be a treasure for your classroom. I find some stuff around schools — mine in particular. Anything from projector cart parts to an old overhead projector, last century’s technology. When the school throws it away one day, I retrieve it the next. The overhead projector, for example, is perfect for the color mixing activity I do, and Jim Effinger uses it to project the results of the hand washing experiment, the bacterial grown in the petri dishes. You wouldn’t want to buy something like that for one or two activities, but finding an old overhead in the dumpster is great!”

John Lewis with Salvaged Overhead Projector for Color Mixing Activity

John Lewis with Salvaged Overhead Projector for Color Mixing Activity

Referring to the related sport of alley picking, John commented, “An annoying thing taking up space in someone’s garage could be the perfect illustration of the scientific principle you’ll be teaching next week. Just cruising down the alley, I’ve found hot wheels cars, furniture, and other cast offs that have found a perfect place in my classroom and curriculum.”

And he concluded, “Many of our giveaways at STEM Institute workshops have come from others’ castoffs, which can be used to enrich classroom experiences and supplement scarce resources.”

Not everyone feels comfortable dumpster diving. While Ron Hale has never done it personally, some of his best friends are dumpster divers. Ron has a teacher friend who looks for old electronics he can deconstruct for STEM activities. Ron is a bit averse to the sport himself.

Elizabeth Copper uses dumpsters in a unique way. Noticing that dumpsters tend to attract flies, she captures maggots in collection jars and flies out of a flytrap for forensic etymology. Students get to see the life cycle of flies and understand the life death continuum. Elizabeth advises, “Just like universal precaution, always carry your gloves with you.” She’s hoping this year to get Ron Hale to help her collect.

Bill Grosser’s first experience with the sport started after working at Amoco Chemical Corporation. He recounted, “They had a room there that was full of no longer used custom made research lab equipment. Some of it was bizarre looking, and you had no idea what it was designed to be used for, however it was obvious it related to science. When I started teaching my Amoco friends at one point called me up and said ‘If you want any of this junk, come over and get it.’ Lee Merrik, another Golden Apple Fellow, and I took our vans and we came away with two vans full of equipment and materials. 25 years later I still have a lot of it and use it for class. When it’s on the counter and the kids come into the room, they know that something spectacular is going to happen.”

Bill’s advice: “Always be on the lookout for cool looking stuff that will spark the inquisitive nature in kids.”

Jim Effinger and Bill Grosser often snag excellent finds together. By far best thing they ever got out of a dumpster was a full-sized cow from the old farm exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry. They couldn’t resist the temptation to whisk it away from the MSI dumpster because they saw the potential for humor. With Wayne Wittenberg’s help, they had to cut the legs down to get it into the van, and they drove down Lake Shore Drive with the cow clearly visible in the window. They put in in the research prairie where the students would be collecting bugs. It was worth all the trouble when the kids came running back shouting “there’s a cow in the prairie!”

Dumpster Divers Extraordinaire: Wayne Wittenberg, Bill Grosser, Jim Effinger, Louise Huffman.

Dumpster Divers Extraordinaire: Wayne Wittenberg, Bill Grosser, Jim Effinger, Louise Huffman.


Bill Grosser and Wayne Wittenberg Load Van with Rescued Cow

Bill Grosser and Wayne Wittenberg Load Van with Rescued Cow

And that reminds me of what Jim Effinger always advises us on the first day of Introduction to Inquiry — “Have fun.” Some of those dumpster, alley, thrift store, garage sale, basement, or attic finds have great potential for humor. Certainly their primary purpose is to spark curiosity. They can make excellent hooks. And some can contribute to your students’ scientific investigations and engineering projects. But they can also contribute to making learning fun for you and your students.

To the dumpsters everyone!

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.


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This Works!

The Finns woke up one day in 2007 to discover, much to their collective surprise, that they led the rest of the world in education. When they embarked on education reform some 40 years earlier, they hadn’t set out to beat anyone in that arena but only to improve the educational opportunities for Finnish children. However, by emphasizing equitable access to a high quality education for all children regardless of either their socio economic circumstances or their inherent capacity and by fostering collaboration in schools and in teacher preparation, they wound up outscoring everyone else on the PISA and other measures of student achievement — all of this without going the route of incessant standardized tests and an obsessive focus on student achievement in a narrow range of subjects. By the way, teaching is a highly sought after profession in Finland thanks to the vision the Finns had for their schools.

As a result of that vision and their singleminded pursuit of it, education has become Finland’s oil, a new natural resource that they are exporting to other countries. And we can learn a lot from the Finns.

In this blog over the past years I’ve reflected several times on how we Americans do Science Fairs. If you’ve read any of those entries, you know that I’m not entirely thrilled by the way ours are constituted, although I do see potential in having children conduct scientific investigations and meet engineering challenges, presenting their results to their peers and to knowledgeable adults who can both positively reinforce their efforts and stimulate further thinking by the child scientists and engineers.

So when I was in Finland week before last, I was delighted to encounter a student science fair of sorts, Tämä toimii!, at Tampere University of Applied Sciences in Hervanta, Finland. Tampere is Finland’s second largest university in engineering sciences, and its statutory duty is to pursue research and give the best possible education in its field. Tuition is free to students from Finland and other EU countries. Let me repeat that. Finnish students receive a world class education in engineering without incurring any student debt. That day, Tampere University was playing host to children from local schools who were sharing their work with judges.

Translated: This Works!

Translated: Hey, brought the toy moves (moving toy?)! This Works!

As with other aspects of Finnish education, there are some things we can learn from Tämä toimii!, which means “This Works!”

Tämä toimii! is an annual competition (since 2013) for children grades 4-6, so around 10 years of age, to design a toy with moving parts. In the fall, schools register their desire to participate and by November receive confirmation and the schedule of spring events. In early December, participating schools receive a list of approved materials, so that they can begin gathering them from around the school and from children’s homes. Finland places a strong emphasis on recycling and has for years, so most of the materials the children will be using for their toy inventions are materials that they are repurposing or recycling. The children keep a diary of their work, and their final product is a toy that will be judged for its success in movement over repeated tries, its delight as a plaything for children, and its inventive use of recycled materials. They must also produce an ad for their toy and demonstrate the toy to various groups —from other children to adult judges.

Presented to spark your creativity, here is a list of suggested materials from the 2016 competition:

Permitted building:
A disc (e.g. wood, metal, plastic), max. 50cm x 50cm x 1cm
Cocktail, dental or barbecue sticks
Juice whistles
CD discs
A tube (e.g. Pringles)
Plastic pipe, max. ⌀ 2cm
Beverage cans / plastic water bottle
Plastic box / jar (e.g. Margarine tubs) and a plastic cover
Clay (also hardening modeling clay)
Craft Beads (all types)
Egg carton (max. 12 egg cell)
Fabric (e.g. A blanket, cotton, oilcloth etc.)
Carto, max. 50cm x50cm x50 cm; paperboard, max. 100cm x100cm; copy paper
Rope or fishing line
Screws (all types / all sizes)
Nails (all types / all sizes)
Rubber loops or equivalent (e.g. Hair elastics)
Clothes pegs
Ballpoint pens
Empty pump soap bottle or equivalent
Ball (glass / metal / plastic)
Plastic test tube
Magnet (diagonal / diameter max. 3cm)
Light bulbs or LEDs
Connection conductor / winding wire
A recycled solar cell

However, some of the materials may also be purchased.

Children begin their work in January and by March they are presenting in regional events, leading up to the finals.

Spend a few minutes watching some of this video from 2014, and you’ll get the idea … and as you do, think about the science fairs you’ve attended.

To help you visualize further, here are some photos I took of the groups of students with their toy creations who were presenting that day at Tampere University.

Students being interviewed by media, by judges, and (in English) by my colleague Rozy Patel.

Students being interviewed by media, by judges, and (in English) by my colleague Rozy Patel.


The Genius of Children with Everyday Recyclables ... Note the Houseboat Which Moves in Water ... Inside the Table is Set.

The genius of children with recyclables. Note the houseboat in the top half — it moves in the tub of water and inside it the table is set.

I know I haven’t captured all of the details of this program, my Finnish being nonexistent and Google translator having its limits, but several things struck me that day that were distinctly different from what I’ve observed judging science fairs in the U.S., six to be precise, and I think they could give us some things to think about in considering how to improve our science fairs.

  1. Rather than one or two student limits on a project, This Works! requires that 4 children collaborate. If a class doesn’t divide evenly into groups of 4, a group of 3 or 5 is allowed.
  2. Each group must include both boys and girls; they are equal partners in the work.
  3. By definition, each project is a STEAM project because the design of the toys, the color choices, the decorative elements, and the required ad for the toy all demand attention to design and artistic expression.
  4. There are none of those ubiquitous and boring boards … sorry Staples … and no evidence of a formula the children must follow in presenting their toy to the judges.
  5. Most of the materials are repurposed or recycled, encouraging children to be imaginative about things that would otherwise likely be discarded. This also levels the playing field because parental income doesn’t matter at all in the outcome of the finished product. It also fosters and participates in the strong eco-minded culture of Finland, something we could certainly improve on.
  6. Creating toys clearly matters to children. A program like this respects children’s innate desire to play and the fact that they learn through play. This is a powerful real world connection that most American science fair entries I’ve seen simply don’t have.

And the icing on the cake for me was that the children were able to respond to my questions in English and present their toy in English as well as in their native Finnish. I know you can’t tell this from the video and pictures, but I saw it with my own eyes. How many American students could do the same? These children are ready for the 21st century and for contributing the products of their imaginations to their own society and to the global economy. Even the name of this program builds confidence in children … “this works!” There’s a sense of exaltation in that phrase!

Until next time, Hyvää kevättä! (Happy Spring!)

~ Penny

You can learn more about STEM Institute here.

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Filed under children as engineers, creativity, engineering, Finland, Finnish education, science fair, STEAM, STEM education, Uncategorized

Quick Read: How We’ll Live on Mars by Stephen L. Petranek

“Studying whether there’s life on Mars or studying how the universe began, there’s something magical about pushing back the frontiers of knowledge. That’s something that is almost part of being human, and I’m certain that will continue.” Sally Ride

“You need to live in a dome initially, but over time you could terraform Mars to look like Earth and eventually walk around outside without anything on… So it’s a fixer-upper of a planet. I would like to die on Mars, just not on impact.” Elon Musk


Following on the heels of the immensely popular film The Martian, our STEM Institute faculty is currently in planning mode for a new adventure — launching a STEM program at Illinois State University for a cohort of young Golden Apple Scholars, the teacher preparation arm of Golden Apple. The theme for the week of activities is “Mission to Mars,” and once the Scholars have experienced and reflected on the Mars mission-themed activities for themselves, they will be rolling out two summer camps for students in the area, one focused on students in 3rd through 5th grades and the other for students in 6th through 8th grade.

We are encouraging those students to apply by asking them to imagine themselves as part of the team of scientists and engineers that will launch the first successful manned mission to Mars in 2026. We tell them

“At the Mission to Mars ISU STEM camp, you will explore ways to get to Mars, land on Mars, live on Mars, study Mars, and return safely to earth.

During the camp you will get to…
• Launch rockets.
• Create a means to successfully land humans on Mars.
• Explore the planet, testing and analyzing the rocks, soil and atmosphere.
• Develop ways to grow food on Mars.
• Search for evidence of water on the Martian surface.
• Construct a settlement for you and your fellow space pioneers.
• Develop a way to safely return to and land on planet earth.

At the Mission to Mars ISU STEM camp, you will do all of these things so that you are ready to play a historic role in Man’s first visit to the mysterious red planet we call Mars.”

Imagine yourself as a 5th through 8th grader. Wouldn’t the prospect of participating in a Mission to Mars summer camp thrill you?

If you want to consider creating a similar experience for your own students, I have a quick read for you.

How We'll Live on Mars

How We’ll Live on Mars by Stephen L. Petranek is a 2015 TED Original publication. Weighing in at 77 succinct, information-packed pages, including 22 gorgeous color photographs of the surface of Mars, the rocketry, and the exploration devices we’ve used to explore it thus far, it’s a little gem of a book for launching your own planning for a unit about getting to and living on Mars. Petranek begins with a brief history of the idea of man traveling to and colonizing Mars, acquaints the reader with the private space race currently going on involving, among others, Elon Musk, the creator of the Tesla car, details the challenges rockets pose for engineers, and analyzes the economics of a mission to Mars, before delving into the prospect of actually living on the red planet. What will we do about water? How will we breathe? How will we feed ourselves? What clothing and shelter can we devise to protect ourselves in such a hostile environment?

Clearly we will have to change something if we are to view Mars as a long-term habitation for human beings. Chapter 7 “Making Mars into Earth’s Image” goes into various ways humanity might set about terraforming Mars to create a suitable home for humans. Also called planetary engineering or planetary ecosynthesis, terraforming was initially proposed by Carl Sagan in the journal Science in 1961. Students can learn a lot of science exploring the various scenarios scientists and engineers have proposed. But what if rather than changing Mars to be more like earth, we changed ourselves to be better able to survive on Mars? Petranek explores this intriguing possibility that could be achieved via gene manipulation.

Chapter 8 explores the ubiquitous WIIFM question or “What’s in it for me?” What’s in it for humanity to invest in establishing human settlements on Mars? The most obvious answer is that Mars could serve as Plan B for a species that has ruined its own home planet, providing an escape hatch should earth become less and less habitable. At least some of humanity would survive. But as it turns out, there’s a veritable fortune to be made in colonizing Mars and exploiting the natural resources contained in the asteroid belt that lies between Mars and Jupiter, which is much easier to access from Mars than it is from Earth.

On Our Way!

On Our Way!

The final chapter returns to a historical perspective, comparing the exploration and settlement of Mars to the most obvious analogy from Western history, that great period of exploration which opened the New World to European explorers and settlers. What an intriguing opportunity to connect social studies and science in any Mission to Mars unit you would design.

As our work on the Mission to Mars curriculum evolves, we’ll be sharing it on our Partners in Inquiry website. In the meantime, this quick read should set your own thinking in motion toward developing a Mission to Mars unit for the students you teach.

And here’s something for you to dream on and to spark your students’ imaginations and creativity. A NASA scientist recently announced that we could transport humans to Mars in a month. A month! And be sure to check out the images and videos of Mars that NASA has made available, paid for by our tax dollars and worth every penny!

Until next time …

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.

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Filed under book review, creativity, curiosity, engineering, innovation, Mars, teacher resources, TED, The Martian, Uncategorized

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

Crosscutting Concepts

Here is a list:

Patterns: Observed patterns of forms and events guide organization and classification, and they prompt questions about relationships and the factors that influence them.
Cause and effect: Mechanism and explanation. Events have causes, sometimes simple, sometimes multifaceted. A major activity of science is investigating and explaining causal relationships and the mechanisms by which they are mediated. Such mechanisms can then be tested across given contexts and used to predict and explain events in new contexts.
Scale, proportion, and quantity: In considering phenomena, it is critical to recognize what is relevant at different measures of size, time, and energy and to recognize how changes in scale, proportion, or quantity affect a system’s structure or performance.
Systems and system models: Defining the system under study—specifying its boundaries and making explicit a model of that system—provides tools for understanding and testing ideas that are applicable throughout science and engineering.
Energy and matter: Flows, cycles, and conservation. Tracking fluxes of energy and matter into, out of, and within systems helps one understand the systems’ possibilities and limitations.
Structure and function: The way in which an object or living thing is shaped and its substructure determine many of its properties and functions.
Stability and change: For natural and built systems alike, conditions of stability and determinants of rates of change or evolution of a system are critical elements of study.

Structure and Function

Structure and Function

By now, you are likely familiar with this domain of the Next Generation Science Standards, the seven Crosscutting Concepts, ideas that bridge all the science content areas, from amoebae to supernovae.

Here is another list:

The Family Is All There Is
by Pattiann Rogers

“Think of those old, enduring connections 
found in all flesh–the channeling 
wires and threads, vacuoles, granules, plasma and pods, purple veins, ascending 
boles and coral sapwood (sugar-
and light-filled), those common ligaments, filaments, fibers and canals.

Seminal to all kin also is the open 
mouth–in heart urchin and octopus belly, in catfish, moonfish, forest lily, and rugosa rose, in thirsty magpie, wailing cat cub, barker, yodeler, yawning coati.

And there is a pervasive clasping 
common to the clan–the hard nails
 of lichen and ivy sucker 
on the church wall, the bean tendril 
and the taproot, the bolted coupling 
of crane flies, the hold of the shearwater
 on its morning squid, guanine 
to cytosine, adenine to thymine,
 fingers around fingers, the grip
 of the voice on presence, the grasp 
of the self on place.

Remember the same hair on pygmy
 dormouse and yellow-necked caterpillar, 
covering red baboon, thistle seed 
and willow herb? Remember the similar
snorts of warthog, walrus, male moose
 and sumo wrestler? Remember the familiar 
whinny and shimmer found in river birches, bay mares and bullfrog tadpoles, in children playing at shoulder tag on a summer lawn?

The family–weavers, reachers, winders 
and connivers, pumpers, runners, air and bubble riders, rock-sitters, wave-gliders, wire-wobblers, soothers, flagellators—all
 brothers, sisters, all there is.

Name something else.”

Lichen and Moss

“the hard nails of lichen” and moss

If you are not familiar with the poetry of Pattiann Rogers, you’re in for a treat. Here is a poet who has beautifully captured the notion of Crosscutting Concepts; they run throughout “The Family Is All There Is.” The patterns of “open mouth” and “clasping.” The structure and function of “the channeling wires and threads.” The system of kinship among all living things … “the family is all there is.

Arguably the theme of this poem is “all things are connected.” And isn’t that, in essence, the great understanding that the NGSS Crosscutting Concepts lead us to? Don’t they guide and promote our ability to see those connections, those commonalities? And doesn’t Pattiann Rogers do the same in that poem, in the grand tradition of the Metaphysical Poets.

So, in case you haven’t crossed her path before, let me briefly introduce her to you and then to what I think is one of the major implications of her work for educators and specifically for those of us in STEM education.

A brief biography: Pattiann Rogers was born in 1940 in Joplin, Missouri. Her mother was a schoolteacher. Pattiann went to the University of Missouri where she met her future husband, John Robert Rogers, in French class. She completed her degree in English literature, and the couple married in 1960. While John completed his PhD in Physics, Pattiann worked as a kindergarten teacher. She and her husband had two sons, John and Arthur, and by the birth of their second son were living in Houston, where her husband did geophysical research for Texaco while pursuing postgraduate training in geology at the University of Houston. Meanwhile, Rogers devoted herself, during their early years, to raising the couple’s two sons, eventually enrolling in a graduate program in creative writing at the University of Houston and earning her MA in 1981, the same year she published her first book of poems, The Expectations of Light, which received an award from the Texas Institute of Letters and prompted critic Peter Stitt to comment on her “sophisticated incorporation of modern scientific thinking into poetry.”

Rogers’s eldest son John earned a PhD in physics at MIT and is now celebrated as one of the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana’s “star professors” and one of the leading material scientists in the world. In fall 2016, he will be leaving the U of I to become the Louis Simpson and Kimberly Querrey Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Biomedical Engineering and Medicine in the Simpson Querrey Institute for BioNanotechnology, Northwestern’s newly endowed center for biointegrated electronics. He and his research team have developed a wireless antibiotic implant that dissolves after a patient’s treatment is complete. In 2013 the group developed a tattoo-like sensor that can measure brain waves, heartbeats, and the contraction of skeletal muscles.
That was a mouthful.

But I wanted to include it to suggest the way in which the arts and sciences can marry, can feed each other (read inspire), and basically operate as one family within the human intellect. Far from being the two separate cultures C. P. Snow described in 1959, they are, ideally and quite appropriately, helpmeets. Snow believed that Britain, his country, had privileged the humanities over the scientific and engineering education he felt necessary to manage the modern scientific world. We certainly don’t do that in today’s United States. In fact, we don’t seem to privilege either the Arts or the Sciences, if the time spent on those disciplines in our schools and if what is tested, i.e., valued, are any indication. But perhaps, united, both science and art stand a better chance.

Let’s take an excerpt from another of Pattiann Rogers’s poems, “How the Body in Motion Affects the Mind.”

“We are bound by the theorem of sockets and joints,
Totally united with contraction and release.
The idea of truth cannot be separated
From the action of the hand releasing
The stone at the precise apogee of the arm’s motion
Or from the spine’s flexibility easing
Through a wooden fence. The notion
Of the vast will not ignore the arm swinging
In motion from the shoulder or the fingers
Clasped together in alternation.

And when the infant, for the first time,
Turns his body over completely, think
What an enormous revelation in the brain
Must be forced, at that moment, to right itself.”

I can’t help but notice in this poem what we’ve come to call scientific thinking, the Wheel of Inquiry. When you reflect on the NGSS, specifically the eight Scientific and Engineering Practices, the observation, the awakened curiosity, the questioning, the developing of models, all come into play in the work of this poet and arguably that of artists everywhere. Artists too are observers, problem solvers, investigators of discrepant events, and communicators of what they learn from their explorations of the world.

It’s easy to see why Rogers “is known for verse that both embraces the natural world and unfolds the complexities of science.” Roald Hoffmann, Nobel laureate in chemistry said, “I’ve never seen nature observed as closely, nor transfigured by human language, as in Pattiann Rogers’ poetry.” If you want to further explore the work of Pattiann Rogers, a good place to start is to dive into Song of the World Becoming: New and Collected Poems 1891-2001(2001). Her poems are an education in ecology, astronomy, biology, and in the vocabulary of science and scientific observation. I also highly recommend her reflections on her writing in The Dream of the Marsh Hen: Writing as Reciprocal Creation (1999). Both books are seedbeds from which teachers can generate arts based and science connected activities for their students, by activating students’ curiosity and imagination. And to delve into the works of other poets who have taken science and math as their own fertile field, have a look at Verse and Universe: Poems about Science and Mathematics (1998). Pattiann Rogers is included in this anthology, and so is chemist Roald Hoffmann.

Image: J Brew via Flickr

Image: J Brew via Flickr (Creative Commons)

So just maybe the ultimate Crosscutting Concept is that science and art are fundamentally related, the thought processes of scientists and artists more akin than surface appearances would suggest. Part of our task then as teachers and as a society is to erase the artificial divide between the two and the notion that we have two competing cultures, as if there could possibly be a competition at that most fundamental of levels — the working of the human mind. And that would logically lead us to very thoughtfully tuck a capital A into STEM right after the E.

As Pattiann Rogers states in The Dream of the Marsh Wren. “It has seemed to me impossible to live in our world, to survive — the split, the rending being too great — if a union could not be found and created within these two ways of knowing, the artistic and the scientific, both so essential and so present in our lives. I believe that the union is there and only lacks expression to bring it into reality.”

~ Penny

To learn more about STEM Institute, click here.

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Filed under arts, book review, creativity, curiosity, NGSS, Pattiann Rogers, poetry, STEAM, STEM education, teacher resources, The Scientific Method, Uncategorized, Wheel of Inquiry

The Martian — Not a Review

Dedicated to the stellar STEM team at Everett Elementary and to intrepid teacher I(inquiry)TEAMs everywhere.

In the summer of 1999, I did some work for Adler Planetarium as part of a MAPS (Museums and Public Schools) grant. Museums in the Parks and Chicago Public Schools collaborated to design curriculum based on museum collections, with an eye toward creating interdisciplinary units incorporating something from each of the museums, connecting kids to the rich treasury of artifacts they housed, and making field trips more relevant. Each curriculum team consisted of representatives from each of three museums and 4 CPS teachers representing different subject areas. My team included The Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, and The Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum (as it was then called).

After touring our partner museums, my team was charged with developing field trip activities tied to the Mars-focused unit we were working on and based on what we had seen at the museums. I still remember one of the “field trip questions” written by a teacher on my team: “What do the red planet and the Red Sea have in common?” I’ll tell you his answer later in this post.

Mars has always been fascinating, but back then it was particularly so. Three years earlier (1996), Dr. Robert Zubrin had published The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must, and Adler Planetarium was all over it. It’s a fascinating and important book that makes the colonization of Mars seem entirely doable. Carl Sagan said, “Bob Zubrin really, nearly alone, changed our thinking on this issue.” As an aside, the science behind the book is both compelling and accessible to the general reader, so it would be good background reading for units you might create in the future focused on ESS1B – Earth and Solar System and the Disciplinary Core Ideas under Engineering, Technology and Applications of Science (ETS1A, ETS1B, ETS1C, EST2A, and ETS2B).

The Case for Mars by Dr. Robert Zubrin

The Case for Mars by Dr. Robert Zubrin

Now, let’s fast forward to October 2015, and the movie that debuted this past weekend at the top of the box office heap, raking in almost $55 million dollars in one weekend, director Ridley Scott’s The Martian, starring Matt Damon. Revisiting the Zubrin book after just having seen The Martian, it’s obvious that Zubrin’s thinking about how Mars could first be explored and then colonized, has shaped the work that is going on today, including some of what we see in the film.

We’re so used to film conflict centering on man vs. man, all those Terminator and Bourne movies, that the struggle of one man against the hostile environment in which he finds himself stranded … Mars … and against his own physical, psychological, and intellectual limits … is a refreshing change. What sets this film apart, in addition to Damon’s superb performance and the strikingly beautiful setting, is the plausibility both of the story and of its heroic resolution. This really could happen and in the not too distant future.

Serendipitously, just days ahead of the film’s release, NASA scientists confirmed evidence of water on Mars, something that had only been suspected until then. And NASA is currently working on  at least nine of the technologies that are represented in The Martian. The film is a celebration of scientific thinking and engineering expertise, both on the part of astronaut Mark Watley and by the team of scientists at NASA and Watley’s crewmembers who are trying to save him. If you ever needed inspiration for teaching STEM, this film is it. And if you ever needed ammunition to make a case for the value of increasing the amount of time devoted to STEM subjects in school, The Martian will also serve.

But as to immediate practical applications, I think the film can serve as a model for STEM thinking and teaching. Exactly how do STEM professionals set about understanding a phenomenon or solving a problem? When Matt Damon’s character Mark Watney finds himself stranded on a planet where he is fast running out of food supplies and realizes that he has only a small window of time to travel the thousands of kilometers necessary to reconnect with the next mission from earth, he defiantly says “I’m going to have to science the s**t out of this.”

It’s that attitude that teachers are now called on to exhibit in facing the challenging task of teaching to the new standards, when we have precious little time in the daily schedule for it, no NGSS aligned resources (just some old FOSS and SEPUP kits), and no likelihood of having those resources for about the same length of time Mark Watney must wait for the return of his crew (total mission length about 900 days), and, with any luck and a lot of science, his return to earth. In the meantime, we have to “science the s**t” out of what is available.

So just like Mark Watney broke into things never intended for the use he would put them to in order to save his life and just as he dumped stuff from cupboards and lockers onto the table and floor to see what would serve his new purposes, we are in a space and time when teachers literally have to do the same thing. We have to fully embrace the first of the 5 E’s … Exploring! And, thankfully, just like Watney, we aren’t alone. He had his crew in space and the NASA team back on earth to help him problem solve, once, of course, he had figured out the huge problem of how to communicate with them the fact that he was still alive. Teachers have each other. We just have to reach out to each other and collaborate.

All over the Internet, teachers and STEM organizations and institutions (including NASA, btw) are posting free resources that you can use to do the science you want to do with your students, science aligned with the NGSS. And there are those FOSS boxes, possibly sitting in a closet or storeroom somewhere in your school. Raid them. FOSS isn’t inquiry based and it isn’t NGSS aligned, but those kits contain all of the stuff that STEM folks use in their work. Break into those boxes and figure out how those tools and materials can be used in new ways for different activities than FOSS intended, activities that are NGSS aligned. Let Mark Watney be your inspiration. If he could figure out how to keep himself alive on a hostile planet, you can figure out how to keep NGSS alive in an environment not conducive to its implementation. No pun intended, but it will require “out of the box” thinking from you.

So give yourself a treat this weekend, and see this terrific film. Then have a go at those supplies lying around your building.

Recently, when he was asked by The Guardian about the scientific accuracy of The Martian, Robert Zubrin said, “The US space programme today is frozen in its tracks. NASA talks about sending humans to Mars in 2043, but that’s just postponing it for another generation. We’re much closer today to being able to send people to Mars than we were to sending people to the Moon in 1961. If Barack Obama’s successor were to commit the nation, in the spring of 2017, with the same kind of courage and determination that JFK did in 1961, we could be on Mars before the end of his or her second term. It’s a question of political will to me. That’s the real positive message of The Martian. It’s saying, ‘we can do it. If we use our minds, we can take on all these challenges.’”

And, teachers, so can we! Storm the Internet. Tear into your classroom closets and storerooms. Repurpose those FOSS kits. And make it an iTEAM effort; enlist your colleagues.

Now for the answer to that question I posed earlier, “What do the Red Sea and the Red Planet have in common?” I’m ashamed to say, the teacher who made up that question for a field trip worksheet that students would fill out on their visit to The Field Museum and Adler Planetarium, wrote the correct answer as “the color red.” If you’re like me, you anticipated something more scientific. In point of fact, one thing Mars and the Red Sea do have in common is high salinity; both are extremely alkaline, with a pH of over 8.0. There’s surely an inquiry investigation in there somewhere.

Teachers, is there any doubt we have our work cut out for us?

~ Penny

For more information about Golden Apple STEM Institute, click.

A good free resource, the NRC’s Guide to Implementing the NGSS, which will help you keep the task in perspective can be downloaded here. You can find a summary here.

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Filed under 5 E Model, Adler Planetarium, collaboration, creativity, Everett Elementary, Field Museum, inquiry science, Mars, NGSS, resources, science teaching, STEM education, teacher resources, The Martian

From STEM to STEAM: Using Brain-Compatible Strategies to Integrate the Arts ~ A Review

Following on the last entry, today’s post will continue what will be a yearlong focus on evolution. No, not that evolution!

STEM Institute spends one day during Introduction to Inquiry on evolution as it refers to teaching. Our program has evolved, just as we have evolved as teachers in our thinking about and practice of teaching and as we encourage all teachers to evolve over the course of their teaching careers. But we are increasingly wondering if  our evolution as a provider of teacher professional development should include evolving from STEM to STEAM, infusing more arts into our program, or at least exploring that option.

What we don’t want to do is thoughtlessly tack on some art activities to reinforce science content … a poem here, a drawing there. Rather we want to investigate what deeply infusing the arts into the STEM program would do for kids. And what it would look like? What are the practical implications? What are the arguments for and against, and what are the implications for 21st century learning?

But let’s begin with why we might even consider such an evolution in a program that is already high quality and highly regarded by teachers. Why mess with success?

To help answer this question, let’s take a look at a book focused precisely on our theme. From STEM to STEAM: Using Brain-Compatible Strategies to Integrate the Arts by David A. Sousa and Tom Pilecki (Corwin, 2013) provides a combination of the grounding philosophy, historical perspective, and science to support such an evolution and the practical tools, strategies, and activities for teachers and principals to employ in carrying it out.


STEM to STEAM: Using Brain-Compatible Strategies to Integrate the Arts

The first two chapters of From STEM to STEAM present the philosophical and scientific background for Sousa and Pilecki’s view that STEM ought to become STEAM. They see arts and science as complementary rather than competitive and situate that idea in history. The ancient Olympic games in Greece, for example, included competitions in the arts as well as in sports, with the arts being every bit as prestigious. And Renaissance artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti “saw no boundaries between the arts and sciences.”

Citing research study after research study, the authors provide ample ammunition for educators looking to make a case for STEAM. The arts foster cognitive development in children, helping young minds develop creativity, problem solving, critical thinking, communications, self-direction, initiative, and collaboration. The arts evoke emotions, which enhances learning and fosters retention. And Sousa and Pilecki suggest novel reasons for integrating arts within a STEM curriculum, including the idea that “the arts introduce many more possibilities for novelty,” which, according to neuroscientists, is necessary to grabbing student attention, a necessary precursor to learning. Students like doing “something different,” and hearing their teacher announce “we’re going to be doing something different today” makes them sit up and take notice. The arts also lower stress levels making young minds more receptive to retaining new knowledge. Reducing stress is particularly important in these times of high stakes testing. The arts also make teaching more interesting and fun for teachers. Teachers benefit from novelty too. A bored teacher isn’t likely to excite a child to learn.

Sousa and Pilecki very much support the approach taken by STEM Institute in encouraging teachers to strive for many answers and to encourage divergent thinking. They observe that “the actual time that teachers devote to divergent thinking in STEM classes is often limited because the STEM areas – as currently taught in our schools – lend themselves so well to convergent thinking, and because testing STEM concepts is easier with close-ended questions that have only one correct answer. Yet this type of instruction may be extinguishing creativity in our students. Some researchers believe that by consistently reinforcing neural pathways with convergent thinking activities, we may be limiting the pathways that support creative and divergent thinking.” That gives one pause because, “the study of the arts not only allows students to develop skills that will improve the quality of their lives but also sustains the same creative base from which scientists and engineers seek to develop their innovations and breakthroughs of the future.” Citing research on musicians and London cabbies, the authors report that divergent thinking challenges the brain and in the process changes it for the better, actually enlarging parts of the brain essential to creativity — the corpus callosum, the hippocampus, and the frontal lobe. So absent ample opportunities for divergent thinking, that could result by adding arts, students are less likely to be able to make those future breakthroughs.

And all of the above seem to be excellent reasons to move from STEM to STEAM.

From STEM to STEAM includes lots of practical resources to help you get started on your evolutionary journey. One of my favorites is “Table 1.2: Practices and concepts from the K-12 National Research Council framework (precursor to the NGSS) and skills often acquired in arts-related instruction,” which could become your go to place for generating ideas about art activities that would address the NGSS Scientific and Engineering Practices and the Crosscutting Concepts. Another helpful table provides “comparisons of the traditional approach with an arts-integrated approach,” just to keep us honest.

Also useful are the sample arts integration lessons organized in grade level specific chapters “Chapter 4: Implementing Arts Integration, Grades K-4;” “Chapter 5: Implementing Arts Integration, Grades 5-8;” and “Chapter 6: Implementing Arts Integration, Grades 9-12.” Early childhood educators will welcome the developmentally appropriate recommendations and the research behind them in Chapter 4. However, all K-12 teachers will find the planning tools and templates in these chapters convenient and timesaving. These include Bloom’s Taxonomy Applications, Multiple Intelligences Applications, management planning, lesson plan formats, and a template for designing a STEAM unit across grade levels. Throughout the book the authors provide dozens of activities, and a final section lists STEAM resources (books, films, journals, organizations, and websites).

If you are looking to get your creative juices flowing, two particularly inspiring chapters are “STEAM Lesson Plan Appetizers in Science, Technology and Engineering” and “STEAM Lesson Plan Appetizers in Mathematics.” The authors define “appetizers” as the “beginning of your creative journey.” They are “meant to be the beginning of a complete lesson plan, something to make you want to dive into the ‘full-course’ of creating your own, tailor-made STEAM lesson plan.” They are designed to help you “incubate” your own lesson plan ideas into fully fledged lessons and units to excite and engage your students, and the authors include for each a curriculum objective, an artistic objective, and a social/emotional objective, as well as an assessment, materials, and multiple intelligences and Bloom’s levels addressed.

From STEM to STEAM is crammed with ideas, activities, and resources for teachers who want to infuse their STEM curricula with the arts. More importantly, the book provides the philosophical foundation and scientific research base for doing so — great information to help you make your case with colleagues, administrators, and parents. I can’t recommend the book highly enough. It is well worth your time and money, for the activities alone.

You might also find it interesting to read David Sousa and Tom Pilecki’s blog post, summarizing their position and challenging the supremacy of standardized testing in today’s schools.

A final note: While not every blog post over the coming year will focus on STEM to STEAM, there is, after all, climate change, and we also want to report on great teachers and schools where STEM is blossoming, you’ll find a lot of STEAM in this school year’s blog posts. I also really encourage you to weigh in by leaving comments. Are you intrigued by STEAM? Are you already doing it? What are the benefits? The challenges? What impact do you see on your students? What concerns do you have?

~ Penny

Just click on the link to learn more about Golden Apple’s STEM Institute.

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