Category Archives: inquiry science

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

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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Inquiry in a Nutshell

“I needed to formulate the questions first for myself. It’s not like I knew them and put them in a poem for other people. The poem is a process, a way for me to discover questions, to ask them clearly or to discover the results of certain suppositions. Suppositions are a form of questioning. “Suppose your father was a redbird” is, actually, the question, “What would it have been like if your father was a redbird?” I wrote a poem to find out what that might be like … but, for myself, experimenting with language and putting it together in different ways around a central image or experience just to see what happens, what tiny ray might suddenly illuminate something heretofore not acknowledged. Language can be creative in that way. And also by having fun with language and its sounds, playing with it, letting it go in odd directions. A new question, a new supposition, may arise. Many of my poems, in my mind, end with a new question to investigate.” From a Missouri Review Interview of poet Pattiann Rogers

Inquiring minds want to know. Every summer we close each day of Introduction to Inquiry and Advanced Inquiry with some kind of exit slip that asks teachers to reflect on what they learned through that day’s activities.

Engaging in Inquiry as Professionals in the Summer

Engaging in Inquiry as Professionals (Summer), Earle Elementary Teacher Cheryl Widman with STEM Institute’s Bill Grosser

As we gear up for the upcoming summer’s programming, and begin the final leg of the school year, here’s a little review of what some of last summer’s participants responded when asked to fill in the blank.

The most important thing about inquiry teaching is __________________________?

Here were their responses:

Getting students to ask critical questions ON THEIR OWN!

• Construction of knowledge

• Discovery

• Teaching children to think

• Exploration/Discovery

• Children learning to think for themselves, discover for themselves

• It’s fun and makes kids wonder and think

• Having fun while expanding knowledge

• Aiding students as they construct their own thinking

Further, it’s also important

To engage students, have appropriate assessments, and have fun!
• To ask open-ended questions
• To facilitate the construction of knowledge
• To encourage curiosity, using prior knowledge as a foundation when exploring concepts
• To increase hands-on activities and to use them to discover things
• To plan questioning for misconceptions
• To learn from mistakes
• To learn from each other
• To have perseverance
• To explore new concepts
• To provide students the opportunity to explore
• To give adequate wait time after asking a question, so that all students have an opportunity to think and many possibilities are generated

After some months of engaging in inquiry-based instruction, are these holding true in your classroom? How might you expand inquiry so that you see more of these elements of inquiry flourishing in your classroom and school? The nutshell contains the seed only, and every seed requires the right conditions for growth. How might you further foster that growth in the remaining months of the school year?

Engaging in Inquiry in Your Classroom — Amanda Conway, Pershing Elementary, Chicago

Engaging in Inquiry in Your Classroom — Amanda Conway, Pershing Elementary, Chicago

Sometimes revisiting the foundational concepts is the best way forward. These insights from teachers provide a fantastic touchstone for both your planning and your reflection on practice. You may not need to imagine if your father was a redbird, but it might be enlightening to imagine your students, yes, those squirmy kids in front of you, as the scientists and engineers of the future.

~ Penny

To learn more about Golden Apple’s STEM Institute, click here.

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Smarter Science

Today I want to take time to introduce you to a free resource that just might help you better implement the Next Generation Science Standards.

Our neighbors to the north, Ontario to be precise, developed their own framework for science right around the time we were developing the NGSS. As their website points out, “Smarter Science is a framework for teaching and learning science in grades 1-12 and for developing the skills of inquiry, creativity, and innovation in a meaningful and engaging manner. Students engaged in Smarter Science-based activities are actively investigating and problem solving, enabled by a teacher who helps them address challenges relevant to their world. As they learn to think and act like scientists, students become increasingly independent and self-confident learners.” The developers of Smarter Science wanted to make science come alive for Ontario students. They wanted to provide the means to allow teachers to actively engage students, to develop their problem-solving skills, to get them thinking, and to dovetail science with literacy and numeracy.

Sound familiar?

Smarter Science was the brainchild of the Thames Valley District School Board and was piloted in 50 Ontario schools between 2006 and 2010. As educators saw the positive results emanating from the implementation of Smarter Science, more and more schools in Canada adopted the framework. Delightfully, Smarter Science is open source, which means that the folks who created it are sharing it freely with educators across Canada and the world. It can be freely reproduced and distributed. And that’s exactly what I intend to do and encourage you to do as well.

The Smarter Science framework beautifully complements our own Next Generation Science Standards and spells out what to do (and what not to do!) in the science classroom. It provides a very strong visual for implementing a more inquiry-based science program and aligns nicely with the Charlotte Danielson Framework for Teaching. Do what it suggests, and you’ll be in the proficient and distinguished range of practice in no time. More pedagogically based than the NGSS, Smarter Science provides explicit classroom practice pointers, but unlike the NGSS doesn’t address Cross-Cutting Concepts or Disciplinary Core Ideas. You have our own NGSS for that. But Smarter Science is a good entry point and is easier to use than the NGSS.

A couple of pictures to give you a taste, and then please download your own copy, and set aside some time during the holiday break in December to peruse it. I guarantee you’ll come away with a better sense of how to do science with your students.

The Snarter Science Framework


A Sample from the Framework … Note the Helpful Teaching Tips.

A Sample from the Framework … Note the Helpful Teaching Tips

The Smarter Science site has downloadable templates to help you achieve a more inquiry-based classroom. And check out the Inquiry Cards here. Poke around the website, and I’m sure you’ll discover useful tools and ideas to get your students thinking like scientists.

~ Penny

By the way, if you’ve been involved in Golden Apple’s professional development, this framework will remind you of STEM Institute and the way our faculty conducts activities. You can learn more about STEM Institute here.




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Filed under Canada, education policy, inquiry science, NGSS, science teaching, Smarter Science, STEM education, Uncategorized

The (Often) Missing Ingredient … Joy!

“Joy arrives when the child surmounts a series of difficulties to achieve a goal.” Anne Murphy Paul

I visit a lot of schools and classrooms in my work, and over the past years I’ve become increasingly concerned about what I’m not seeing enough of these days. I see precious little joy.

Now I clearly remember joy from my own school days, admittedly in a previous geologic era. For example, I remember creating a Paris café scene for the bulletin board out of construction paper and imagination, and learning songs in French and German for assemblies. But while schools themselves have not changed very much since then (sad to say because they should have, given the very different world we live in now), the spirit in classrooms and school buildings has changed, and it isn’t pretty. Joy has been sucked out of most schools on most school days. Classrooms have become relatively joyless places, focused on tests and standards. And that makes me sad.

But what is joy, and why should it matter that today’s children are often denied it as a significant portion of their educational experience?

When I Google joy, I find the following: “a feeling of great pleasure and happiness; delight, joyfulness, jubilation, triumph, exultation, rejoicing, gladness, glee, exhilaration, exuberance, elation, euphoria, bliss, ecstasy, rapture, enjoyment, felicity, joie de vivre, jouissance, ‘whoops of joy,’ delight, treat, thrill. The antonyms are misery and trial.

Recently, I encountered joy in a school; in fact, there were several hundred joyful students assembled together. And it was clear that it wasn’t a one time experience but something that has become part of the climate and culture of the school, even though the joy I witnessed was connected to a specific event I was there to see.

Picture joyful children for a moment. Joy suggests smiles with movement and sound. Movements like high fives, pumping fists, and a quick raising of both arms high in the air with maybe a jump thrown in, accompanied by “yes!” or cheering or “whoops.” Can you see them? Can you hear them?

Maybe this will help.

The students at Brentano Math and Science Academy on Chicago’s north side have been working on a STEM challenge for the past month. On November 12, every student in the school gathered in the auditorium to see the results of their work on that challenge, grades k-5 first and the 6th through 8th graders after. Their joy was something that had been building for weeks, and along the way there were failures and ultimately successes that also produced joyful moments.

The challenge was for each team of students to design a container that would protect an egg from breaking when it was dropped from a one-story height. The children worked on this challenge during their science classes and recorded data to help with redesign. Older students were challenged as engineers, having to cost out the materials they used with the lowest cost, most successful designs the clear winners.

Students created the posters announcing the big day, and those were hung around the school. Several dozen parents showed up to lend their support and to see the results of their child’s efforts.

Student made signs like these were all over the school.

Student Made Signs Were Posted Throughout the School.

Each grade level and class had a slightly different take on the challenge and somewhat different materials to work with, so the protective containers from an individual class had some features in common with each other. Clearly, in the process of prototyping their designs, students had learned from each other, and they’d learned how to protect a fragile egg. The majority of the containers protected their cargo, and students got to experience firsthand the joy of success. But there was an even wider expression of joy as students loudly cheered their classmates’ successes and had a blast watching the P.E. teacher drop the egg containers from the auditorium balcony. A representative from each team would retrieve their container and march it up to the front of the auditorium where teachers would cut away the protective covering to reveal whether or not the egg had survived the fall. When they did, it was high fives and whoops of joy all around.

High Fives!

High Fives!

Teachers also got into the spirit of the challenge. 5th – 6th grade teacher Emily Bartlett designed an egg container of her own and had a running debate with her students over whether or not her egg would survive a fall in what seemed to be a flimsy structure. She insisted that it would. Her students insisted that it wouldn’t. It did! Game, Bartlett.

Students Didn't Think Ms. Bartlett's Container Would Survive the Drop.

Students Didn’t Think Ms. Bartlett’s Container Would Survive.

This spring, Brentano students will take on a new challenge — to design a catapult for apples. Whole school activities like this are a natural in producing student engagement, memorable learning, and … yes … that elusive experience of joy. In an upcoming post, I’ll describe how one teacher kicked this activity up a notch for her eighth grade students.

In the meantime, kudos to principal Seth Lavin and iTEAM teachers Vy Nguyen, Emily Bartlett, Mark Harlan, Kelly Harris-Preston, Brittany Williams and their colleagues for everything they did to give their students the exquisite experience of joy in learning.

It’s my fervent hope that in the coming years, as Americans increasingly question the value of emphasizing testing over instruction and as we study the powerful impetus to learning that play has proven to be in Finland, for example, we’ll put the joy back into learning, where it belongs.

~ Penny

Learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.

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Filed under Brentano Math and Science Academy, engineering, inquiry science, joy, Uncategorized