Category Archives: science teaching

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

Will You March for Science?

On Earth Day, Saturday, April 22, 2017, scientists across the United States will do something they don’t generally like to do. They will leave their labs, their field study sites, their university classrooms and travel to Washington D. C. or to other cities across the country, including Chicago, to get political. They will be marching for science.

There is even a March for Science website … leave it to the techies among them! And this is what they say about their cause:

“The March for Science is a celebration of our passion for science and a call to support and safeguard the scientific community. Recent policy changes have caused heightened worry among scientists, and the incredible and immediate outpouring of support has made clear that these concerns are also shared by hundreds of thousands of people around the world. The mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue, which has given policymakers permission to reject overwhelming evidence, is a critical and urgent matter. It is time for people who support scientific research and evidence-based policies to take a public stand and be counted.”


If you want to get involved you can donate here, as well as find a local march near you. Actually, there are 228 sites across the United States and around the world where people will be marching, scientists and those who join them in valuing the freedom and findings of science and the importance of keeping those findings free of politicization. In Illinois, people will be marching in Chicago and in Champaign. In France, they will be marching in Lyon, Lille, Montpellier, Toulouse, and Paris. And Canada, our neighbor to the north, will have ten satellite marches in solidarity with the United States! Canadians will march in Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Hamilton, Victoria, Halifax, Vancouver, Prince George, and St. John’s.

If you know Canada’s recent history of attacks on science research and evidence, you’ll understand Canadians’ fierce solidarity with scientists in the United States. With the election of Justin Trudeau to become Canada’s Prime Minister in 2015, the troubling administration of Stephen Harper (2006-2015) came to an end. Harper’s administration was infamous for issuing gag orders, muzzling scientists and preventing them from sharing their findings with the media and the public or with other scientists at conferences. Scientists had to get approval from the government before they could talk with the media, and they were assigned “minders” from the public relations department to manage those interviews. The bureaucratic red tape was onerous and media requests were often denied. Coverage of climate science, for example, dropped by 80% as a result. For an excellent NY Times op ed by Canadian scientist Wendy Palen, associate professor of biology at Simon Fraser University, please click here.

In summary, Stephen Harper is a climate change denier. His government closed research libraries and purged valuable, sometimes irreplaceable records, consigning them to the dumpster, calling that a cost-cutting measure. Harper also cut all funding “for the Experimental Lakes Area, a world-renowned research facility where scientists run experiments on pollution and environmental contaminants in more than 50 small lakes in northwestern Ontario. Other casualties included (Canada’s) northernmost Arctic monitoring station and national census.”

Sound familiar?

Scientists, who normally prefer to remain apolitical, became outraged and sprang into action when the Harper government passed legislation that eliminated or severely amended the “marquee environmental protection laws” that Canadians prized.

And then this happened:

“Fearing the continued erosion of even the most basic protections for food inspection, water quality and human health, Canadian scientists filled Ottawa’s streets in the Death of Evidence march. That theatrical mock funeral procession became something of a cultural touchstone. It was a turning point that galvanized public opinion against Prime Minister Harper’s anti-science agenda. “

Canadians Took to the Streets

Canadians Took to the Streets to Mourn the Death of Evidence

There’s something happening here, but what it is ain’t exactly clear.

But one thing is certainly clear. U.S. scientists are taking a leaf (probably maple) from the Canadian playbook and planning a massive response to the Trump administration’s gag orders, cutbacks in science research funding, scrubbing of climate science data and other science research from government websites, appointment of cabinet members who are hostile to their work, and other constraints on their research, including preventing them from sharing their findings at conferences and with the media and the public.

Scientists and their supporters will be marching on April 22, 2017, and people from around the world will be joining them in solidarity.

Protecting Science Must Be a Priority (Photos: L, Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP; R, Phil Plait)

In solidarity, Golden Apple STEM Institute will be rescheduling our spring follow-up session from April 22nd to May 6th, because we have schools that will be participating in the Chicago march and some of our teacher participants are planning to march on their own. We will be joining them. STEM Institute coach and faculty member Wayne Wittenberg  and his family will be marching in D. C. Some of us will be marching in Chicago.

But there are ways for you to march other than literally going to Washington D. C. or to downtown Chicago on Earth Day.

Every time you create opportunities for your students to understand and appreciate the work of scientists, you are marching for science.

Every time you create a unit, with lessons and activities, to help your students understand that global climate change is largely caused by human activity, and that this is not opinion, not conjecture, but settled science, you are marching for science.

Every time you create after school opportunities for students to do more science and engineering, you are marching for science.

Every time you raise your voice to tell your principal and colleagues that students need more science time, that science must not be marginalized or wait until 4th grade, you are marching for science.

Every time you help a colleague who is struggling to teach science effectively and is not quite sure how to do it, you are marching for science.

Every time you support a science organization with your membership and your participation, from NSTA to the AAAS, from NRDC to the International Crane Foundationyou are marching for science.

Every time you write to your legislators or sign a petition to protect the work of scientists from those who wish to silence them and to demand evidence-based policies, you are marching for science.

But most importantly, every time you inspire your students to develop a passion for science and aspire to become STEM professionals, or at the very least, to become informed, science-positive citizens, you are marching for science.

Will you march for science?

Please leave us a comment to let us know how.

~ Penny

You can read more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.

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Filed under AAAS, International Crane Foundation, March for Science, NRDC, NSTA, science teaching, Uncategorized, war on science

Blind Cavefish and You … Who Knew?

If you were a grown up in the years between 1975 and 1988, you might remember the famous (or infamous) Golden Fleece Award issued monthly by Senator William Proxmire (D – WI) to government funded projects and research that he deemed a waste of the taxpayers’ money. Rather than being the highly sought after prize bestowing authority and kingship of Greek mythology, Proxmire’s “Golden Fleece,” was associated with a fleecing of the public, a.k.a. a boondoggle. In all, Proxmire issued 168 of these “awards” before he retired in 1988. And various organizations and entities have carried forward on a similar vein since Proxmire vacated the scene.

To the average layperson, the Golden Fleece recipients’ projects looked like complete and utter wastes of time and money. We’ve all heard the refrain, sadly even from our Senators and Representatives, “I’m no scientist but …” Followed by something along the lines of “this makes no sense to me, seems utterly ridiculous, and therefore must be bogus.” The key phrase in this is “I’m no scientist,” because what follows is often something that may not make sense to laypeople but does make sense to other scientists. Nonscientists simply don’t have the background knowledge and training to know whether or not a line of research will generate useful and important knowledge. Sometimes the seemingly oddest lines of research do. Examples of that come later.

In fact, the same reasoning underlies climate change denial. Since it’s bitterly cold and snowing where I am (weather, a local phenomenon), the earth clearly can’t be warming (climate, a global phenomenon). Serious problems arise when the “common sense” opinion of a non-scientist is somehow equivalent in credibility to the consensus of multiply degreed climate and related sciences specialists. In what universe does that make sense?

A 2013 Washington Monthly article described Proxmire’s impact as follows:
“Proxmire doled out Golden Fleece awards to dozens of government agencies, including the Department of Justice, the National Institute of Mental Health, and NASA, often successfully stripping funding from their projects in the process. Scientists and their advocates were not amused, saying that Proxmire was presenting the intents of research projects unfairly to make them appear frivolous to a public predisposed to gobble it up, and that the award was a ploy for attention and political gain. While some of the projects he highlighted and stopped truly were stupid, the Golden Fleece Award did more harm than good: it halted legitimate research for political purposes, and worse, engendered widespread suspicion and hostility towards the notion of government spending on science, even when it represents only the tiniest portions of the overall budget.

It is the latter reason that makes those of us who want to love Proxmire for his litany of other accomplishments so uneasy, especially now that the mantle of equating scientific research with government waste has been taken up by the worst parts of the Republican Party, from cranky media obsessives like John McCain to anti-spending zealots like Tom Coburn. Bashing science in this manner became the cool new thing for the right—and it was a Wisconsin progressive who had made it cool!” 

And that brings me to the topic of this post – blind cavefish — and the research currently being done on them.

So there are these fish that live in caves and because there isn’t any light in those caves, the fish don’t need to see, and so they are blind and eyeless. They are also colorless. I mean, of what possible use could that research be?

Yet, scientists who study them have discovered some remarkable adaptations blind cavefish have made in response to their environment. For example, Science Daily reported that the research team led by Nicolas Rohner, Ph.D., of the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, discovered that the species Astyanax mexicanus, a cavefish native to certain areas of Mexico, has “very high body fat levels, are very starvation resistant and have symptoms reminiscent of human diseases such as diabetes and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease,” yet, “the fish remain healthy and don’t have any obvious health problems like we see in humans. …While in humans this condition can lead to tissue scarring, inflammation, cell death, and eventually liver failure, the cavefish with fatty livers didn’t show any of these problems.”

The researchers also found that the cavefish exhibit very high blood glucose levels just after eating and very low levels when food isn’t available. These swings in blood glucose are similar to those experienced by people with untreated type 2 diabetes, though they appear to cause no negative effects in the cavefish. ’We think that like hibernating animals that acquire extra body fat in the fall to survive the winter, the cavefish become insulin resistant as part of their strategy to acquire high body fat levels,” said Rohner. ‘Similarly they likely use higher body fat levels to be more starvation resistant during periods when food isn’t available.’

The researchers identified a genetic mutation as the source of the cavefish’s insulin resistance. ‘It is not a regulatory or seasonal mechanism like in hibernating animals,’ said Rohner. ‘The cavefish are constantly insulin resistant, and that makes the argument even stronger that this is a strategy they are using to gain higher body fat levels. The fish must have also acquired compensatory mechanisms that allow them to stay healthy despite these high fat levels.’”

Scientists believe that further study of these fish might lead to cures for diabetes, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and obesity — all this from studying the genetic adaptations of an obscure species of fish.

When you consider that 30 million Americans have diabetes, probably including someone you know, and that $1 in every $3 Medicare dollars is spent on diabetes and $1 in every $5 of healthcare dollars is spent on diabetes, a total of $322 billion per year according to the American Diabetes Association, studying blind cavefish seems like a good investment, whatever the research dollars involved.

All of this makes me wonder if scientists, by simply pursuing their curiosity about the world, don’t often stumble on solutions to seemingly intractable problems that would remain unsolved if those research dollars dried up, withered away by the scorn of the “I’m not a scientist but” crew.

Cases in point, the Washington Monthly article cited above goes on to talk about the Golden Goose Award, created in 2012 by a coalition of various scientific and academic organizations at the urging of a bipartisan group of members of Congress, which intends “to celebrate scientists whose federally funded research seemed odd or obscure but turned out to have a significant, positive impact on society,” citing, for example, John Eng, a VA doctor, who received funding from the Department of Veterans Affairs to study Gila monster venom, which turned out to contain a hormone that is highly effective in treating diabetes, and Wallace Coulter who received funding from the Office of Naval Research and “invented a now-industry-standard way to count blood cells by studying how to improve paint used on Naval ships.” In the process, Coulter engendered “a technological boon with economic impact across major economic sectors like health and manufacturing,” giving American taxpayers ample return on their research investment.

Why is this important now?

We currently face a powerful impetus in America to mock science and defund major research agencies like NASA. It’s the popular thing to do, always good for a laugh. If we continue along these lines, however, the laugh will be on us. We will laugh ourselves straight out of contention as world class innovators and problem solvers in health, the environment, and other essential domains. And lives will be lost unnecessarily.

That is why, teachers, you are essential. You can activate the innate curiosity of your young learners from preschool on and guarantee that it won’t be extinguished before they get to university, where they will by then have the necessary background and interest to be eager and confident enough to pursue the advanced study necessary to find answers to the novel, mind-bending questions that lead to scientific breakthroughs, breakthroughs which ultimately benefit all of humankind. Keep science alive in your classroom to keep curiosity and scientific thinking alive in your students!

The first step toward both is to keep science alive in your own life, sparking your own sense of wonder at the diversity of life’s many solutions to the challenges of living on planet Earth.

To that end, you might enjoy this TED talk by ichthyologist Prosanta Chakrabarty on what we can learn from blind cavefish about the geology of the planet and the biology of how we see.

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.

Several other articles not cited in this post might be of interest to you:–And-To–Science/


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Filed under blind cavefish, science teaching, scientist, TED, Uncategorized, war on science

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: Help Them Have Real World Impact (Part 2 of 4)

“We cover the curriculum by choosing real things that the kids and I are interested in.”  Bill Elasky

In my last post, I reported on a unique program developed by the Department of Natural Sciences at the University of Texas. The Freshman Research Institute (FRI) was designed to reduce attrition in STEM majors.

But how do we help students develop a passion for STEM in the first place? What can we do in elementary and high school science/STEM to make students more likely to want to be part of a program like FRI on their way to becoming STEM professionals?

I’d like to suggest that, similar to the FRI program, which has students engaged in research with real-world impact from their Freshman year, we need to find ways to provide similar experiences for our elementary and high school students, creating opportunities for them to do hands-on, inquiry-based STEM projects with potential benefits both to themselves and to their community.

In his inspiring book, Schools that Work (1992), Ohio educator George Wood described one such initiative undertaken by 6th grade teacher Bill Elasky and his students in Amesville, Ohio, during the 1987-88 school year.

Amesville Elementary School with Bill Elasky

Amesville Elementary School with Bill Elasky

Here’s the story as reported by Wood:

“What started as a simple question from Bill at the beginning of the year — ‘What would you guys like to study?’ — has exploded into a project that covers almost all of the sixth grade curriculum.”

It started simply enough with a local fuel company dumping solvent in the local creek, “the natural curiosity of young people about what is going on around them, and a teacher willing to help them find out. Before they finished, the group had become one of the area’s most reliable sources of information on water quality both in homes and in the wild. The students sought out and received instruction on how to sample and test water, researched and ordered testing kits, raised funds for their work, performed tests, and developed a variety of reports. Their work was featured in local papers and they were … in demand as guest speakers at educational conferences …”

Wood recounts how Elasky and his students scrounged supplies, because at the outset they were woefully ill equipped to undertake a study of this magnitude. They repurposed a borrowed refrigerator for their samples and transformed their small classroom into a laboratory so that they could conduct their investigation of the water quality in their community, sometimes working Saturdays. Wood wrote, “as we see in good classrooms, the walls are covered with the indicators of the work going on: job lists, ways to facilitate group work, ‘Things We’ve Learned,’ a sample of a business letter requesting funds, maps, photos — every inch is covered.”

George Wood concluded his piece on the Water Chemists with the question “What did you learn besides how cold creek water can be on a winter morning,” generating the following responses from the young Water Chemists: “We learned how to do something, not just learn about something.” “We learned about how things really work.” “We learned more than we ever learn in the textbooks. All they do is start over every year and cover the same stuff.” We learned how to use what we know. In the (text) books we never do anything real. I mean, how often are you going to copy down sentences and till in the commas in a real job?” “We learned what we needed to know to get the job done. Teachers shouldn’t keep teaching us things we already know. They should have us do projects like this and then teach us things we need to get it done.” And finally, “Other teachers should teach the way Mr. E does. It’s more fun for us kids and I think the teachers would like it better too.”

In Educating for Character: How Our Schools Can Teach Respect and Responsibility, Chapter 9 “Teaching Values Through the Curriculum” pp. 161-162, (1991), Thomas Lickona also shared the story of Bill Elasky’s intrepid Sixth Grade Water Chemists. Lickona provides more detail on the various tasks the students performed and how they organized themselves for the work, useful information for teachers contemplating a similar project.

Students did the following in order to test water quality in their community, including testing water samples from 11 different places on Federal Creek and in private homes and businesses.

A Home in Amesville, Ohio

A Home in Amesville, Ohio

At the outset of the project, they

• Called Ohio University, local and state EPA offices, and the State Health Department to get information on water test kits;
• Had class meetings in which they decided that student groups should investigate sources and effects of the pollutants they were testing for and present their findings to the class;
• Interviewed people who know about water pollution and creek ecology;
• Developed one big chart on which to tabulate test results; and
• Launched an ad campaign to sell their testing service to individuals in the community (the revenue would offset classroom expenses).

According to Bill Elasky, “We spend a lot of time discussing how things are going to happen, … but it’s not dead time. It creates understanding of democratic processes and a lot of opportunity to develop critical thinking and discussions skills.”

During the ensuing months after the initial planning discussions, they

• Interviewed experts at Ohio University about pollutants;
• Talked to officials at the local water and sewage plant;
• Traced their area’s history;
• Kept journals;
• Used computers to chart pollutants;
• Drew maps;
• Took and printed their own photographs;
• Wrote to government officials;
• Tested wells, cisterns, and waterways in Amesville; and,
• Presented their findings to local government officials.

Testing Water in a Stream

Testing Water in a Stream

And at the end of the school year, the young scientists proudly presented their project at an Ohio University conference on democracy in public education.

The Water Chemists project was also written up in Frances Moore Lappe’s classic Diet for a Small Planet, connecting Bill Elasky’s classroom to a much broader issue than even water quality testing (shades of Flint, Michigan), to the idea of democracy.

“Among the most effective classrooms in the country are those in which teachers are encouraging students to learn by tackling real problems in their communities. One of my favorite examples is in a grammar school in Amesville, Ohio, where Bill Elasky proves that his sixth graders can plan and carry out long-term problem-solving projects, given encouragement and backup.

After a chemical spill in a nearby creek, Elasky’s students decided that they “didn’t trust the EPA.” Constituting themselves as the Amesville Sixth Grade Water Chemists, they set out to test the water themselves – and succeeded. In the process they had to divide into teams, assign tasks, plan sampling and testing times, and so on. Soon the Sixth Grade Water Chemists became the town’s water quality experts, and their neighbors were buying their water testing services. These kids are learning democracy not by memorizing distant structures of government but by ‘doing democracy.’”

And I might add, by “doing science.”

Currently Bill Elasky works as an adjunct faculty member at Ohio University in the College of Education, teaching and helping to coordinate the CARE Partnership, which George Wood started “way back in the day.” Reflecting on the Amesville Sixth-Grade Water Chemists, he said in a recent email, “They were an awesome group of kids, which is why things worked so well.” Isn’t that typical of a great teacher — giving the credit to the students?

Bill Elasky Today

Bill Elasky Today

And those students? While I don’t know if any of them went on to work in STEM fields and neither does Bill Elasky, I did run across another account by Francis Moore Lappe from an address she gave at The Teachers College, Columbia University, in 1994, that shows the impact of that sixth grade experience on their eighth grade selves.

“When these children entered the eighth grade, they were very upset that the cafeteria used plastic utensils. These were very environmentally sensitive young people by that time. So they went to the principal and said, ‘We don’t think it’s a good idea to use plastic utensils, it’s not environmentally sound.’ The principal said, ‘Well, it’s too much trouble, thank you very much but we can’t change.’ They tried again, made their case stronger, built up the facts, went in, and still didn’t get anywhere. This principal was not as smart as he could have been.

These young people then decided to boycott the cafeteria. They boycotted the cafeteria and got all their friends to do the same, and finally the principal said, ‘Okay, we’ll figure out what it takes to get metal utensils.’ Then, the most striking thing: These young people went in to the principal and said, ‘Look, we know that this boycott cost the school some money, and we want you to tell us how much because we’re willing to put on a bake sale and have a car wash in order that we can pay back the school, because it’s our school.’”

And it all gets down to this simple statement by one of those students reflecting on the water chemist experience (as reported by Lappe):

“We think what we are doing is important and fun. The importance of this project is to let people know what pollutants are in the water. The fun is that we know we are helping others. You may think we’re too young. Well, we are young, but we are trying our very best, and it works. So put your trust in us.”

Lappe concludes: “What we’re suggesting … is that once this genie of belief in self, and confidence that one can act effectively on one’s values in the public world, once that the genie is out, it cannot be put back in the bottle.”

And just perhaps, that’s how you create students eager to study STEM when they get to university.

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.


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Tell Them Stories! ~ An Interview with Science Teacher and Aviculturist, Jason Crean

Yesterday evening at Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, during our final STEM Institute follow-up session of the year, I had the privilege of chatting with one of ten 2016 Golden Apple Award winners, a 2009 Presidential Award Winner (presented by President Obama), the President Elect of the Illinois Science Teachers Association, and a guy who built a 300 square foot aviary on the back of his house. They all happen to be one and the same person, Jason Crean.

Jason Crean with one of his avian friends.

Jason Crean with One of His Avian Friends, an Aracaris Named Bonito.

Reading about Jason in preparation for this conversation, I was struck by the lifelong passion he’s had for living things and the impact he’s had on his students. By way of introduction, I found the following passage on the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) website, on the occasion of Crean winning an award for his genetics curriculum, Who’s Your Daddy?

“Growing up, I really wanted to become a veterinarian,” Crean said, “but the further through my education I went, the more I wanted to share my love of biology with others. Now that I have taught biology for about 15 years, I have the best of both worlds.”

Former student Allison Kihn has fond memories of the XY-ZOO and the school zoology club founded by Crean. As a second year vet student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, she says she is “exactly where I want to be in life right now,” thanks in part to Crean’s encouragement.

“My time in the lab was truly treasured, and really gave me a grasp on genetics that has really helped me in the classroom and laboratory setting,” Kihn said. “I pretty much can thank Mr. Crean for single handedly helping me achieve my dream career.”

And so I asked …

What experiences from your childhood or youth set you down the path you’re on … being a science teacher, being an aviculturist and zoologist, being a writer.

I played outside ALL THE TIME. From morning until night, I was outside exploring: climbing trees, laying in the grass, digging in the soil. When kids play outside, they can’t help but encounter organisms and these experiences led to my interest in science. My parents allowed me to get a cockatiel as a kid and this sparked my lifelong interest in birds. I now have many different species as part of my live animal education program that serve the same purpose as that first bird: allowing kids to make connections with living animals which sparks not only an interest in science, but compassion towards nature as well.

Connecting Kids to the Natural World

Connecting Kids to the Natural World

What is one lesson or activity you’ve designed of which you’re especially proud?

I have worked with Dr. Jean Dubach, wildlife geneticist, for several years and I have authored curricular activities that make use of the fascinating work she does in her lab. We have published these activities free for teachers. One of the activities that best shows my transformation as an educator is the Lion Investigation (Who’s Your Daddy?, an AAAS award winning lesson). The traditional lab activity, which is handed to students in its entirety, as well as the updated version, which allows students to work with individual data sets one at a time and in sequence, are both available. I have found the “controlled release” of data allows students to become further immersed in the driving questions and allows them to alter their hypotheses as new data becomes available.

Jason Crean with Dr. Jean Dubach

Jason Crean with Dr. Jean Dubach

How do you get your best ideas for new lessons?

I always start with an engaging phenomenon which usually begins as an interesting story. If the story is engaging, it’s going to hook more students from the onset. If they’re interested, they’re more likely to answer those driving questions. This could be a human interest story I see on the news, a particularly engaging article I read, or something I actually encounter. As a zoo consultant, I have had the opportunity to interact with some fascinating animals and their stories can lead to some engaging phenomenon for the classroom. The animal nutrition lab came out of an idea I had while feeding a rhinoceros by hand!

In working with students, what is your primary focus? What are your aspirations for them?

I want my students to have the skills to make sense of the natural world. I want them to be able to reason through data and make sense of it. I want them to be able to investigate problems and come up with viable solutions. I want them to be informed citizens and make good choices. These goals can lead them to pursue careers in science or, at the very least, act as a responsible citizen living on our planet.

What advice do you have for beginning science teachers?

Tell stories. Your life as a teacher will be richer and more meaningful if you can tell your students stories. They will be more easily drawn in and, at the same time, you’re providing the context for the idea you are presenting. Students have trouble learning concepts when isolated and only learning the ‘what.’ But when you tell the stories, the context provides them more of the why. Narrative learning has made my life as a teacher and scientist so exciting and that definitely rubs off on my kids.

Jason Crean received his B. S. in Biology (1996)  and his master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction (2001), both from St. Xavier University. He also has an M.S. in Biology and a graduate certificate in Zoo and Aquarium Science from Western Illinois University. He is certified in high school biology, chemistry, zoology, and other topics. He is a biology teacher at Lyons Township High School in La Grange and does research/service work for the Brookfield Zoo Conservation Biology Department’s Genetics Lab. In addition to the award mentioned above, he won the National Association of Biology Teachers’ 2009 Ecology/Environmental Science Teaching Award and the 2009 Drug, Chemical and Associated Technologies Association “Making a Difference” Award sponsored by the National Science Teachers Association among others.

To connect with more of Jason’s work, check out Beaks Birdhouse to learn about avian nutrition and various kinds of hand-reared softbills, the Illinois Science Teachers Association, to join with other science educators to share knowledge about science and teaching, and see his list of accomplishments and publications in his online resume. There’s lots to explore!

Jason Crean with Golden Conure Chicks

Jason Crean with Golden Conure Chicks

Given the enormous impact that playing outside had on shaping Crean’s lifelong passion for living things, I’d like to recommend a favorite book of mine which advocates that children have more opportunities to do just that, Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder.

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.


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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