Category Archives: STEM education

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

Seventeen Resolutions for Teaching STEM in 2017

Earlier in the month I emailed some of the great teacher participants in the Golden Apple STEM Institute partnership schools, asking them to reflect on 2016 and share one New Year’s Resolution they have for STEM in 2017. What follows are a selection of those resolutions. Maybe they will spark some ideas about what you might want to do in your own STEM classroom in 2017.

Several teachers responded with very specific goals, often focusing on particular content areas they want to work on or, given that NGSS is still relatively new, on NGSS implementation itself.

“My new year’s resolution is that I want to continue to create new science units that align with the NGSS standards.” Keniesha Charleston, 2nd grade, Murray Elementary

Kenosha Charleston with Murray Elementary Colleague Arleta Ingram.

Keniesha Charleston (left) with Murray Elementary Colleague Arleta Ingram.

“I would like to do at least one Science and Math integrated lesson with my teaching partner a quarter that combines the skills we are teaching in Math and Science.“ Jill Ryan, 6th grade, Durkin Park Elementary

“One of my aspirations this year is to collaborate with the kindergarten teachers to enhance their unit on the study of butterflies. We will develop a unit where students will research the life cycle of a butterfly and apply that new knowledge to create a habitat that would best sustain the life of the butterfly through each stage of its life cycle.” Amanda Conway, STEM Coordinator, Pershing Elementary

“My resolution for next year is to try to come up with at least one new activity or performance assessment that will incorporate NGSS and STEM in my classroom and to keep the students engaged with inquiry and problem solving.” Mike Albro, 7th – 8th Science, Byrne Elementary

For some teachers, 2017 will offer opportunities for integrating the STEM subjects with the arts, thereby moving toward STEAM-based experiences for their students.

” For my New Year resolution, I would like to include more art projects into my curriculum, turning my STEM classroom into a STEAM classroom. As Einstein said, ’Imagination is more important than knowledge.’ I believe I can develop my students’ imaginations in a greater and more deliberate way by adding art to the projects they do in my class.” Joe Estela, Upper Grades Science, Nightingale Elementary

“My resolution for 2017 is all about my dream for an event/unit with my middle school students in February. It is called STEAMPunk (Science, Theatre, Entertainment, Arts, Music, Powerful, United, Next Generation, Kids). I developed a unit that will connect an experiment design project with a music, visual arts, or theatre piece that is created by the student to show off the new knowledge learned from the science experiment as well as new knowledge about that discipline of art. Please come if you are available on February 1, 2017, during the day of course. I am inviting everyone out to listen, watch, learn and enjoy art our middle schoolers create. This is an overwhelming feat that has taken collaboration and patience between students, art teachers, and myself. Give everything you can to a dream. Communicate it, plan it, reflect on it, and do the work in order to make sure it comes true.” Kelly Harris Preston, 8th grade Science, Brentano Elementary

Since the advent of the Next Generation Science Standards, Engineering is a new element in the science classroom, so it’s not surprising that a number of these great teachers will be focusing on incorporating more engineering activities into their instructional plans.

“For the New Year, I will focus more on engaging my students in the Engineering Design component of NGSS.” Anh Hoang, 2nd grade, Murray Language Academy

Ahn Hoanh of Murray Language Academy at the Intro to Inquiry Summer Program

Ahn Hoang of Murray Language Academy at the Intro to Inquiry Summer Program

“My STEM Resolution for 2017 is to align an engaging engineering lab for each of the Holidays that occur during the school calendar year. Combining festive themes with critical problem solving skills is a WIN-WIN! My classroom engineers ‘win’ because they think they are ‘getting out of class’ with our holiday themed project/activity. And I WIN, because I know they are being exposed to multiple engineering practices. Cara West, 6th grade, Durkin Park Elementary

Several teachers couldn’t limit themselves to just one STEM Resolution. In their lists, they reveal thoughtful, concrete plans, a blueprint for transforming their STEM classrooms in the coming year.

“I want to
• Continue to convince students they can be good in science and math by implementing interesting, rigorous, hands on STEM activities. (STEMscopes is aligned with NGSS).
• Take students to more real world workplaces to experience how STEM is integrated.
• Have students sign up for this weekly newsletter I just found called STEM Jobs.” (VERY COOL, BTW!)
Ain Muhammad, STEM Coordinator, Wentworth STEM Academy

“My New Year’s Resolutions are to

• Contact all Chicago Museums and have them support me as I create Inquiry-Based projects in my classrooms. (I did have a difficult time thinking about an inquiry-based project as I worked on the Food Chain and Food Webs. Having the support of the Museum of Science and Industry, Lincoln Park Zoo, and Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum will help me create an exciting curriculum for my students.)
• Increase parental involvement in and outside the classroom to promote the STEM curriculum. (I need parents to come into the classroom to provide adult supervision as students are actively engaged in their investigations. I also need them to continue fostering the children’s natural curiosity at home in the field of science and technology.)
• Start collecting my science materials for my future projects.
• Make ALL my students enjoy SCIENCE through the use of inquiry-based lessons. (I wish I had been taught Science using STEM and inquiry. It would have made a WORLD OF DIFFERENCE!!!!)” Maria Soto, 2nd grade, Washington Elementary

Teaching STEM is not always the easiest job in the world, particularly given the neglect of science education over the past decades and the compartmentalization of subjects begging to be integrated. But some teachers say with absolute determination, “Bring it on!”

“I will dedicate this new year to finding exciting and relevant ways to teach and engage my students, while always keeping an open mind to refining or restructuring what has already been taught.” Jake Pagan, 6th grade, Morrill Elementary

Morrill Elementary Sixth Grade Teacher, Jake Pagan

Jake Pagan, Morrill Elementary Sixth Grade Teacher

“For the new year, I would like to try to get my grade level team more excited about science by planning hands-on team assignments — maybe, even a grade level competition.” Stacy Gibson, 1st grade, Tonti Elementary

“This New Year I want to embrace the fact that students want to learn about things I am not supposed to teach in 3rd grade. As we immerse students into inquiry, some questions veer from my original objectives but are such high quality questions I want to find ways to support their investigations that may be ‘off topic.’ I know this requires increased flexibility but starting in January, I am up for the challenge!” Brittany Williams, 3rd grade, Brentano

Third Grade Teacher Brittany Williams, Brentano Elementary

Brittany Williams, Brentano Elementary Third Grade Teacher

In other words,

“Think STEM and Persevere!” Chanel Simpson, Drake Elementary

The final four resolutions are more global and reflect the powerful human connection between our lives and our teaching and the grit and optimism that it takes to thrive in today’s classrooms. They move outside an individual classroom, pointing to the wider world beyond and to the future.

“My STEM resolution for 2017 is to have it be the vehicle to make more students believe and know they can change the world with just their mind.” Letitia Dennis, 8th grade, Gillespie Technology Magnet School

“As I reflect on this year, I think I look forward to the growth in rich, engaging, and deep discussions my students will have in connection to STEM. I hope in this school year and in the years to come, I will be able to support and inspire my students to think, question, wonder, and hold meaningful discussions about science in ways that others may not have thought before.” Winnie Ho, STEM Coordinator, Everett Elementary

“My resolution is to emphasize how important it is to teach with a STEM focus. It not only serves as a means for approaching math and science content, but also presents the opportunity to introduce critical global challenges into the consciousness of future generations that will feel the impact at a much greater level than we do.” William Campillo, STEM Coordinator, Hernandez Math and Science Academy

“My New Year’s resolution for 2017 is to focus on what I love most, myself, my family, my friends, and of course, science! As an administrator, I am going to go back to my roots as a science teacher, coach, and coordinator to make an impact in our school. 2017 will be a GREAT YEAR!!!” Michelle Smith, Assistant Principal, Clissold Elementary

With all of this intelligence, creativity, and energy directed at improving STEM instruction just in this small sampling of classrooms, 2017 will indeed be a GREAT YEAR!!! … most especially for the students of these awesome teachers. I want to thank each of them for sharing their STEM resolutions.

And if you happen to be based in a Chicago Metro area school, why not consider exploring a partnership with Golden Apple STEM Institute as one of your resolutions for 2017?

Happy New Year!!

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.

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Filed under engineering, NGSS, STEAM, STEM education, STEM lesson planning, 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: Going Gaga (Part 3 of 4)

If you’re looking for a project sure to engage your middle school students, you might want to think about going gaga. Nope, not going crazy or impersonating a certain singer, but hooking your students with a new old game that was imported from Israel to the United States in the 60s.

Essentially, gaga is a variation on dodge ball that has been called a kinder version of that favorite childhood sport.

Here’s a description from Wikipedia:

Gaga is played in a large fenced in area (usually an octagon or hexagon) called a gaga pit. The gaga pit generally consists of flat walls atop a smooth dirt, turf, or sand surface. The gaga ball can vary in size and form, generally ranging from a foam dodgeball to a rubber kickball. The game begins when one player throws the gaga ball into the air; while their backs are against the wall, the players shout “Ga” on each of the first three bounces. After three bounces, the ball is in play, and the players may leave the wall and “hit” the ball at each other in the pit. A player who is hit by the ball or breaks a rule is eliminated and must leave the game. Players may not “hit” the ball twice in a row, and a player who causes the ball to leave the pit is out. When the ball is caught in the air on a fly, the last person to hit the ball is out.

You can see a video clip of gaga with the rules explained here.

So, let me introduce you to STEM Institute faculty member Howie Templer and his 5th grade students and share some of his ideas for how you can replicate their very cool project. The local paper, The Highland Park Landmark, described what happened:

“When Howie Templer’s fifth-grade class was denied construction of an outdoor game court due to “maintenance and liability” issues by District 112, they didn’t take no for an answer.

Instead, the fifth graders took matters into their own hands and constructed a presentation that was brought before district board members on a special meeting on May 26 for a gaga pit, which is a dodgeball-like game played within a gated area.

From architectural design to budget costs and even a thorough explanation of specific benefits, the Oak Terrace fifth-grade class’s presentation to the District 112 board of education was conducted with the idea in mind that they would be able to reverse an earlier decision of the board. And they got their wish, plus one additional gaga pit – doubling the students’ expectations.”

The GAGA TEAM with Howie Templer at the back in front of the screen.

The Gaga Team with Howie Templer (back row, front of screen)

When his students approached him with the idea of getting the school board to change its mind and approve the construction of a gaga pit, Howie Templer’s response was, “That’s great. I can connect a lot of math concepts to it. I’m always looking for application opportunities for math.” From using the Pythagorean theorem to design the pit to calculating the costs of doing so, Templer was able to incorporate many core concepts of the fifth-grade curriculum in the project. He relished the opportunity to provide his students with a real-world problem to attack, and they rose to the occasion, with each student assuming a different role in seeing the project through to completion. Clearly, there was more than math involved. The project honed the students’ entrepreneurial skills as they researched gaga pits at other schools, created a poster presentation, acquired financial donations for the project, and marshaled support in the community prior to pitching the idea to the previously resistant board.

I interviewed Templer about the gaga pit project, so that other teachers interested in replicating it or doing a similar project would have guidance from someone who has already traveled that road.

Other than using the Pythagorean theorem and calculating costs, what other math and science concepts were you able to incorporate in the project? How about engineering and technology? Was this a full-fledged STEM activity?

The project connected and enriched all of the geometry concepts I already planned to teach and incorporated many STEM components. The students already knew the names of different shapes, based on number of sides and angles, and could find the area of rectangles and triangles. When this project began I handed students a large octagon designed using K’Nex and asked the students to find the area of the shape. The location of the gaga pit was already determined by our principal, so it was important to develop strategies to find the area in order to determine what size gaga pit would work best. Groups used different strategies, including dividing the shape into eight triangles and adding the area of each triangle and creating a rectangle and subtracting the four corner triangles that would need to be removed in order to result in an octagon. We shared different strategies and then used an online octagon calculator to find the actual area of an octagon with the dimensions provided. The students found their percent error from the actual area (all groups were within 1% error). We were able to connect this to find the area of many irregular shapes by breaking them into rectangles and triangles.

After that, I challenged the students to develop their own formulas to find the area of an octagon given the width and length from one end of the octagon to the other and the side length. The students tested each other’s formulas and compared answers. Some of the successes included n^2 – ((n-r) ÷ 2) x 4 where n = length/width and r = side length. Another unique discovery was .8284n^2. A group of students discovered that a regular octagon is always 82.84% of a square that has the same length/width.

The next important teaching concept was to determine the sum of the angles of an octagon and how many degrees are in each angle of a regular octagon. The students would need to use this information to order brackets with the right number of degrees. I challenged students to determine each angle measure without using a protractor. Strategies included connecting the vertices to make triangles, making triangles from a center point and subtracting 360 degrees (the sum of the interior angles) or dividing the corners into triangles. The students found that each angle is 135 degrees and the sum of the angles is 1080. We practiced these concepts on several different shapes to develop a deeper understanding.

The students learned about the Pythagorean theorem in order to help find the area when only the side length of the octagon was given (and not the end to end width/length). In the case of the gaga pit, we needed to determine whether to purchase a pit with 8-foot sides or 10-foot sides. The students needed to calculate the area to find out how much space would be required for the pit and how much space would be needed from end to end. The students measured the length of the field where we will assemble the pit: it is 25.5’ x 56.5’. Each group decided which pit they thought would work best and created a scale model of the field with the pit using protractors and T-squares. We decided to purchase a pit with 8-foot sides. An octagon with 10-foot sides is over 24 feet from end to end, and that left very little space.

Using the program SketchUp, students designed a digital model of the space after the gaga pit was installed with the school in the background. In order to accurately create the school, the students needed to know the height. We used laser protractors at a certain distance and figured out the angle to the top of the school. Then students created scale models of the scenario to find the corresponding height of the school.

Digital Design Using Sketch-Up

Digital Design Using SketchUp

Were you doing this as part of the regular class time? How did you manage to work it into an already busy schedule? How long did students work on this project?

This was part of my math class. I taught a lot of concepts that connected to the core content I already planned to teach. It just took a lot of flexibility and creativity to reorder the material to connect with the needs of this project. The students all had unique jobs that they were responsible for preparing and executing at the board meeting; a great deal of that work was their responsibility outside of school. I didn’t give any traditional math homework during this project. Instead they were responsible for managing their time to create and prepare their scripts for the presentation, become experts on their topics, and know all of the content we worked on in class. We worked on this for over two months and regularly checked in on each other’s progress. There were lots of emails that were exchanged.

I see in the photos you sent that the kids designing on computer, Howie, and also using the telephone. What were they doing?

On the computer the students used SketchUp to create a digital model of how the space would look when it was finalized.

On the phone, students did a lot of tasks: The census collector cold-called schools in our area to find how many schools had gaga pits. He called 30 schools and over 25% of them had gaga pits!

Another student in charge of interviews spoke with two superintendents of surrounding school districts that had gaga pits to ask about their experiences, and he also interviewed a school nurse to find out about injuries and how we could help reduce them.

Other students called local businesses and explained the project. They were trying to get sponsors using a tier system. Businesses could get their name on a plaque and logo on a wall. The students raised 1,300 dollars — enough to cover all of the expenses of the gaga pit.

A good STEM project by definition includes technology applied in real world contexts.

A good STEM project, by definition, includes technology applied in real world contexts.

Were there any challenges that other teachers should know about beforehand?

There are a lot of moving parts and constant challenges. The biggest obstacle was when we found out that a gaga pit wouldn’t be approved at our school because of liability and maintenance concerns. I had already started incorporating the gaga pit project into math. This particular obstacle presented us with the most outstanding learning opportunity when my students used their voices to contact the superintendent and convinced him to reconsider. That made this project immensely more powerful. I will never be able to do this project again because it was responsive to a unique circumstance and opportunity, but it was one of the most fun and rewarding projects I have done. The students had total ownership over it and were completely invested.

As a teacher nothing is more exciting than when you can completely become a facilitator. I will seek out more authentic learning opportunities that can be woven into the classroom.

What were the highlights of the project?

It had a happy ending. The students prepared for an audience and executed beautifully. The school board members were so impressed with their work and are buying us a second gaga pit (based on the scale models my students developed, they noticed that we had room). No one saw that coming and it was such an exciting moment.

Is there any advice you’d like to share with other teachers on doing real-world projects like the gaga pit?

Organization at the front end is very important. All of my students had unique roles that they helped create, and they selected their own roles. That really helped with their investment. My goals are to keep my eyes open and listen to what is happening in the community to see if I can connect it somehow.

On Saturday, June 18, several students and their family members gathered to construct the gaga pit, with the help of an Oak Terrace parent who owns a local landscaping company. Howie reported, “it took some time and hard work, but the pit is officially assembled!”



Thanks to Howie Templer for responding to questions about this fantastic project and providing the photos that illustrate it.

Please leave any question in comments, or share your own experience connecting your students to real world problem solving with STEM.

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.

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Filed under children as engineers, engineering, gaga pit, math, Pythagorean Theorem, STEM education, 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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Filed under 6th grade, Bill Elasky, science teaching, STEM education, Uncategorized

Hooking Students on STEM: Let Them Actually Do Science (Part 1 of 4)

Science magazine’s latest issue (June 10, 2016) reports on a recently released study of the unique freshman science program, the Freshman Research Initiative (FRI), offered by the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Texas (UT), Austin. What makes the program unique is that science and math students immediately begin working on faculty-led research projects their first semester at the university. According to the University, “these 18- and 19-year olds immerse themselves in ‘research streams,’ and there they swim for three semesters, wading deeply into projects such as programming artificially intelligent cars, searching the universe for dark matter, screening potential drugs, studying viral evolutions, and developing new materials for energy production and storage.”

In other words, rather than waiting until they have their degrees and have slogged through dozens of courses in undergraduate and graduate studies, these students are making a contribution to ongoing research as freshmen. Since the program serves 25 percent of the entering freshman class or around 500 students each year (approximately 35 students per research stream), “it is providing a sizable army of fresh-faced scientists pounding away on real-world research problems.” 

Just imagine being one of those freshman students and doing this: In the DIY Diagnostics research stream, first-year students develop take-home diagnostic tools and apps used to detect disease and measure environmental quality. Or this: In the Bugs in Bugs research stream, students study the gut bacteria of pollinators and other insects to better understand the impact of microbial bacteria on the health of crucial species, such as bees. Or this: In the Biofuels research stream, undergraduates contribute to a major National Science Foundation-funded project to examine whether plants like switchgrass can be used for energy in place of oil.

Have a look.

But why is this important?

Beyond letting students do cool things, the program actually works. The research study of FRI provides “the first conclusive evidence that so-called active learning courses, which science educators have promoted for decades as a better way to teach than lectures and cookbook labs, can lower the high attrition rates in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields at U.S. universities.”

The attrition rate from STEM programs at the university level has been a worrying trend for years now. Fewer than 40% of university students who begin as STEM majors actually complete a STEM degree by the time they graduate. This represents a huge loss to U.S. companies that rely on employing STEM trained graduates, while constraining the employment opportunities for many thousands of students every year. Even more tragic are the loss of the useful knowledge from new discoveries that only scientific research can provide and the squandering of human talent that remains undeveloped because traditional STEM classes have been so disengaging. This is particularly true for underrepresented groups in STEM: women, African Americans, and Latinos. What a loss to the U.S. and the world that this potential isn’t fully realized.

FRI Female StudentFRI Student Engaging in Research
Photo: Marsha Miller at the University of Texas at Austin

Enter FRI, UT’s Freshman Research Initiative. The program was created in 2005 to improve STEM retention rates. In a three-course sequence, the first class focusing on research methods, followed by two semesters of research in one of more than 24 fields of study,“… undergraduates are introduced to the world of hypothesis-driven research by a research educator, a non-tenure track faculty member, or a postdoctoral student.”

The program requires students to “problem-solve,” and according to Erin Dolan, the co-author of the study and executive director of Discovery Education in Science which oversees the FRI, “Unlike in a traditional lab course, where the next week they get a new problem, here the research stops if they don’t make progress. And they are graded on attempts to solve a problem rather than results, because in science you can’t anticipate the results.”

Long story short, after tens of thousands of students have gone through the FRI program, researchers have ample data for concluding that doing genuine research keeps students in science. 94% of FRI students graduated with a STEM degree versus 71% of the non-FRI students and 83% graduated within 6 years in contrast to only 66% of non-FRI students who did so. Even better, these results held for underrepresented groups who tend to leave STEM at a higher rate. Significantly, a quarter of the students entering in 2009, for example, were first-generation college attendees and a quarter of them were also Latino. In essence, the University of Texas has found a way to give students the best aspects of a science internship or apprenticeship but at a lower cost. Plus more students are able to participate, insuring that more STEM graduates emerge at the end and with research experience already under their belts.

FRI Students Begin Their Research Careers Early by Working with Experienced Scientists
FRI Students Begin Their Research Careers Early 
Photo: Marsha Miller at the University of Texas at Austin

In fact, some of those young scientists have already accomplished important work. Rachel Graubard and Vassal Shah, for example, both alumni of the Freshman Research Initiative’s DIY Diagnostics stream, have created two apps to help patients detect skin cancer at home. To tantalize you even more, other streams student researchers work in include bioprospecting, cyber security, functional genomics, big data, and computational design. Clearly, this is a model that should be replicated nationwide.

So why, in a blog focused primarily on elementary STEM education, am I sharing the results of a successful university program?

Reading about the Freshman Research Initiative made me wonder if a similar approach isn’t every bit as compelling for younger students. As proponents of hands-on, inquiry-based STEM, for having students do science rather than just reading about it in a textbook, the STEM Institute team isn’t all that surprised by the UT results. We are convinced that if students have the chance to do science early in their education, they will be more inclined to continue with  STEM in high school and college. Doing real science is engaging, and the concepts learned in the process are more memorable, becoming part of the young scientist’s deep understanding of how the world works — and if that work makes a contribution to their own community, so much the better. Having an impact on their world is empowering and builds students’ sense of confidence in themselves and their connection to others.

In upcoming posts, I’ll introduce you to some remarkable sixth graders and the grown up project they conducted several decades ago, share a project from this current school year in which students incorporated math, technology, and engineering to realize a dream they had for their school, and say more about why the conceptual design behind the successful FRI program has relevance for younger students.

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.






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Filed under Freshman Research Initiative, FRI, STEM education, Uncategorized, University of Texas

A Fish out of Water

“Fish don’t know they’re in water.
If you tried to explain it, they’d say, “Water? What’s water?”
They’re so surrounded by it, that it’s impossible to see.
They can’t see it until they get outside of it.
This is how I feel about culture.
We’re so surrounded by people who think like us, that it’s impossible to see that what we think are universal truths are just our local culture.
We can’t see it until we get outside of it.” Derek Sivers

Recently, I’ve been talking with other educators, posing the question “how would you reimagine schools for the future?” and hoping that together we could do some truly out of the box thinking. To make that more likely, we’ve been reading two books on Finnish education together, Pasi Sahlberg’s Finnish Lessons 2.0: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? and How to Create the School of the Future — Revolutionary thinking and design from Finland, by Pasi Mattila and Pasi Silander (eds.) [free pdf.].

A Good Starting Point for Reconsidering U.S. Education

The more we explore the question, the more it seems to me that we have all been swimming in our current school waters for so many years that the very nature of those schools is partially invisible to us and so are the possibilities that lie just beyond our fish bowl. We have so many assumptions about teaching and learning, about students, about the purposes of education, and so many memories of school experiences, that seeing our schools for what they are and what they aren’t and seeing what they could be instead are just a bit beyond our reach, at least at the outset of our attempt to answer that question.

Certainly, we can point out some fairly obvious things we aren’t happy about in the current system: standardized tests; little autonomy for teachers; not enough resources; rigid schedules; developmentally inappropriate mandates, particularly in the primary and early elementary grades; over-reliance on textbooks; unequal resources depending on SES; too narrow a range of subjects, limited by what is tested, and so forth. But for the most part, school just is. And that’s why we often resort to tweaking rather than radically reinventing them.

So question the very water we swim in? That’s not very easy. It would require we go back to first principles at the same time that we are considering futures beyond our wildest imagining.

Finland offers some clues.

You, of course, remember the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, all 449 pages of it in its current iteration with all the subsequent amendments; the original act was only 32 pages long. The current reauthorization of that act goes by the happy sounding name of “Every Child Succeeds,” and weighs in at a measly 391 riveting pages — just kidding about riveting. By comparison, Finland’s 1998 Basic Education Act is a mere 24 pages. But let’s take a look at some of the differences between our two countries when we come to defining the purpose of our education enterprise.

Section 2 of the Finnish blueprint for education, for example, lists the 3 objectives of education.

“1. The purpose of education referred to in this Act is to support pupils’ growth into humanity and into ethically responsible membership of society and to provide them with knowledge and skills needed in life. Furthermore, the aim of pre-primary education, as part of early childhood education, is to improve children’s capacity for learning.

2. Education shall promote civilization and equality in society and pupil’s prerequisites for participating in education and otherwise developing themselves during their lives.

3. The aims of education shall further be to secure adequate equity in education throughout the country.”

Our blueprint is somewhat different, given that our focus was primarily on addressing issues of poverty.

It is “to provide all children significant opportunity to receive a fair, equitable, and high-quality education and to close the education achievement gap.” Notice we don’t define how we hope that education will impact the individuals who receive it or the society to which they belong. We don’t suggest that one fundamental purpose of basic education is to help individuals become life-long learners. Thankfully, we do speak of closing the education achievement gap, but how assiduously do we set about resourcing that goal? Finland provides all children with “the necessary textbooks and other learning materials, and school equipment and materials … free of charge for the pupil.” That means paper, pencils, notebooks, EVERYTHING! Plus a free meal at school that is balanced, nutritious, and delicious! (This assessment is based on personal experience at two Finnish schools.)

The Best Vegetable Soup I’ve Ever Had! (This was the vegetarian option school lunch. Chicken soup was also on offer.)

In our education acts, we say a lot about data and testing. They don’t. They do say this about assessment: “The aim of pupil assessment is to guide and encourage learning and to develop the pupil’s capacity for self-assessment.” They don’t do standardized tests (well, not until age 16), trusting teachers to formatively and summatively assess their students. And, as a matter of policy, they care a lot about the happiness and wellbeing of students. “The pupil’s work load in basic education must be such as to allow him or her enough time for rest, recreation and hobbies over and above the time spent in school, school travel (almost entirely neighborhood schools) and homework.” Plus they provide guidance counseling for every child as a matter of right. We say, “Children First,” but how often do we actually put them this much first? And when do we bring up “JOY” as an emotion we want children to experience as an essential part of their schooling? The Finns do.

In listing core subjects, the Finns include: “mother tongue and literature (there are 3 languages commonly spoken in Finland as mother tongue though this is changing with immigration), the second national language (Swedish or Finnish, depending on the child), foreign languages (English for all, plus others), environmental studies (right after language in the list!) health education, religious education or ethics (parents/students have a choice), history, social studies, mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, geography (yes, geography!), physical education, music, art, crafts, and home economics (because everyone should know how to take care of the tasks of basic daily living).

I’m sure you know ours, a much shorter list, and, therefore, where our priorities lie.

With respect to STEM education, Finland has launched a massive effort to improve teaching and student engagement with STEM subjects. As a press release announced:

“The programme is scheduled to take place between 2014 and 2019. Initiated by the Minister of Education, Ms Krista Kiuru, the national quest to improve STEM skills forms a part of a programme to develop the future of basic education in Finland. ‘According to the latest national and international surveys the STEM skills of Finnish youth are declining. This trend is alarming because mathematical thinking and logical problem solving skills form an essential part of the foundations of learning. It is necessary to take action to improve students’ engagement and joy in learning,’ minister Kiuru emphasized.”

And by the way, students in Finland already outscore American students in science and math on the PISA and outscore American students on the TIMMS science. In the 8th grade, for instance, Finland scored 552, compared with 525 for the United States. Measured another way, 53 percent of Finnish 8th graders reached either the “high” or the “advanced” level, the top two categories, compared with 40 percent of their peers in the United States. Just sayin’.

To begin making the water we swim in more visible to us all, I want to leave you with a short TED video by architect Trung Le, positing that the way things are all over the world today in schools, isn’t the way they need to be. We can break out of existing paradigms and forge something that is far more engaging for students and that far better prepares them for the future.

In closing, here are several questions for your consideration:

  • What difference would it make if we were to be very intentional about making joy part of our planning in schools and equity our primary touchstone? How would we go about doing that?
  • How would increasing the emphasis on STEM and using an inquiry-based instructional approach change the culture and climate of American schools? How might these become a natural segue into a more future oriented schooling?
  • Are there better school designs and configurations than the current ones for doing effective STEM education, and what might they be?

As always, I welcome your comments.

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.

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Filed under Finland, Finnish education, STEM education, Trung Le, Uncategorized