Hold onto your hats, folks, as we dive into a few Best Practices for STEM!
Now, let’s start with a little disclaimer…..I teach STEM classes for three grade levels- after teaching in the regular classroom for 20+ years. Best practices or best strategies means something different to everyone. All I aim to do with this blog post is run a few ideas by you and suggest, from my experience what works in my classroom! So, just know that I am not trying to be preachy, just helpful!
BEST PRACTICE Hands-on Learning
I know you have heard this- Experiential, hands-on learning is the best way for kids to learn.
Before we talk about how this relates to STEM, let me tell you a little history about me. I started teaching many, many years ago. Here’s what science looked like: we had a textbook. We read a section. We answered the questions at the end of the section. About every 25 pages in the textbook we came across the infamous Experiment page.
This page was always blue and as soon as we turned to it all the kids would look up and stare at me, silently hoping this time, this time, we would actually get to try the experiment. Nope.
If I could demonstrate something I did so – from the front of the room and the kids gathered around. NEVER did the students have their own individual experiments, because science just was not done that way. Sad. So sad.
Now, we know better. Science is the ONE place that hands-on experiences make all the difference. When every student is part of a team, when all of them are building and trying something, when they can move and manipulate materials, when they can add to their design or change one tiny thing and it works, they learn so much more.
How does STEM come into this? Easy, the trial and error of STEM projects is the best learning we can provide. Kids learn to persevere even when the task seems impossible. They approach the task in many different ways, improve on their designs, and finally prevail with something that works. I think it’s actually magic….
Notice the photo above. This is from a challenge about building a Ferris Wheel. The end results can look very similar, but the path to creating the final structure depends on getting their hands on the materials and making mistakes.
BEST PRACTICE Failure is an Option
Never give up…
I have written about this so many times. I have recorded the thoughts and spoken words of children about this topic so many times. I have told so many people about this.
Kids need to fail. How else will they learn what works? When every solution is the perfect one, they never learn what to do on that occasion when something goes awry. And, you know, something always goes wrong.
That’s life. How does this fit with STEM? Folks, we fail in our classroom every single day. We even have a phrase for this. We call our mistakes, goof-ups, miscalculations EPIC Failures. Let me explain this in kid words:
“I can’t tell you how many times we have failed at this?” (At which point the kid dived right back into the task to try again.)
“I just can’t see what to try next.” (But, he did try something!)
“This looked so different in my head than it is working out.”
Just think about it. The materials need to fit together a certain way and they just don’t. You take it apart and try something else. The kids talk it through, try something new, and then hit upon something that does work. Eureka!
Take a look at the photo above. This is also from the Ferris Wheel challenge. That team stacked all the craft sticks on top of one another and glued them together. However, they needed a dowel stick to go through them. They should have left space where all the sticks come together so the dowel would fit. Yes, they took it apart and laid all those sticks out again and had quite a discussion about what to try next. In the end, they decided to leave a tiny opening and glue the edges of the sticks together. It worked.
One last thing– go back to the statement above in which the student said he just couldn’t see what to try next. I talked to him and his teammates for several minutes and with purposeful questions helped them think through what to do. At some point in this conversation, the young man said, “You know, we are going to try a new idea because I am just not giving up.” Profound.
BEST PRACTICE There is more than ONE right answer.
Oh my, this one is tricky. Especially if you are a Type A person, like me.
I want every little project to be perfect and cute, and well made and, of course, completed the way I WOULD DO IT!
Kids don’t play along with this. They think way differently than adults and they try things I NEVER would.
Take a look at that water slide above. I knew those straws on the back would not hold up the slide when water was added. Did I tell them? NOPE. It crashed.
Now, go back to point number 2 of this blog post. This team learned by failing at their first slide. They took it apart, dried everything off, and regrouped. They talked, made some decisions, and rebuilt it. If I had stopped them from the beginning by inserting my beliefs they would have built a great little slide but would have NEVER learned the lesson they learned by failing.
Same thing. I knew this water slide was going to be disastrous. I bit my tongue and let them pour water down that cardboard tube. It got soaked and soggy and they had to start over, but I heard one of them say, “Wow. That’s not what I expected, but it makes sense. The cardboard is paper and paper and water don’t work together.”
Their second version of the slide had that piece of foil on the inside of the tube instead of the outside.
So, how does this one fit with STEM? You, the teacher, have to stay out of their way! Don’t tell the kids what to do, how to do it, or intervene when you know it won’t work. Kids need to be free to explore and experiment without fearing that they are doing it wrong. STEM Projects have many, many correct answers and they will eventually find one!
BEST PRACTICE Collaboration is paramount.
It’s easy to say, “Work as a team”! What is hard, however, is making sure students know what this looks like.
I spend a lot of time at the beginning of the school year completing team building activities and talking about what it means to share the workload, make collaborative decisions, and do what is best for the team.
I have a very set-in-stone procedure we follow for every STEM Challenge.
Every team member sketches or writes about an idea and then everyone must stand before the others on the team and talk about that idea. The team then decides what to do based on all the shared ideas. I encourage them to make decisions on what is best for the team. Students learn quickly that getting your way is not always best for the entire team or the design. Ultimately, if one idea fails, the team can always go back to a different idea and try it next!
In the photo above students are painting a bird feeder. This challenges turned out to be perfect for teamwork. Teams divided into builders and decorators and made it work! Superb!
BEST PRACTICE It’s not always on the Lesson Plan!
Some of the best things we see happen are things I could not have foreseen. There are so many moments that I am just as amazed at the kids at the results of an experiment or attempt to construct something.
These are teachable moments that cannot be planned for and are very unlikely to be part of that lesson plan so carefully crafted.
And, you just have to go with it.
Seriously, I am a control freak and like to plan for every possibility, but STEM doesn’t work like that.
First, of all, kids don’t think the way I do and they build things that cannot possibly work and somehow it works anyway. Look at that photo above. Students are building a flood barrier. We are going to pour water into that tub and see if their barrier will keep the water out. What do you think?
I would have voted NO and was quite surprised when this messy little contraption worked. Go with it!
This picture is another example. Kids were building water slides. They had one long tube and some smaller ones. I thought they would use the long tube for the tower of the slide, but so many of the groups used the long tube for the slide itself. This left them scrambling to support the slide—- with those straws.
No, this one did not work. It toppled over immediately. But, I let it happen. Go with it! STEM is not cookie-cutter projects. (I think I said that in this post already.) By failing students have an amazing opportunity to learn and then improve.
Okay, STEM Friends, these are some best practices or best strategies that I have learned in the last few years. Click on the images to see details about the resources.
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