How to get students interested in STEM

Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are not just important topics for school children—they are essential to our culture. These fields help the environment, revolutionize healthcare, innovate our country’s security, and ensure our global economic competitiveness.

According to the Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, the U.S. is not producing enough STEM undergraduate degrees to match the forecasted demand, creating a national workforce crisis. Fewer people pursuing STEM degrees means fewer scientists finding clever solutions to antibiotics resistance, fewer technophiles turning data into targeted healthcare, fewer engineers designing homes and buildings to withstand rising seas and powerful storms.

We must empower future generations with the tools and knowledge they will need to solve the global problems they will inherit, and that empowerment starts with education.

The Business Higher Education Foundation determined that, by the time students reach high school, 83 percent report lacking proficiency or interest in STEM. That statistic is staggering. Why are so many students disinterested in these fields by the time they reach high school?

Many factors contribute to this disinterest in STEM. Lingering perceptions that science pertains to only certain groups of people and that science is not cool discourage students from showing interest. Students have limited exposure to STEM professionals to serve as role models, particularly in the early school years when they are forming ideas about what they want to become. Schools often struggle with science faculty and materials shortages, lackluster lessons, and a shortage of time to dedicate to the investigative and iterative processes that define science and engineering. Early elementary school teachers may feel ill-prepared to teach STEM topics or may face demands to focus on other subjects.

Fortunately, children are natural learners—inquisitive, energetic, curious—and we can encourage their love of exploration and experimentation in elementary and middle school while our education system works to improve STEM education overall.

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Getting started with blended learning

“I don’t think I’ll teach any differently this year. We just won’t use the Chromebooks in math class.”
—Me (at the beginning of the school year)

Last school year, our school started a one-to-one Chromebook initiative for the sixth grade. That meant our incoming seventh-graders would not only have Chromebooks, they would know how to use them!

What I thought would happen (aka delusions of grandeur):

1. All of our classroom-management problems would be solved because our students would be engaged with technology.

2. We could cancel our school’s future orders of copy paper and get rid of the copy machines, because we could put everything online.

3. Students would always do their work if it was online, because they always had access to a device.

4. Students would be adept with the technology because they used it the year before.

5. A one-to-one initiative wouldn’t change how I teach very much at all.

What actually happened (aka reality):

1. One-to-one initiatives have a lot of their own classroom-management problems. Luckily, a lot of these issues had been hammered out the year before, but the biggest issue was off-task behavior online. Additionally, just because students are doing work on the computer doesn’t mean that it is engaging or effective.

2. A lot of school work still needs to be done on paper. Depending on the grade level and subject, students can’t always work out their thinking only on a computer (i.e., math). Blended-learning classrooms often move seamlessly between online and offline activities, so don’t cancel those copier maintenance contracts yet.

3. Students don’t do their work for a lot more reasons than access and availability of technology.

4. Though my students used Chromebooks in the past, they still need support to understand how to best use the internet as a resource for learning.

5. The one-to-one initiative at my school completely changed the way that I teach. Blended learning has helped me become a more effective and efficient educator.

Tips for getting started on your blended journey

1. Enter with the right perspective.
The key word that people miss in blended Learning is “blended.” Technology will not replace the great work you already do in your classroom. It should reduce the mundane, repeatable tasks that bog down your class time. Technology helps us become better teachers by identifying needs instantaneously and reducing wait time for valuable academic feedback.

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App of the Week: Construct 3

Ed. noteApp of the Week picks are now being curated by the editors of Common Sense Education, which helps educators find the best ed-tech tools, learn best practices for teaching with tech, and equip students with the skills they need to use technology safely and responsibly. Click here to read the full app review.

What’s It Like? 

Start your students off with the tutorial “Beginner’s Guide to Construct 3” to get them oriented; have middle school students work in pairs or teams if game design or programming is new to them. Next, have students peruse the Construct 3 Arcade to see what kinds of games are possible to create. Then have them brainstorm game ideas for their own games, either individually or as part of a development team. Once they decide on an idea, have students work out what will be needed inside the game, and then set them free to begin prototyping and programming. Encourage students to visit the community forums on the Construct 3 site, as well as their Reddit forums. There’s also a comprehensive user manual on the website for students’ reference.

Price: Free to Try, Paid

Grades: 6-12

Rating: 5/5

Pros: Useful beginner’s tutorial with relatively easy programming steps, wide-ranging game creation options.

Cons: Learning curve might be a bit steep for programming newbies, and options can be overwhelming.

Bottom line: Limitless game options, reasonable cost, and extensive support make this programming environment perfect for an educational setting.

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Overcoming my fears

Teaching is a personal endeavor. Each and every classroom we walk into is different and exudes the personality of the teacher within. Because education is so personal and teachers work extremely hard, change can sometimes be difficult to come by.

Teachers care deeply about providing the best education possible for our students, but our profession involves an incredibly large volume of work. Often, we cling onto what has worked for us in the past simply because creating something new will tip the delicate balancing act that we’ve managed throughout the years.

I see a sea change coming in education. I think we are at a breaking point in which blended learning is on the cusp of changing our practice. A lot has changed in the last 10 years I’ve been a teacher. I have slowly seen technology catch up to the specific needs of educators.

A decade ago, the iPad hadn’t been introduced. When I wrote my first grant for a classroom set of iPads, I could barely find any math apps that I felt were beneficial for my students. Reading the grant now is like watching a local news story about the Internet in 1997. Devices are now inexpensive enough that one-to-ones initiatives are a reality in districts across the country. Software companies are responding to the specific needs of classroom teachers at an overwhelming pace. Not only are there a myriad of ways to blend technology into a curriculum, but there are also many different products to choose.

Even though I’m comfortable with technology, I was hesitant to incorporate tools into my classroom without considering whether they were best for my students. I was not going to sacrifice the quality of my teaching just for technology’s sake. Fortunately, with the help of others, I was able to find the unique mix of online and traditional learning strategies that worked best for me while putting my students in control of their own learning.

I will be writing columns here at eSchoolNews about my experience overcoming my fears and blending my classroom. I love answering questions about my practice, so please reach out to me on Twitter @blended_math. I hope you enjoy my journey.

[Editor’s Note: See all Blending My Practice columns here.]

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7 important considerations for virtual reality

Virtual reality has a growing number of applications in the classroom, but experts in a new report caution that the technology should be used carefully with students’ still-developing brains.

Recent data indicates that while few teachers are using virtual and augmented reality, the technologies does show some promise. Speak Up Survey data shows that 5 percent of teachers say they are using virtual or augmented reality in their classroom. Higher percentages of high school computer science and technology teachers (11 percent) and science teachers (9 percent) are using the technologies.

Forty-three percent of district administrators in small districts want virtual reality experiences and hardware in their schools. Twenty percent of district administrators said virtual and augmented reality professional development is a priority this year.

A new report from Common Sense analyzes the potential impact virtual reality has on kids’ cognitive, social, and physical well-being. The report also includes parents’ top concerns about the technology.

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How to design a school of the future

Several years ago, Greenville County Schools in South Carolina took an innovative approach to designing a new middle school to be named for our former superintendent, Dr. Phinnize Fisher. We threw out traditional building specs and came up with a new process to design the school around a focused curriculum: STEAM and project-based learning (PBL).

Like most districts, our building specs drove our school design. They were effective in providing standardization but not innovation. Under the direction of Deputy Superintendent (now Superintendent) Dr. Burke Royster, we developed a new way to design schools that has become the model for how we design schools. In 2015, for the first time in more than 20 years, Dr. Phinnize Fisher Middle, a K-12 facility from the southeastern U.S. was named the national James D. MacConnell Award winner by the Council of Education Facility Planners International.

Here are some of the lessons we learned while designing the Dr. Phinnize Fisher Middle School.

1. Re-think the purpose of schools
We have schools so that students can learn. Up until recently, the school building was seen as just that—a building that houses students so they can learn. We were missing out on an amazing opportunity to use the building for learning, not just a place to learn. Fisher Middle has exposed ceilings with colorful pipes, server rooms that are behind glass, and walls and walls of windows letting in maximum sunlight and reducing energy costs. The building is literally a teaching tool.

2. Involve all stakeholders
In most cases, when a school is commissioned, the ed specs are pulled out, architects called in, and project managers start their work. With Fisher Middle, multiple stakeholders were involved well before we started to design the building. We asked for design input from local community partners, business partners, and multiple district departments. Typically, the academics division is not involved until the school is completed. For this project, academics was involved from the start.

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6 helpful videos for coding, STEM, and more

Videos have many benefits in the classroom; if they’re engaging, informative, and inspiring, they can appeal to students of different learning styles.

They’re also valuable tools for educators who wish to access on-demand resources for students, who want to learn more new instructional strategies, or who want to expand their professional learning.

Check out the following six videos for help with your professional learning network (PLN), fact-checking images online, learning about website privacy and security, and more.

These videos are supplied by the editors of Common Sense Education, which helps educators find the best ed-tech tools, learn best practices for teaching with tech, and equip students with the skills they need to use technology safely and responsibly.

1. How to Fact-Check Images with Google
Have you ever wondered about the source or history behind an image? Google image search can help provide answers. Whether you’re doing research or just curious, reverse image search offers a digital paper trail of where an image has appeared on the internet. All you need to do is drag and drop an image into the images.google.com search bar, paste a url into the search bar, or right click on an image when using the Chrome browser.

Video:

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5 things every K-12 employee should do to protect student data

Student data privacy and security are top priorities for edtech leaders. When asked to rate the importance of these topics, 68 percent of respondents said they were more critical than the prior year, according to an annual survey of K-12 chief technology officers from the Consortium for School Networking.

While IT leaders in education have their hands full trying to protect the student information stored and accessed in the software and data systems used by their schools, the actions of other employees throughout the district can support—or undermine—these efforts.

Here are five practical steps that every school or district employee should take to keep student data from being compromised.

1. Check with your IT department before using apps or software.
If you want to use an application that collects any student data, make sure it has been approved by your school or district technology team. If they haven’t already, they will want to review the application’s data privacy policies before approving the app for use. If these data privacy policies don’t pass muster, your IT team might be able to suggest another application you can use to accomplish the same purpose.

2. Don’t keep or share student data any more than you have to.
You should only hold on to student data for as long as it takes to complete the task at hand; once you no longer need this information, you should delete it. (And make sure you empty your trash and delete the contents of your “Downloads” folder regularly, too.) Also, don’t leave any student information lying around where someone might have access to it, and don’t discuss student records with others unless they have a legitimate educational interest—meaning it’s information they need to do their job.

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3 keys to filling the STEM pipeline

Many educators are familiar with the research suggesting the demand for employees in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. For instance, the nonpartisan New American Economy notes that for every unemployed STEM worker in the United States, there were 13 job openings in 2016. That’s up from five job openings for every unemployed STEM worker in 2010.

Filling the STEM pipeline is critical for our nation’s competitiveness in the global economy. On a more personal level, engaging students in STEM subjects opens their eyes to new career pathways they might not have considered before—and to jobs with a promising future.

Here are three things that K-12 educators should do in their classrooms to encourage more students to consider STEM-related careers.

1. Provide engaging, hands-on learning experiences that show students how STEM concepts are used in the real world.
One of the questions that teachers often hear from their students is: “How will I ever use this when I graduate?” Engaging students in hands-on activities that solve real-world problems help answer this question. It shows them the relevance of what they are learning in STEM classes, and it makes these subjects come alive.

Tying STEM education to real-world problem solving can be very motivating to students. If students can see that STEM careers often involve tackling global and local challenges and improving peoples’ lives, they might be more inclined to explore a career in STEM.

2. Expose students to STEM career options.
Many students never consider careers in STEM fields because they simply aren’t aware of the possibilities that exist. The more students can learn of these possibilities, the more likely they are to discover something that sparks their passion.

It’s important for students to be exposed not only to STEM careers, but also the professionals who serve in them. Students often have very narrow ideas of what a scientist or a computer engineer looks like. Seeing STEM professionals who look like they do—who are the same race or gender, or who come from similar backgrounds—breaks these stereotypes and gives students powerful role models to aspire to.

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5 insightful webinars for Autism Awareness Month

A typical school day can be difficult for students with autism. They often struggle with communication and transitions, and crowded school hallways and different class schedules present challenges.

School districts need all the resources they can get if they are to best support students with autism and the teachers who are with those students each day.

Many educators—general classroom teachers and special educators as well—also are looking for resources to help neuro-typical students better their peers with autism.

During Autism Awareness Month, these five free webinars from PresenceLearning can help educators generate conversations and new ideas focused around how to support students with autism.

1. The Autistic Brain by Dr. Temple Grandin

School administrators are seeking a deeper understanding and new strategies to serve a growing population of students with autism. An overburdened system and the Common Core’s emphasis on language and communications skills has created a sense of urgency to find the best approaches to giving them appropriate access to the curriculum.

2. Uniquely Human: A Different Way to See Autism and Create Pathways to Success by Dr. Barry Prizant

Providing services for children with autism is a growing challenge. Special educators and families are hungry for advice and encouragement. Autism is usually portrayed as a checklist of deficits: difficulties interacting with others, sensory challenges, and repetitive—sometimes disruptive—behaviors. Therapy has focused on eliminating “autistic” symptoms. Now there’s a different perspective and a new approach.

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