3 strategies to keep students engaged in STEM

STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) is more than just an acronym or a collection of letters. Rather, it is an instructional movement that embodies cross-curricular concepts from four fundamental disciplines, as well as a research-based strategy that addresses the future needs of a technology-driven work force and sustaining a global economy. The importance of STEM is further validated by its prominence in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

One of the most effective instructional approaches toward the implementation of STEM in grade-level courses is through project-based learning (PBL). In this approach, instruction occurs through student-centered investigations focused on a specific topic driven by a set of objectives, culminating in a broadly-defined product or technique. Projects foster an environment of discussion, creativity, problem-solving, inquiry, modeling, and testing, and are applicable to students in all grade levels and subjects, but particularly within the STEM arena.

Implementing PBL in the classroom

During my 17 years as a classroom teacher, I have consistently implemented projects to help supplement and reinforce concepts critical toward a student’s understanding of overriding topics. These projects promote a student-centered approach and a sense of self-discovery, while also allowing students to collaborate with group members.

As you consider implementing project-based learning (PBL) into your classroom, I offer the following three effective instructional strategies based on my past experiences.

Strategy #1: Identify an engaging topic that is aligned with NGSS standards.

Here are two projects I’ve done in past years. Both projects were closely aligned to science and engineering NGSS, and greatly engaged students in the learning process.

  • Fly Me to the Moon…Well, at Least the Upper Stratosphere: Students worked on an experimental payload that was launched using a high-altitude weather balloon. The payload was equipped with a Vernier LabQuest to collect scientific measurements and a GoPro camera to collect video footage during its trajectory.
  • Oh, The Places You’ll Go…to Do Science with ROAVEE (Remotely Operated Amphibious Vehicle for Environmental Exploration): I challenged students to design, model, construct, test, and navigate a robotic vehicle—equipped with sensors to collect environmental data—on solid terrain as well as on water.

App of the Week: Otus

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? 

It’s not often that teachers come across a technology tool that delivers as much as Otus, much less a free one. With many opportunities to manage grades, class content, and student data, the site can feel overwhelming at first; however, with some up-front investment, teachers will find it a valuable resource for managing instruction and pulling in valuable data points from third-party resources such as Khan Academy, PARCC, NWEA, and more. Use Otus to create and grade standards-based assessments, to get feedback from and about students, including video responses, document uploads, and quick polls, and to access detailed reports to disaggregate data and create more individualized assessments and targeted skill practice. Host topic discussions and cultivate writing skills via a class blog. Draw from the item bank to address specific skills, and then automatically assign an assessment to a group of students you’ve identified.

Price: Free, Paid

Grades: K-12

Rating: 4/5

Pros: Extensive features and options for classroom management rival those of many paid systems.

Cons: Laborious data entry and high learning curve may intimidate some teachers.

Bottom line: This teacher-created site solves more problems than it causes, but it will take some up-front professional development to take full advantage.


The New Librarian: How to lead a tech-integration revolution

Throughout my career, I’ve had the good fortune to work in various capacities as a librarian and with all levels of learners, from kindergarten through doctoral students. Presently, I’m a school librarian at North High School in Downers Grove, Ill., where I have the good fortune to be one of three full-time librarians in a school that serves 2,200 students. Additionally, I teach an online course called “Introduction to Libraries and the Information Age” at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Ill.

Whether or not technology is your favorite part of being a school librarian, there are simple ways to increase your value by connecting with teachers and offering assistance. Use your “librarian reference interview” skills to listen, ask questions, and offer suggestions.

Here are a few practical examples of how I help teachers integrate technology to positively impact student learning. Use them as examples or encouragement for growing your program.

1. Attend department meetings to inform and learn.

I begin each school year attending department meetings at which I make connections with teachers, learn about their department goals, and share the new and exciting things the library has to offer.

Making this connection led to a virtual reality lesson with freshmen and AP biology classes. Students used the library’s Android devices and VR viewers to experience the inside of plant cells from a playlist I curated; they had an immersive 3-D perspective unimaginable from a microscope slide or hard copy. Incidentally, I learned to never underestimate the value of being “seen.” Wheeling the devices down the hall sparked curiosity among teachers and students that resulted in additional opportunities.

2. Keep the tech simple.

Our school sets aside two hours each Monday for teachers to meet in professional learning communities (PLCs); often, the PLCs ask a librarian to attend. When I joined physical education teachers on to discuss assessment tools for a two-day lesson on eating lifestyles, I learned they wanted a straightforward research lesson involving simple technology.


6 steps for using data to improve instruction

Research suggests that when principals work directly with teachers in explaining how and why they should use data to improve their instructional practices, the effect on student achievement is more than twice as powerful as any other leadership dimension.

Clearly, K-12 leaders hold the keys to data-driven improvement. And if they want to lead this practice effectively in their schools, they need to understand how to use data as a leadership tool.
According to Datrow, Park, and Wohlstetter, there are six key strategies that performance-driven schools and districts should follow if they want to use data to produce significant achievement gains. Let’s explore them.

1. Lay the foundation.

Just as a house won’t last without a solid foundation, school and district leaders must invest significant time and resources in building a solid foundation to support data-driven decision making if they want this practice to endure.

Laying the foundation for using data to drive continuous improvement involves setting specific, measurable performance goals at all levels of the organization (district, school, grade level, classroom, and student). It also means developing and implementing a cohesive curriculum that is consistent across all schools and is vertically aligned from one grade level to the next.

Only when there is a coherent, system-wide curriculum in place can educators begin to collect, analyze, discuss, and act on data that are comparable from one school and classroom to another.


My best tips for coaching teachers

As the nation faces a looming teacher shortage, one of the most powerful tools we have for retaining teachers is coaching. Every district around the nation employs coaching models. But are they effective?

We asked this question two years ago after years of coaching teachers at both the school and district level. After analyzing our impact, we realized our return on investment was not as large as we needed or wanted. Several things emerged from this self-reflection, and with a few corrections we are seeing positive results.

1. Effective coaching includes everyone

Several years ago, we moved from a model of coaching struggling and first year teachers to a model that focuses on all teachers. After all, football coaches don’t focus solely on the struggling players. They focus their efforts on building the team to make sure everyone performs at their highest potential. We have found that successful teachers are more eager for coaching because they always want to be the best possible for their students.

2. Effective coaching must be differentiated

Teachers fall on a continuum of ability, skill, and will. Each one demands a different approach to coaching in order to get the best results. We use the skill/will matrix highlighted in Max Landsberg’s book, The Tao of Coaching. Administrative teams help identify where teachers fall so that district- and school-level coaches know best how to approach the coaching.


5 ways to teach coding without using screens

A few years ago, computer programming for kids was a niche subject that only children of select parents were exposed to. Fast-forward to today, where coding for kids has embedded itself into many mainstream education curriculums around the world. Even though the popularity of teaching kids to code has increased, there are still concerns with screen time for young children. But what if there were a way to teach kids to code without screens? In fact, there are several ways to teach children the concept of computer programming that do not involve a computer, an iPad, or even a smartphone.

To get back to the basics, we first need to review a few terms that will help us understand why we should teach coding and computational thinking to kids and what the benefits may be:

  • Computer programming: The practice of making a computer do something through a sequence of instructions, which are written in a specific coding language, or code for short.
  • Computational thinking: A fundamental skill that anyone can learn, which helps to identify and break down complex problems so that they can be solved, either by a computer or a human.

Learning coding and computational thinking has several benefits for children, including nurturing creative expression, demystifying technology, teaching problem solving and persistence, learning by doing, and learning to think about thinking. For 3- to 4-year-old children, play and learning are not separate concepts, so it makes sense to teach them through play. Hands-on (kinesthetic) learning is even better, and open-ended play should be part of it. At this age, children are beginning to learn cause and effect, so creating sequences that relate to things they know well can help them start to think of logic and programming in a new way, one that is completely screen-free.

Abstraction is difficult for very young children, but there are several aspects of coding that can be taught to children as young as three and four like algorithms, logic, tinkering, and debugging. And by the time a child turns five or six, we can start to teach abstraction, prediction, sequencing, programming, and repetition. Young children use a lot of physicality in their learning process, so hands-on exercises, toys, and other interactive experiences are the perfect conduit to teaching the basics of coding without using screens.

1. Real-life routines

Repeating a real-life routine can be a great way to teach children of all ages the concept of algorithms, which are a set of rules that define a sequence of operations. In an algorithm, the steps or processes we follow determine whether we achieve success or failure. Getting ready for recess is a great example of a routine that has a similar set of steps each day because it is basic and regularly repeated.

Begin by familiarizing children with the steps that need to be taken to get ready to go outside, along with the terminology associated with them. Once the children are confident enough to vocalize and walk through the steps themselves, you can add questions that encourage the children to think about why they do the process in that order or if they have ideas to make the process quicker or more efficient. They will soon see which parts of the routine they can adapt and change and which they cannot.


8 apps and tools for classroom SEL

Social and emotional learning (SEL) has quickly become a cornerstone of K-12 education, because it helps students regulate their own emotions and teaches them to respond kindly to their peers.

SEL helps students build intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies. When students cultivate important social and emotional skills, such as self-management and social awareness, they can improve their success along with the school climate.

SEL focuses on five core competencies: self-awareness to help students recognize emotions, thoughts, and behaviors; self-management to help students successfully regulate emotions, thoughts, and behaviors; social awareness to help students take the perspective of others, including those from diverse backgrounds and cultures; relationship skills to help students establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse people and groups; and responsible decision-making to help students make constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions.

Research shows that school leaders believe SEL is a huge benefit to students. In fact, 98 percent of principals in a recent survey said they believe students from all backgrounds would benefit from learning social and emotional skills in schools.

Those principals said SEL can help improve school culture (99 percent), help students grow to become good citizens as adults (98 percent), improve student-teacher relationships (98 percent), and decrease bullying (96 percent).


6 reasons why science teachers should use simulations

Simulation has been around for more than 20 years, so what is compelling more science teachers and school districts to add it to their bag of resources? Just as early video games with their simply designed interfaces and limited functionality evolved into today’s fully immersive games, simulations have also evolved.

Moving from simple click-and-play applications, modern simulations now allow students to fully control the virtual environment, manipulate variables, and collect and analyze multiple outcomes. Using simulations expands the possibilities that are limited in just one classroom. The most developed subject area for educational simulations revolves around the STEM fields. We should always want to expand the educational opportunities that we see in STEM areas, mostly because these are the careers of the future. Here are some reasons why science teachers should use simulations.

1. Simulations allow for more lab experiences

With virtual simulations, students get to visualize and interact with concepts outside the realm of a traditional lab. They can manipulate the organelles of a microscopic cell or variables such as gravity and friction. Some simulations offer a full laboratory experience, thus allowing students to participate in labs that are typically reserved for teacher demonstrations. Simulations that recreate valuable experiments but are too laborious or difficult to control, such as Mendel’s pea plant experiment or breeding fruit flies, can easily be carried out in one class period.

2. Simulations make it easy for every student to participate

In one-to-one classrooms, simulations let each student practice and interact with scientific skills and concepts. This allows for multiple and varied data sets to be collected, analyzed, and shared in collaborative groups. When each student is fully engaged in the learning process, they can share their experiences and discuss the results with more confidence.


How to transform problem solving

Technology has become vital to our day-to-day lives and critical in the K-12 classroom. In a tech-saturated market, parents of our students have raised questions about how artificial intelligence (AI) will impact their future careers.

Whether you believe AI has potential to meet or surpass human intelligence, it is imperative that we equip students with skills to match the nearing demands of the future workplace. Computational thinking (CT) is the latest skill set that addresses the demands of the future workplace. CT enables us to analyze and process data algorithmically, and often visually. CT offers a process for problem-solving, where one develops a series of steps (an algorithm) to solve open-ended problems. Put simply, it’s a framework to approach problems like a computer would: by processing data in a well-defined series of steps.

Harrisburg School District implements a 5th “C”

By introducing our students and staff to CT as a thought process, we have been able to provide skills to more deeply engage in problem solving. Many standards identify the 4Cs of 21st-century skills—critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration—as the most vital skills needed for success today.

If educators and students begin using CT as a more systematic way of thinking about solving real-world problems, the better we can prepare our students for a future in computer science or STEM. At Harrisburg School District in Pennsylvania, we have taken initiative to teach the CT skill to our K-12 students. After all, computation is how the world around us operates.

Rallying staff, student, and parent support

With a clear, districtwide goal in mind, we partnered with Discovery Education and Tata Consultancy Services to support our vision for equity in STEM. The Ignite My Future In School initiative is a five-year commitment to transform the way our students learn. We adapted the program’s curriculum, career vignettes, and teacher training in collaboration with staff, students, and parents. With an emphasis on equity, we designed an approach that demonstrates our dedication to all support systems that surround our students.


Fixing the grade passback pain point

Grade passback is a pain point for educators and school systems. Just go online and look up the help desk for popular grading platforms and you’ll notice the cries for help from users:

“Anybody have a solution for passing a midterm and final letter grade to their SIS?”

“Who is having problems with grade passback?”

We all know that technology is supposed to save teachers time. But instead of restoring time, sharing grades to the gradebook or student information system (SIS) is stealing time—a teacher’s most valuable commodity. Uploading class rosters by spreadsheet or even manually entering records one at a time erases time for teachers who would rather be using that time to teach.

Here’s just one example: A district in Utah with 35,000 students reports that its teachers send an average of 50,000 results per week back to their SIS. That’s a massive amount of data that admins want posted in real time.

The importance of grade passback

Why is it important to share grades instantly across systems? School districts have been transitioning to a digital environment, and the more they go down that path, the more they depend on applications to deliver content and performance data.

As Melissa Loble, vice president of platform and partnerships at Instructure explains, “Technology has given us an opportunity to utilize data in order to identify the best methods for driving student engagement and creating impactful learning opportunities that might not otherwise be available.”

Technology also extends education’s reach. As education and tech become even more intricately entwined in the classroom and on our screens, we must also have responsive administrative systems.