Why this one STEM course has four different teachers

A STEM rotation model engages students in multifaceted projects with real-world implications

What does it mean to truly apply classroom knowledge? Years ago, application meant a comprehensive exam or essay. In today’s educational environment, students are encouraged to apply what they’ve learned, not just on tests, but during multifaceted, multimedia projects that bring relevance to lessons and help students realize how their learning is used every day in the real world.

Walking into one of our four STEM classrooms at Huntingdon Area Middle School, you won’t see students working quietly on worksheets. They’ll be huddled up in small groups, collaborating, brainstorming, critically thinking about how to solve the world’s problems. The expertise of four diverse teachers from different disciplines created a project-based, rotation model that has given middle school students a new realization that skills they learn in a classroom can be found in real-life situations, not just on a test.

In the summer of 2015, the district asked a technology teacher, a library media specialist, a math teacher, and a science teacher to create a STEM course that would be part of the students’ daily class schedule. The teachers decided to split their 100 students among the four of them and rotate every three days. Over the course of a nine-week project, students would use knowledge from all four teachers to finish their multifaceted, cross-curricular projects.

The ‘Big Picture’

Undertaking a large project over a long period of time helped students digest content in smaller doses while allowing each teacher’s strengths to shine during specialized and focused lessons.

“If I were to keep the same 25 kids for a semester, they’d have a great experience with aspects of science,” Samantha DeMatteo, the science teacher, told me. With the rotation, she added, students “are able to spend a few days focusing on other subjects in reference to the same project. Each day they can build on what they’ve already learned, which brings them one step closer to their goal: completing the project.”

Teachers and students recently completed their second project of the school year, which we called “Artificial Island Real Estate Agent.” Students created a 3D model of their island using scale drawings, rocks, and sand. The project also included research essays on environmental impacts, volume and mass calculations, and a comprehensive marketing plan to attract people to their newly created island. At the end of the project, students created models, brochures, drawings, and videos to guide a group presentation that they delivered to an audience of 100 of their peers.

Next page: How the rotation benefits time-management

“Students have to be great researchers to be great problem-solvers, but they also have to be articulate communicators,” said Sally Steward, the STEM library media specialist. “During the artificial island project, students were asked to create an advertisement and marketing plan to sell the homes on their island. We went in-depth on persuasive writing, copyright laws, plagiarism, and how to analyze media when differentiating credible and non-credible sources.” Although Steward doesn’t teach one of the traditional STEM subjects, we view research and writing as a major aspect in the “big picture” focus for our STEM course.

Helping students and teachers focus

When it comes to content and grading rubrics, the team uses Defined STEM, an online curriculum supplement with hundreds of lessons that put student prompts, videos, and articles at their fingertips. The Huntingdon STEM team chooses four performance tasks to complete during the school year, and dissects the content to fit each of their strengths.

“I like that I am not ‘pretending’ to be the expert on certain topics or spending hours outside of class each week teaching myself about environmental impacts and muscular systems to teach my lessons,” explained math teacher Ben Young. “We use each other as references and to bounce ideas off of. But even better, the students use us in the same way and can easily see how our disciplines aren’t that different after all.”

The format forces the teachers and the students to use their time wisely, because they know it’s limited. Technology teacher Matt Rakar said that students are rarely bored or distracted because of all of the activity happening in the classrooms. And, Rakar said, hands-on projects that used to “scare” him have now become the most fulfilling part of his work.

To integrate their work with Huntingdon’s curriculum, the STEM team works with core teachers to align projects with standards. Math and science teachers have reported increased test scores and engagement in their courses thanks to the hands-on experience from the STEM team.

Dividing long-term projects into attainable tasks helps students grasp concepts at a rate they can keep up with, and also challenges them in a variety of subject areas. The multifaceted projects and the rotation model create an environment where students can relate their knowledge and skills to the real world, which makes the STEM course not only educational but fun.

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