Thursday, December 19, 2013

Making Time for Science in the Elementary Grades

I constantly hear from elementary teachers that they don’t have time for science. In fact, some Wisconsin schools allow for no science specific time in grades K-2, which is clearly not adequate for preparing students for our 21st century world. Many schools only have one hour per week for grades 3-5. Students decide from a very young age whether or not they are science or math people. That's why programs like this one make sense and why we have to dispel the myth of math/science people. Administrators in particularly have the challenge of figuring out ways to support science teaching with current testing and state policy demands. It's important to figure out how effective science teaching can boost mathematics and reading scores (and better engage students), not detract from other education efforts.

So, how do we make time for elementary science?

1)      School communities have to establish science as a priority. When professional development support only goes to math and reading, that’s what teachers will feel more comfortable doing. Ideally, which subjects are linked to accountability should not set our priorities, what we feel is best for children should set our priorities. A word of caution: establishing science as a priority does not mean emphasizing college and career readiness to elementary students. It should come up, particularly as you bring in experts, but elementary (and often middle and high school) students aren’t motivated by talk of careers and college. It’s too abstract. Parents will buy into that as a reason to have more science taught, but making that an emphasis in classrooms could accomplish nothing but boring students. Science should be a priority because it engages students, it builds their ability to make informed decisions and judgments, and it connects their learning to the real world (a context aids in retention of learning and transfer of knowledge and skills among subjects).

2)      Be flexible with schedules. More and more I’m hearing teachers tell me that they have to spend x number of minutes on math, reading and writing every day, only using a canned curriculum provided by the district. I would argue that there isn't strong enough research evidence to narrowly use many instructional materials with “fidelity,” when the cost is damaging teacher motivation and professionalism. Let teachers make some professional judgments! If students are writing about science and it goes into writing time occasionally, that’s really okay. Or, if students are graphing and interpreting science data and it goes into math time, that’s effective learning, not a betrayal of a set curriculum.

3)      Be flexible with required reading. We’ve talked about an oil spill unit in some of my elementary science workshops, and teachers have said that they wouldn’t be able to read the book Oil Spill during their reading time. They can only read the required books within their curriculum.  Seriously? Teaching science content by reading relevant, non-fiction books during reading frees up science time to not be more literacy, but to actually be used for hands-on science activities (as it should be). This again is an area where teachers deserve some professional flexibility.

4)      Units that connect disciplines = effective learning. Another teacher told me recently that she could no longer teach the big interdisciplinary units she used to teach. The set math, literacy and writing curriculum did not allow for those types of connections. As these units go away, so goes a lot of the passion for teaching. I liked being able to teach about things that I thought were really cool, about current events in the world around us, and new science discoveries. Students clearly enjoy it too.  Admittedly, teachers should not always be allowed to select their own units. We don’t want dinosaurs or butterflies taught at every grade. A clear scope and sequence is important, but it can still allow for many paths to learning the content and gaining the skills. Teachers can readily use interesting phenomena in the world around us to connect to student interest and their own passions, within the frame of a K-12 continuum of learning – a win-win situation. These connections are what make learning fun!

5)      Develop your teachers. If teachers are uncomfortable teaching science, they won’t feel so bad about skipping it on occasion to do some extra mathematics or reading. If teachers don’t feel confident teaching it, it becomes very easy to let it slide, or just read about it occasionally. Teachers need support in using and/or designing quality interdisciplinary units, particularly those that involve real-world problem solving. The training and the science units don’t even have to be especially complex – giving students time to explore and observe the school grounds is relatively easy. Teachers don’t need to be trained with the goal of them having all the answers for students (impossible anyway). They just need to be comfortable saying, I don’t know, let’s investigate that together, and then be able to structure those student explorations.

6)      Use time efficiently. In my experience a fair amount of time is wasted in transitions and in students waiting for others to finish. I like the idea of STEM education baskets. When students finish work early, or there is a few minutes before the next transition, teachers typically have educational games and books for students. But, they could also have bins of materials on a cart like this one that students can use. Encouraging creative and unstructured exploration time to fill in time gaps benefits students of all ages. Materials in these baskets could include Legos, K’Nex, Tinker Toys, packaged STEM kits from curriculum companies, probeware, etc. For the vast majority of students, I absolutely do not think that more screen time is a good alternative to hands-on exploration, though I've seen several classroom guidelines allowing electronics use after work is complete.

7)      Do less testing! I don’t really need to point out to teachers that testing is beginning to take up too much time. The data frequently only tells you about student content knowledge or ability to go through a set procedure. If you’re not getting a real sense of student thinking and conceptual understanding from a test, I argue that it’s not something to spend time on unless you have to do it. If the tests aren't giving you unique and actionable information, you don’t need multiple school-wide reading and math tests each done three times per year, with additional classroom-based assessments in every subject weekly. Within a framework of standards-based grading (which is fortunately the norm for most elementary schools), ongoing formative assessment is much more important than large-scale tests. Teachers should be using well thought out common assessments across a grade level and talking about results and subsequent action plans. Such a framework is much more effective than another round of standardized tests.

8)      Provide instructional materials and supplies. If teachers have to always find their own science lessons and purchase the necessary materials, they’re not going to do it as often, as that clearly takes a lot of time. Science materials really do not have to be expensive. Just going outside with a notebook can produce great science learning. Basic materials can be requested from parents, asked for as donations from local stores or businesses (parent/PTA could direct this collecting), or requested within grants (see this grants page). Elementary teachers frequently do not have the expertise to develop their own science-based units or scour the web for high-quality lessons linked to their standards. Districts (or consortiums of small districts) need science experts to support that type of work. But, be cautious, just giving out science kits to teachers is not going to magically make good science teaching happen. I see a lot of kits collecting dust on shelves and a lot of boring cookbook science taking place because of kits. Teachers need time to collaborate around using science materials innovatively and effectively.

9)      From a policy perspective, science assessment could have a part within a state accountability system or a greater emphasis in local reporting of educational outcomes. If parents and community members have a better sense of how well students perform in science, particularly in comparison to particular college or career readiness standards, or other states or districts, the focus on it would certainly intensify in classrooms.

WE owe it to our children and our future to increase science teaching at the elementary level. Kids and teachers love it. How are you planning to help make this happen? 

*Would you like some citations for the claims above to help convince an administrator? Would you like more specific examples for anything mentioned above?  Let me know…

Friday, December 6, 2013

NRC Science Framework - Introductory Workshop Ideas

Teachers and school leaders often want a one day introduction to the landscape of new science standards. Importantly, Wisconsin's model academic standards (WMAS) in science remain the same. In consideration of science program reviews, some districts are looking to build on the WMAS with the National Research Council's Science Education Framework and the Next Generation Science Standards. A one day workshop can be the starting point for the more in depth process I outlined in my last blog post, though I think teachers would benefit from reading through the NRC Framework  beforehand (a guided book study perhaps?). I definitely do not think that groups of teachers should get a brief introduction to a new set of standards and then be left to implement a new science program in their limited PLC time. 

Here are links to the slides from some CESA 2 elementary and secondary standards workshops (note, there’s an extra unit idea at the end of the secondary slides with a HS life science focus):

When I start these workshops, I ask participants to think about their main goal(s) for their students’ science learning for the year. Because I see many teachers who get too hung up on covering the content, I want them to consider the big picture of science. I refer back to these ideas throughout the workshop, particularly when a teacher asks something like, “Why don’t they mention the stages of meiosis within these DCI’s?”

I next discuss the development of the NRC Framework and NGSS. I think it’s important to note that the NGSS were a state-led, non-federally funded effort!

We then review the structure of the standards, looking together at a page. What is this disciplinary core idea vs. topic view? How are we supposed to use the PE’s? What is a standard here? Notably, here in WI, we’ve decided that the standard is the whole page – emphasizing the practice, DCI and CCC connection. For some reason teachers rarely ask questions as we go through the structure, even though they have them (maybe it’s just a bit overwhelming). I make sure to discuss what the acronyms and numbers mean, as well as those little asterisks. I’ve found that this resource from NSTA on the three dimensions to be useful. I make sure to point out that each PE connects the three dimensions, showing the handy multi-color view provided when looking at standards on  I also note that ability to get more info by clicking on almost anything on those standards pages – linking directly to the framework and the CCSS (excellent!). 

Recently, I have next been going through some of the basics of designing a unit. We first talk about interesting phenomena in the world around us. Students (particularly those not generally interested in science/math) are really engaged by talking about issues in their community or on the news now. My units that I detail a little on my slides are oil spills (ES), Near Earth Objects (MS), and the Wisconsin wolf hunt (HS). There are certainly loads of other possibilities, and at the early elementary grades students could do fairly simple phenomena like animals, people and plants in changing seasons (very appropriate in WI with a wind chill expected to be -30ish next week!).

I then imagine that I’m a teacher at a particular grading wanting to connect a unit to a particular phenomenon. I ask, does this work with the DCI’s and the PE’s designated for my grade?  I have found that interesting phenomena don’t work at every grade in K-5, but do connect within every grade band somewhere. And, they typically connect across science disciplines and build well into engineering connections.

After discussing connections to students’ background knowledge, and having some type of entry event to kick things off, we do some modeling. I emphasize that modeling is an iterative process where students create some sort of representation of their thinking. In the elementary PD, teachers draw out the basics of an ecosystem/food web at a local river. We then discuss the oil spill incident (and I’d do some background with students on what oil is). We go back to the model (drawing) of the river and create an after scene—adding an oil spill to it and asking how it would affect the ecosystem. Teachers ask, so is modeling just drawing something? No. It could be 3-D or computer-based. It should likely include some words and details. The key is that it shows student thinking before the learning activities and is used as a tool to develop and assess their thinking throughout the unit. Tools for Ambitious Science teaching has a fabulous primer on modeling.  I have teachers do this modeling in groups, as it fosters some great conversations. As a teacher I could see doing the modeling as a whole class, particularly at the beginning with lower elementary students. In the end, I would have students create the models individually to assess their learning, although I don’t have teachers do that step. 

I only describe the interim learning in brief. We do reference and read from the Engineering is Elementary unit on oil spills. It has a lot of great ideas. Many learning experiences will happen between the introductory modeling and engagement steps, and the final model creation and presentations. In the workshop, the learning activities that we actually do include creating an experimental or engineering model, and going through writing claims, evidence and reasoning.

To do a little hands-on science, we do what’s really an engineering activity. Teachers try out some sample oil spill clean up. Within the PD I ask teachers to design how to do these tests, though I’d give elementary students a bit more structure. After they model an oil spill clean-up (vegetable oil with black oil based food coloring in it put into water), we discuss the benefits and limitations of the model with this worksheet.

Next, we discuss the claims, evidence and reasoning methodology to write a good conclusion. Notably, the claim is not a hypothesis here. The claim is the beginning part of the conclusion students are writing after they’ve done the investigation. Evidence can be pictorial or written, qualitative or quantitative.
I use this CER template to guide this writing (built from work of Joe Krajcik and Eric Brunsell). 

There is some review time built in here. How can we include authentic engineering? What NGSS practices and crosscutting concepts did we use in our activities? How would you assess this work (think PE’s)? 

Teachers at this point are anxious to think about their own lessons and units. I use this worksheet to help guide those small group discussions around improving a particular lesson. I ask teachers to bring a lesson or their books to the workshop. After some review time (about 30 min depending on how engaged they are), we create a set of considerations together for what teachers should do as they review their current lessons.

I tend to think that the NGSS appendices (see the left column here) are an underutilized resource, so we jigsaw them next. When groups report out, I ask them to especially focus on how these appendices could be used by groups of teachers to support their implementation efforts. In the secondary session we discuss appendix K for quite a while, including an exploration of the pros and cons of an integrated science program. 

At this point I acknowledge that standards purists would likely prefer teachers to build units and lessons up from the standards, rather than tweaking what they already have (being practical I think both are legitimate parts of reconsidering your science instruction). We use this Understanding by Design template to map objectives for an NGSS unit (basic idea from Eric Brunsell). I review this template with ideas included to describe the unit planning process.  Within this discussion, we talk about how crosscutting concepts (CCC’s) can provide the frame for essential questions. Scientists and engineers certainly have particular lenses for looking at the world around them—these are basically represented within the CCC’s. So, I discuss how you might look at a particular phenomenon through the lens of each of the CCC’s (on my slide of ideas, I’m considering brain-eating amoeba in ponds). I credit Emily Miller with this CCC and essential question idea.

Finally, we have a little time for planning. What are you main takeaways from the day? What are your short and long terms goals? How are you going to share what you’ve learned with others within your school/district?

And, at the end of the workshop, I always offer my willingness to answer questions by email as they come up – kevin-dot-anderson-at-dpi-dot-wi-dot-gov! 

*I want to also note the great work done by Dave Bydlowski and Greg Johnson of the Wayne County RESA. Check it out here for further PD ideas.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Steps for Implementing New Science Standards

Reviewing a district science program and implementing changes to it is not a simple or straightforward process. I worry that district or school leaders might approach the change by aligning their content at each grade to new standards and adopting some new curricula. Recent research-based science guides (such as the NRC Science Framework and the Next Generation Science Standards) will take much more in-depth and ongoing professional development to use well. I've thought through some basic ideas for what teacher work time and workshops should look like as groups re-imagine their science programs. I decided to include time frames that are a bit dreamy, being beyond what districts might actually consider reasonable. Though, to do the work well, I do think teachers will need even more time than I list here. Notably, this process would take multiple years, where teachers have additional time in PLCs between the meetings detailed below to share ideas, analyze student work samples, and review progress.

1) Vision - Teams of teachers start with considering their own overarching goals for students and vision for science education in their district. It would be ideal to have parents and/or community members as part of this conversation, particularly bringing in science professionals. I don't think teachers should determine their vision for science in their community alone or solely based on the NGSS. What's important in your community?  I like this goal statement from NRC as a vision. 
*would likely take a half day

2) Basic Understanding - Teachers then receive some help in understanding the structure and intention of the new standards. Some schools might have a stellar science teacher or two who could go to some workshops/webinars, read the framework and facilitate the learning process for the other staff. For districts looking to NGSS as a guide, this CESA 2 website has some introductory PD resources, slides and activities that were developed in WI. NSTA also has fabulous webinars for understanding the NGSS.
*would take at least a half day

3) Lesson Example - Teachers want to see examples of standards-based instruction. So, next, I think teachers would benefit from being led through a hands-on lesson, where each step is linked explicitly to elements of the standards. The NRC Framework's practices and crosscutting concepts would be important to highlight in this lesson, though the way the content, practice and big ideas connect will be the critical piece (three dimensional learning). The facilitator should explicitly state his/her thinking for how/why to link these three dimensions throughout the sample lesson. Teachers could also use models and strategies for how to modify their existing lessons to address these concepts and facilitated time to try it themselves.
*would take at least a half day

4) Audit of Current Practice - Some schools make a brief review of their current practices and materials part of the process, but really introspecting on current work takes significant time. What do lessons in classrooms look like now? Do outside experts observing our practice agree with us on the level of rigor and inquiry in our lessons? Teachers need to be safe to honestly reflect on the shortcomings of their science instruction. With a solid understanding of the vision of the new science standards for instruction, they'll likely see room for improvement. In this audit stage, to get comfortable with this change, most teachers like to first map out how the content they teach will change with the new standards. I repeatedly emphasize they don't have to entirely change their content in one year! It's CRAZY to think teachers can effectively change science content and practice in a year! Seriously, nuts! Be nice to teachers and carry out this process of changing content and pedagogy over at least three years (realizing true alignment will take even more). Aim for one unit each year. This work of mapping out content and instructional practice really needs to take place within a K-12 team. If you're looking to the NGSS, the appendices provide support for this mapping process (see the left column links). Appendices J and K specifically provide secondary course mapping ideas. In this process, teachers also decide whether or not they want to pursue adoption of new curriculum (though it will likely take 3-5 years after standards are released for quality, aligned materials to be produced). Additional discussion points in a science program audit would include course sequences and offerings, resources available, school culture and community/business partnerships.
*would take 2-4+ days depending on curriculum adoption plans

5) Ongoing PD - As they begin to rethink their curriculum and pedagogy, teachers continue to build their understanding of science and engineering practices, particularly in light of their current practice. Teachers need particular help in the high leverage areas of scientific modeling (great resource - Tools for Ambitious Science Teaching) and science talk (see TERC's Inquiry Project). Considering how to differentiate instruction to engage all students in these practices certainly makes sense here.
*would take at least a half day

6) Progression of Big Ideas - The big ideas or crosscutting concepts of science will be less familiar to teachers than the practices and will need their own attending to. The process would be similar to building understanding of the practices, but the crosscutting concepts can be uniquely used to generate driving questions for unit development. "How does weather shape the world around us?" brings in cause and effect. "What happens at microscopic through macroscopic aspects of a polluted river ecosystem?" brings in ideas of scale and potentially system models. "How have societal energy sources and usage changed over time and why?" brings in energy and matter as well as stability and change. Lessons linked to the world around us offer natural differentiation tools to meet the needs of all learners. Driving questions linked to a consistent set of big ideas offer a natural means to link science learning within and across grade levels.
*would take at least a half day

7) Assessment - Assessment and the use of assessment data needs support across all curricular areas, so professional development would not have to always be science specific. The use of portfolios, notebooks, and performance-based assessments is, perhaps, more intuitive in science, and these methods could use more emphasis. It's difficult to meaningfully include the science and engineering practices or crosscutting concepts in a multiple-choice test, though I think groups like NAEP are making progress in that respect. A recent conference at ETS on science assessment brought together the top minds in the field, and many of their presentations and reports can be found online. The National Academies released a report in 2014 on linking assessment to the Next Generation Science Standards. Achieve recently published some sample secondary, performance tasks.
*would take at least a half day, with ongoing reflection on assessment results

8) Engineering - Science teachers rarely have engineering backgrounds, and the move toward STEM and real-world science instruction requires engineering connections from K-12. While many WI schools use curricular programs like PLTW and EiE, simply adopting these or similar programs isn't going to cut it. Teachers need significant time to gain an understanding of engineering and how to build engineering extensions for their science units. Again, this work needs to be done vertically so students do not test bridges and clean oil spills in grade after grade. Many great resources continue to come out to support engineering education. I particularly like all that PBS is doing with STEM!
*would take at least one day (though could be combined over many days with a district STEM initiative)

9) Interdisciplinary Connections - Particularly at the elementary level, we need to think about how to link learning across subject areas. Science teachers, like all teachers, need further support with interdisciplinary instruction. If I started a school, it would be focused on project-based learning (PBL), and I think that interdisciplinary, real-world approach is the best way to teach science (and everything!). Great PBL resources can be found from Edutopia and BIE.
*would take at least one day, particularly at the elementary level

10) Equity - In the process of rethinking science programs, a focus on all students is critical. Teachers continually ask for specific examples of how to structure their classes and lessons for differentiated learning. It's not easy! Authors of the NGSS provided some support that could be applied regardless of the standards being used in a district. Appendix D and the related case studies provide a wealth of ideas for teachers to support all of their students in meeting rigorous science standards.
*would take at least one day

11) Evaluate and Improve - Both formatively and summatively, teachers need time to reflect on these changes in practice and the effectiveness of implementation. This process should involve reviewing student products and other assessment information to consider areas for improvement. The cycle never ends!
*would take at least a half day and PLC time moving forward

Added bonus - Brian Reiser, a science education guru at Northwestern, wrote this useful article on effective science instruction and structuring professional development to improve science programs. 

What am I missing on this list?  Is it too unrealistic?  Let me know your thoughts...

Thursday, October 31, 2013

STEM Education Programs Continuum

Many school programs billed as STEM don't quite meet the full potential of STEM education (often because they only hit one or two parts of the acronym, Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics). I tend to think of STEM programs on a continuum:
  1. "Beginning" - programs that have less potential to meet the goals I noted in my last post and are often the first steps that schools and districts take
  2.  "Developing" - programs that begin to have potential, but often don't bring people and resources together well enough
  3. "Realizing" - programs that have the potential to realize a true vision of STEM
Now, I want to put out a disclaimer here. I'm not saying your STEM program is terrible if you're doing the first type of activities I mention below. These ideas can be good starting points. I'm arguing that you may not have the impact you hope for without moving further on this continuum. I think a good definition of STEM comes from Tsupros, Kohler, & Hallinen, 2009. STEM is “…an interdisciplinary approach to learning where rigorous academic concepts are coupled with real-world lessons as students apply science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in contexts that make connections between school, community, work, and the global enterprise enabling the development of STEM literacy and with it the ability to compete in the new economy.”

Beginning STEM Programs

A lot of STEM programs are separate from the core school curriculum:
  • Students build with LEGOs(R) or create paper towers in after school STEM clubs. 
  • Teachers rotate bins of materials across classrooms, containing equipment such as blocks, Tinker Toys, LEGOs, K'Nex, marble runs, dominoes, Zoobs (R), gears, Trio sets (R), Katie Kubes (R), tangrams, Magnatiles (R), Keva Structures (R), etc. 
  • STEM is only done in tech ed classes, not linked to other subject areas (Tech Ed teacher to me, "You can't design and test rockets in science, we do that in my class").
There is also a problem of purchasing programs that are labeled as STEM, but don't really fit the bill. I have seen one boxed program, for example, on a few lists of good STEM programs. This program does not have sufficient scientific reading material, in-depth inquiry-based projects, connections to real community problems, or adequate mathematics learning to be considered STEM.

I just read a quote from a superintendent about a county STEM forum that shows a common misconception: "Kids learn when they touch and feel it." What exactly are they learning? If you're just building a bridge with Dots candy and toothpicks to see whose can hold the most weight, it might be fun, but you're not really learning any science or math content (okay, maybe some spatial reasoning). Those math and science connections have to be made EXPLICIT, which is not just plugging numbers into a formula or mentioning gravity when discussing rockets (see this article from ASEE).

Developing STEM Programs

To be considered a "developing" STEM program, I would argue that you actually need these math and science connections. You need teachers from all STEM disciplines (and ideally literacy, social studies and art too) coming together to design projects. It might not be perfect, but at least one integrated unit should have happened, with plans for more. At the elementary level, one teacher could make these connections in his/her classroom, but I see many schools strictly separating out science, reading, writing, art, and mathematics time. Real life and good learning does not artificially separate these subjects! Those silos and scheduling walls must be broken down to do STEM well. Programs such as Engineering is Elementary (EiE) and Project Lead the Way (PLTW) might be considered "developing" if they are not their own separate gig--isolated from other subjects in elementary and only found in tech ed in secondary. Though, with extra work, there is the potential for them to be linked to high-quality, integrated work, and end up in the following, "realizing" category.  

Youth Apprenticeship job programs are another type of venue for STEM learning. They're a great idea that can include real-world, hands-on experiences. The problem is that students usually take math, science, English, etc. for half the day and these core classes often have no explicit connection to the apprenticeship work. Core teachers just go with the regular material, and students are left on their own to transfer that learning to their job experience (note: they can't do that well - see Bransford). I've heard that some programs do well at linking the classroom learning to the real-world job experiences/learning -- do you know of any? I'd love to observe one in action. 

Realizing STEM Program

I think the STEM Academy in Fond du Lac, WI has some potential to be called, "realizing." As shown in this news article, they have a fabulous partnership with Mercury Marine. They brought in their community to discuss what skills students need to develop--great planning. It appears that interdisciplinary, project-based work will be the norm, though I'll have to go check it out myself next time I'm up there. A question that I have though - why is it a charter school instead of being embedded into an existing school? Why are there no STEM-themed schools that aren't charter schools in Wisconsin?

Edutopia continues to be the king and queen of progressive education excellence. They provide a lot of specific details about MC^2 STEM High School in Ohio. Students do 10 week, interdisciplinary units that connect all subjects and result in a capstone project! These projects often involve connections to STEM companies and allow students to follow their passions. I also really like their focus on mastery-based learning. Our traditional means of assessment (i.e., fact and procedure-based instead of performance-based) do students a disservice in STEM.

Where is your STEM program at?  How could you improve it to have greater potential for engaging non-traditional students and increasing the competence of all students in math and science, as well as engineering and technology?

Saturday, October 26, 2013

STEM Education Programs - What Really Makes It STEM?

Within my barrage of emails, I constantly hear about another new school or district STEM program. I see the STEM label being put on such a wide variety of programs that I worry it will lose its power and potential. In fact, STEM is sometimes a rebranding of what's already being done, and when improved results aren't forthcoming, it could be labeled a failure. So, I wanted to put out some ideas to consider when creating STEM programs and note some common mistakes in this process. Next time I'll put forth a framework for a continuum of STEM programming--from little potential for real change to large potential for success.

What Are Your Goals?

First, you need to spell out your specific goals for a STEM program and how you'll determine if you met those goals. Here are some of the common goals along with potential challenges with them:
1) It will help build tomorrow's workforce.
This idea is important, but problematic. Do you know the labor trends in your region? Do you have data on careers your students end up going into? Unless you're using a source such as the NSC, how will you know you're successful? I linked to this STEM article last time, but I think it bears repeating that STEM isn't just about jobs (though that's important), it's about creativity and allowing students to explore their passions. It's about a STEM literate populace who can implement design thinking and systematic, team-based problem solving in any profession.
2) It will get students excited about school and learning.
I like this goal, and I think STEM has this potential if done well.  But, if STEM is only an elective or after school program, it's not going to engage many students that wouldn't have been otherwise--they chose to be there. On another note, many educators claim that creating "real-world" STEM connections will motivate students. I'm not so sure. The vast majority of my 8th graders were not thinking seriously about their future career. They were thinking about the boy/girl in 1st period. They were often motivated by an interesting, challenging, collaborative task, not necessarily the so-called "real-world" nature of it (see Dan Meyer's blog for more along these lines). 
3) It will help students learn more mathematics and science (and do better on those tests).
Yes, it can. The problem is that mathematics and science content must be brought in explicitly. Students are not good at transferring knowledge from one subject to another. Most teachers were not taught this way and are not proficient at teaching in this way. Who is teaching STEM? Some STEM programs that I see are taught by tech ed teachers who were not trained as math or science teachers, just as other programs are taught by math and science teachers weren't trained to bring in engineering connections. STEM has to be an integrated and valid part of the core curriculum for it to be successful with this goal.
4) It will attract girls and minorities to STEM fields.
I think this goal is extremely important, but I don't see evidence that it's happening yet. This problem is complex and takes concerted effort to really be successful. For example, I like the idea of Goldieblox. There is a storyline given that young girls could relate to and there are real engineering principles involved in the designing girls do with the toy. But, my daughter put it together once and was done with it. It didn't connect to her personally or to the relationship-type play that she enjoys.  With minority and female students, they often lack role models and leaders in STEM. You have to be willing to work hard to find (or cultivate) some.
Simply building things won't cut it; having students get paid for things they design and build might help. Giving a real-world scenario won't cut it; having students go out and meet the family for whom they're building a ramp for their handicap child might help.
5) It will keep us "competitive." 
It might seem that everybody is starting a STEM program. If you work in a state or district with open enrollment, that could be a good reason to move forward. It's still essential to take the time to consider the needs of your unique community and include them in the planning (with real partnerships, they're also often a great source of financial and material support). It might make more sense to emphasize manufacturing engineering than software engineering, or mining engineering rather than electrical engineering. Even if you decide on a canned curriculum or program, putting in the extra effort to tailor the projects to your community can help build engagement and involvement.

Common Mistakes
1) Inadequate teacher understanding - I have worked with a few teachers from a district that began a "STEM" initiative, but six months in they still had little sense of what STEM really meant. High quality professional development that includes ongoing coaching and collaboration is essential; a couple workshops, even those containing some good, hands-on activities, won't cut it.
2) Adopting a program = STEM - I think programs like PLTW and EiE have potential, but adopting them doesn't necessarily equal STEM education. They are both frequently used devoid of substantive connections to mathematics and science. Students building something doesn't make it STEM.
3) Housing it only in tech ed - As with the above problem, when you house STEM only within the technology education department, you are much less likely to have effective connections to science and mathematics. Also, many students will likely not be part of it beyond one required semester.
4) Not creating or supporting teacher leaders - You really need someone on site and at a close grade level to effectively lead collaboration and directly support other teachers. Ideally, this person would also have at least a period per day to coach others, modeling lessons and observing classes.
5) Only doing STEM after school - While an after school STEM program is a fine idea, you will only get the same students who would have showed up for science or engineering club anyway. There will be few girls, few minorities, and few children who have to ride the bus because their parents can't pick them up.

I'm sure there are more possible goals and other common mistakes, what else should we all be considering here? 

My next post will discuss the continuum of programs, with varying potential for successfully rocking the STEM boat...

Thursday, October 17, 2013

STEM Education Grants

Welcome to my blog on STEM education!

For my first post on this blog, I thought I’d write about something frequently on my mind as a STEM educator—finding grants for projects. First, check out this list of grants that will actually work for Wisconsin educators. Many grant sites have links to all sorts of junk that doesn’t really apply in Wisconsin or to typical teachers. I didn't. Did I miss any good sources? 

In writing grants, I have five main pieces of advice:
1) Create a Real Needs Statement
Don't just write down a bunch of data here. While some numbers might make sense, a story is much more compelling.  I really like this grants story found on Edutopia.  It does a nice job of making the need for new technology real. Also, don’t focus too much on the standard need of preparing for 21st century jobs. That’s obvious. STEM education has a lot more going for it, as seen in this article from Madison Magazine. STEM has the potential to really connect with students’ hearts and minds, and that deserves attention. 

2) Create a project that is actually innovative
I hear teachers say, “I want a SMART board. I want iPads/Chromebooks. I want probeware.” Well, so does everyone else. Yes, funders likely agree that these tools are great for engaging students, but you need meatier innovation than that. I like the concept of the Making the Future grant idea from Cognizant.  Share a vision of the future in your grant. If your school or classroom could look like anything, what would that be? Share that amazing vision in your grant! Each grant will likely only be one piece of that vision, but funders like to be linked to the school/classroom of the future. Finally, consider how your project could be innovative not only in topic, but in audience served (community LEGO night), delivery methods (football game jumbotron?), and partnerships created (see next). 

3) Partner Up
Having only your school/district name on a grant is a potential red light for funders that your project is not going anywhere big. You want to show that your project is linking to your community, to businesses, to other schools. In grant reviewer speak, links = it’s going to have a real impact and it’s going to be sustainable. Say you’re asking for probeware. Discuss how a local scientist has volunteered to come help the students use the equipment (for example, water quality is tested everywhere). You want a 3-D printer. Discuss how an engineer at a local manufacturing facility is going to come in a talk about the future of manufacturing, which doesn’t take place in a dingy shop; faculty and students from the local tech college are often eager partners too. Ideally, you'll be able to show partners how it will be a two-way street.

4) Measure and Share Success
Navigating the data morass can be a struggle in education. But, understandably, grant agencies want some real proof that their money made an impact. In Wisconsin, we have a handy new tool, WISEdash, that includes post-secondary enrollment, ACT and AP scores going back a few years. It’s not likely your new STEM program will show growth in those areas in one year, but perhaps in a three year project.  In one year, you can show increased enrollment, hours of teacher training, changes in teacher instruction/curriculum, records of meetings with partners, and pre-post surveys on student interest in STEM or teachers’ understanding of STEM. If you use a valid and reliable survey, you’ll really wow them (like this one on science teaching efficacy).  Additionally, when you begin to see success, you need to share it widely; be sure to mention how you’ll showcase the funding agency or the partnership in those publicity pieces.

5) It takes effort, don’t give up. 
So, you put 20 hours into writing your grant outside of your normal work hours, because, of course, you’re an educator and that’s how it works. And, then you don’t get it. Don’t cry and give up (see Dweck’s mindset research).  You can modify and send the same basic letter or proposal to a lot of places.  Send it to local businesses.  Be persistent!

Any further grant stories or suggestions you'd like to share?  Add them to the comments below...