Thursday, December 17, 2015

Reflections on Inquiry Learning - Just Jump in!

For the last three months I've been buried in my new graduate courses in a STEM Education master's program at California University of PA. One of the advantages of committing to this graduate program is that some of the projects we are trying to establish in the classroom are now part of for-credit courses, which is definitely a motivator. I am able to plan activities with the support of the program cohort and professors, and reflection has been in-depth.

My first semester included a general STEM education course and a physical science course. I studied science education basics, the Next Generation Science Standards, understanding common science misconceptions and how to address them, nature of science, project- and problem-based learning, engineering design process, constructivism, interdisciplinary learning, and inquiry learning.

Throughout the courses, I was given assignments to create lessons and activities that demonstrated inquiry learning. I saw this as the perfect opportunity to modify currently used lessons and to introduce some new challenges to my fifth graders.

Below are some of the projects that took place during the fall semester:
  1. Science Notebooks:The goal with science notebooks is to move students toward more independent thinking and analysis of their own understanding of content and processes. Students had a very hard time documenting learning in their notebooks, which is typical. Without worksheets and specific spots to fill in information, students are required to think more carefully about what they are learning and about how to organize their thoughts in an organized way. The good news is that the students are making progress - so wike they are not completely proficient in this task, they are moving forward. This is good news!
  2. Creature Feature, with an emphasis on design notebooks:  This year, we are working to convert our traditional "computer lab sessions" to a STEM Special. Our first project was called "Creature Feature," and each week during our scheduled time in the school's computer lab, students planned and worked on their creatures. Students were given the task of creating a "creature" using any materials and tools available. It could be digital, in the physical world, or a combination. They could work alone or in small groups. Training happened as needed, with mini how-to sessions scheduled weekly on such topics as how to use LEDs, how to create a lava lamp effect, and how to use Arduino materials. Individualized and small group support was provided for those who needed help with their specific projects, including Scratch support, training for LittleBits, and how to work with a Makey Makey. We were fortunate that our district STEM specialist joined us each week and provided additional valuable support. Projects were shared on the day of our Halloween celebration with adults and other students. Students worked up to the last minute making improvements to their creatures. Along the way, students also created "scary stories" that included their creatures, which was a great connections to our language arts program. As with the science notebooks, students had a difficult time writing down their plans, questions, problems, and modifications. Toward the end of the project, however, students began to realize the value of writing down their ideas. For example, one group who needed to recreate the lava lamp effect on the day of sharing creatures realized they should have written down the formula I provided during a training session. They had to do some research to find the formula, and they were successful. Students need support  with their notebooks and opportunities to use the notebooks as a resource so they can understand the benefits.
  3. Teaching Geometry with Scratch:  I have connected Scratch to math on a more informal level in the past. This year students are using Scratch as our introduction to fifth grade geometry, and it is part of their math instruction. Students are given the task of drawing various shapes, including a square, triangle, and circle. This was no easy task! Students benefited from collaboration, discussion of shapes with a need to understand the vocabulary, and having enough time to make mistakes, adjust, and keep trying. They also learned more about how to use Scratch programming along the way. Students took the task seriously, and some who began by spending a lot of their time with the artistic aspects, such as drawing a sprite and choosing various backgrounds, soon realized that they needed to focus on the challenge of creating shapes and learning the programming for their task. It was during this task that I noticed more students independently, without teacher prompting, using their design notebooks to write down their strategies and to record ideas they were getting from their peers. Students also were asking more questions about their work, and they showed progress with their programming along with a growing understanding of the geometry concepts. They also had MORE questions as they explored and made mistakes. When the designs did not match the task, students were excited to try to figure out how their various patterns, created by accident, were made. Fun!
  4. Mystery Matter: This was by far the messiest of our projects! Students began with a basic introduction to matter (solid, liquid, gas, plasma) and properties of matter. After the introduction, students were guided through the task of created data recording tables. The students would be given several mystery solids and liquids with the task of identifying various physical and chemical properties of the materials. The data table would be set up to record findings and would become part of their science notebooks. The task of creating the data tables, using Word, became a major learning experience for the students, who are used to being given pre-made worksheets for similar tasks. Student were also given training on how to use the tools and materials needed to test the mystery matter, such as scales, rulers, graduated cylinders, gram pieces, and more. Students had two days to work with the mystery matter, using safety goggles and gloves to keep them safe (students love this). Most students were only able to work with about three of the materials because they invested a lot of time exploring each item. We probably could have spent a whole week exploring, but we were not able to add on days because of our Thanksgiving break. As with the Creature Feature project, as-needed instruction was provided for groups. There were many questions about how to identify properties. For example, while the students had a quick introduction to density, many had questions about how to calculate the density of their materials. It was helpful to have several adults in the room to work with the groups, to ask questions, to clarify misunderstanding, and to learn along with the students. While the students had a lot of fun, they stayed focus on their tasks, and they were eager to learn. With hand-on discovery coming early in this chemistry unit, students were given the chance to use the tools and figure things out by doing rather than by reading about it. As students move through the unit, the expectation is that they will be able to get a better understanding of matter and properties because they have had these beginning experiences. As the teacher, I learned what is most challenging or confusing and can build lessons that support students in their understanding of complex topics. 
Here's what I learned from investing time in the development and implementation of these projects.

  • It's hard - but it's worth it. You really have to experience the type of learning that takes place through inquiry to truly understand how it changes how learners learn.
  • It's takes a lot of time to set up and to complete the tasks. Also worth it. The amount of learning that takes place as a result of investing time in planning and implementing projects is evident.
  • It's messy. Be prepared for messes. Take deep breaths, get students to help with set up and clean up.
  • It requires a lot of patience. Students and teachers will struggle through some challenges. Be patient, observe, ask questions, let students have the time they need to figure things out on their own, with guidance (not all the answers) given as needed.
  • There's more time to talk to and listen to students. With students taking the lead with the learning, teachers have more time to work with small groups and individual students to become partners in learning and to actually sit and talk to the students as co-learners.
  • Students want to be challenged. Students will appreciate being given challenging tasks and being able to be in charge of their learning. They will ask you for help, they will ask you for materials. They will ask for more projects!
  • It can work - just jump in! It can be intimidating to change a traditional lesson into something different. Take one lesson and give it a try. Start small if you feel overwhelmed. Get support from colleagues.
  • Students will have lots of questions. One thing that happened as we worked through these projects is that students had lots more questions the more we progressed through each task. Lots of whys, hows, and can you help me to do...? Lots of times students did not want to stop working because they were trying to figure things out, or they asked to stay in for recess, or they took their work home with them because they were determined to complete their tasks. THIS is what we wish for in all subject areas and with all lessons, right?
  • Support from outside the school is a great idea. If you can get help from parents, colleagues, and experts in a particular field, you and the students will benefit. With today's technology, it is easier than every to make connections. You don't have to know everything to introduce it to students. Just ask for help. 
I hope you will consider trying an inquiry project this year. Here are some basic resources related to the projects above. I could add a lot more but just wanted to provide some items to get you started.

Scratch - computer programming for kids
MakeyMakey - connect to Scratch to bring the digital to the physical world
LittleBits - electronic building blocks
Arduino - defined on web site as, "Arduino is an open-source electronics platform based on easy-to-use hardware and software. It's intended for anyone making interactive projects."
Science Notebooks -here and here
Design Process (there are several versions and no rules that you have to follow them exactly) - Engineering is Elementary
Introductory STEM Readings -  here and here

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Great Questions from Summer STEM Academy Participants


This has been my fourth summer facilitating technology-focused summer programs in our district. Sessions have included Photojournalism, Movie-Making, a Technology Academy, and, for the last two years, our STEM Academy. As technology and interests have changed, we have adjusted our program, and this summer we doubled the number of kids, grads 3-8, who participated. With each program, I've noticed that the children have great questions that help guide the program. Aside from questions about how to use materials and resources, here are some other questions that show kids are thinking...

1.  So now that I know what this does, what else can I do with this? This question is a great conversation starter. I usually give some examples, but I also ask lots of questions. I might ask, "What do you want to do with it?"  or "Is there something that you have in mind?" or I might say, "Tell me some of your interests and let's see if we can connect to ... ."

2.  How much does this cost? Kids, as it turns out, are not willing to spend a lot of money on gadgets, tools, etc. They might want to purchase an item they are using in our program, but they will not consider spending a lot of money if they don't think the item is worth it, even if they really like the item. They think about cost, asking parents, splitting the cost with a sibling, what else they are saving for, and upcoming holidays and birthday. These are not kids who just "want everything."

3.  What can I keep?  While the kids don't want everything, they do want something. We work on projects involving such materials as K'Nex and electronics. Some projects the children can take home, but others they have to disassemble and return to me. The children are obviously proud of their work and are slightly disappointed when they can't take home a project that they've spent several days working on. This is once again a great opportunity to have conversations that help these young children understand the materials they are using and the system within which they are working. It has allowed us to come up with solutions, such as taking photographs and video they CAN take with them. They've learned about how our district or an individual acquires materials and works within a budget. They've learned to document their work and how to post to a web site, and they've learned how to share materials and to care for materials that are used by others. When they work in pairs or groups, they don't need adult intervention to figure out what to do with finished projects. From youngest to oldest, the children learn to compromise in a most impressive manner. Their methods of deciding who gets what are very creative!

Understanding HOW to use STEM materials and resources and developing related skills is obviously a key component of our program. We do, however, want to help the children grow as leaders, which means encouraging discussions related to the above questions and others like them. We want the children to understand WHAT the materials are and to be able to make wise choices as consumers. We want them to think beyond our introductory lessons and to be able to test new ideas. We want them to ask us questions and to consider ideas that we might not have considered before and to be partners in this fantastic learning environment. Let's keep the questions coming!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Summer STEM Academy

It seems so long ago, but at the beginning of the summer I was part of our school district's two-week Summer STEM Academy. I facilitated the program and worked with 11 children entering grades 4-8 and also worked with the program's assistant, my daughter, who will be a senior in high school this year. My daughter and I have been running this program for three summers now, but this summer the focus changed from "technology" to STEM. In the past, there was a bit more of a focus on learning components of Microsoft Office and movie development, although there was the option for participants to choose their own areas of interest, which participants took full advantage of. This summer, however, with a bit of a change in the program, we added more hands-on electronic and engineering and connected some of the other science, math and technology pieces as they naturally occur in the projects that the children were doing, such as computer programming.

As in past summers, each child, my high school daughter, and I all took on the role of teacher and learner at different points. We didn't shy away from a task because it was hard or because we didn't understand the next step. In fact, at one point, as the children were working on their "K'nex bridge challenge," I overheard one child say, "This is really hard but really fun."  Each day I had to insist that the children take their break (recess) and also had to insist that they leave at the end of our day. And, each new day, at least one child would return excited to explain what he or she had worked on at home - not because it was required, but because the child wanted to.  

In this environment, age didn't matter. It didn't matter if you were a boy or girl. It didn't matter if you attending the same school. What did matter is whether you had something to offer - could you help one another, discuss the projects, work together? Could you share your trouble or what you learned? That was what mattered.  

It's a great experience to be in such a different learning environment, even for such a short time. While the traditional school year can't be the same, there are definitely moments that we can capture, such as in choice days or science workshops. And when children are given challenges and support, from the teacher and each other, they might find interests they didn't know they had, they might develop friendships they might not otherwise exist, and they might decide that learning is not something that is limited to school hours and a defined, teacher directed in-school task.

You can find out more about our Summer STEM Academy on our school website. There are some great resources and photos. Check it out here.

And here are quick some highlights from our STEM Academy:

1.  Using index cards to make a tower that would hold a hippo (to keep him safe from a crocodile) as a way to understand an engineering design process - resources from Engineering is Elementary.
2. Making paper circuits with copper tape, LEDs, and batteries.
3. Traditional and programmable K'nex engineering projects including a motorized elevator and a computer controlled bascule bridge - our hardest project!
4. Stop motion animation
5. A Rube Goldberg contraption that ended with an interaction with a computer where a motion in front of the computer's camera caused a program to initiate in Scratch (computer programming designed for children)
6. Several children began using Scratch for the first time.
7. Several children created their own web sites using Weebly; some took photos and included them on their sites, using photography techniques learned by our high school assistant, Angela Molishus; some developed blogs and started discussions; others embedded their Scratch projects onto their sites as another way to share their work.
8. Squishy circuits

Sunday, August 10, 2014

International Dot Day - Celebrate!

"International Dot Day, a global celebration of creativity, courage and collaboration, began when teacher Terry Shay introduced his classroom to Peter H. Reynolds’ book The Dot on September 15, 2009."

On September 15, we will once again celebrate International Dot Day. There are many ways to enjoy this great day: reading The Dot, dot art that celebrates creativity, connecting with others around the world, and reflecting on how we can make our mark.  

This year, we will continue with one of our newer traditions of having the students nominate a person or group they think should receive a Make Your Make Award. While we are encouraging our students, and adults, to think of ways they can make their mark, the Make Your Mark Award is given to those who are already making a difference in the lives of their families, in their communities, and around the world. Children take great pride in recognizing those they know are outstanding role models. Last year, our students nominated a parent who is a police officer/EMT and also the Hepatitis B Foundation, for which another parent works. Both nominees received a Make Your Mark Award for the great work they are doing, and they were thrilled! See more about the Make Your Mark Award on our classroom International Dot Day web site here.

Whenever we can recognize the good that is being done near or far, it gives us yet another reason to celebrate! 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

I took this photo while practicing some techniques with my camera. It immediately reminded me of this story from my kindergarten days.  

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Children in Charge

This year my fifth graders took charge of their learning.  This is nothing new for my learners. Even when I was in second grade, I designed projects based on individual interests, abilities, and the required curriculum.  Once you know your students, you have a starting point for lesson and project development.  At least, that's the way I do it.

This year, the difference is that the class was able to plan their own Valentine Day's party, and they far exceeded my expectations! Our "We Love the Classics" party was based on their reading of classic works of literature.  The party became what the children made of it, including food and activities related to the books and decorations to match as well.  The children spent their own time (their choice) typing directions for their activities.  They worked on decorations and created extensive menus (also not required) that matched the books they read.  Parents were sent on searches for special food items that were a must for each of five stations we would have at the party.  The activities were also crafted during free time and at home, including a giant "door" that students could walk through to get to one station, "Fantasy Island."  Incredible!  I received several messages from parents about how excited their children were about this projects - that they could not stop talking about it.  Remember, this was THEIR project:  no grade, rubric, test.  And yet, so much effort was put into this "assignment" you would have thought it was a final exam.

In the end, the academic value took care of itself.  There was much discussion about the classic books within small groups of children.  There were "how-to" pieces of writing developed and shared to help party-goers complete the activities.  Students learned about all the classic books as they traveled from one station to the next, and they practiced their presentation skills as they took turns running their own stations (room parents and teachers simply became observers and paper plate distributors). 

Find out what excites your students and then find out how to use it in your classroom. You might even get a cupcake out of it!

See our We Love the Classics web site here.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Exciting Book Launch

Exciting! Friday will be my class's amazing book launch 

Daisy Gets a Home:  One Librarian + One Teacher + One Dog  = 2 Best Friends Forever (BFF)

Each child wrote a picture book based on this very heartwarming and true story! For some, this is their first published picture book - they are so excited. Daisy the Dog will even be making an appearance. 

If you love young authors and want to send words of congratulations, click here: