Saturday, July 29, 2017

Summer STEM Academy 2017 - Not That Horrible

For six years, I have facilitated my school district's Summer STEM Academy (originally Summer Technology Academy). There are two, two-week sessions, and kids entering grades 3-8 attend. It is a great learning experience for the participants, and for me, as I am always looking for ways to challenge participants and get them excited about the STEM disciplines. Additionally, in the last couple of years, the program has seen more "repeat customers," which means I need to change each session a bit to accommodate those who have already attended. It's an ever-evolving program.

During each two-week session, I learn about the participants, their skills, and their interests. Then I create experiences that are new for the group, I work to build upon the skills some already have, and I create mini training sessions for anyone who is interested in a certain topic. For example, this year we had a mini 3D pen session and an Arduino session. About half the time we work together on specific activities. The other half the time the participants work on something of their own choosing. This routine works well and creates a community of learners who are working because they want to, not because they have to. Some participants will work by themselves, rarely asking for help, others work in groups on massive projects. Participants can be seen teaching each other new skills, collaborating across grade levels, and working through what might seem impossible so they can create their vision.

This year, we had two high school volunteers join us who were past STEM Academy participants. It's wonderful to have these amazing young people return to the program in this capacity. It's also exciting to hear current participants already making plans to return as volunteers when they are in high school. At the end of each session, some of the participants already began to make plans to come back next summer, and there were some participants who were making plans to stay in touch after the program ended. There is a sort-of "camp culture" feel to it when kids are truly enjoying themselves and making memories and friends that last beyond the program. It's great to see kids from across our big school district and across grade levels finding others with whom they have things in common.

At the end of each STEM Academy, I always reflect on how I can bring some of the STEM Academy routine to the regular classroom during the school year. I couldn't create an identical program, but I think about ways I could build community, inspire independent learning, and encourage our students to be both teachers and learners. It takes some creative planning, but it is possible to bring the "camp culture" to the classroom.

One of my favorite quotes from the program came from an 8th grade participant. He wasn't convinced at first that learning in the summer was for him. When we chatted about the program, he admitted, "Well, it isn't that terrible here." We laughed and I told him I think this might be the best customer testimonial for summer learning ever!

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Educon 2017 Session - Mental Health: Finding Help, Getting Help

Educon 2.9 takes place January 27-29 at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA. On Saturday, January 28, from 1-2:30 pm, in Room 209, I'll be leading a conversation about Mental Health, with a focus on mental health and mental illness as it relates to our school communities. The goal is to help each other become better informed, to share resources, and to simply provide a supportive environment for those who want to discuss this sensitive topic. Throughout the session, we will use a shared document to post notes and resources. Finally, participants will discuss some "next steps" that can be taken to help support mental health in our communities.

There will be a brief intro (statistics, short video clip, share-out) and then participants will join in small group discussions about challenging issues related to mental health, including discussions of how schools can support students, families, and colleagues with mental health needs. Here are some of the proposed questions. Keep in mind the conversation will be flexible to take into account participants' needs and expertise. 
  1. Are our learning communities designed to promote mental health for all?
  2. Do we know how to identify signs of mental illness? 
  3. Do we know where to go to find help for those in need? Do schools have supports in place to help children and adults who are part of our communities?
  4. Are schools responsible for reaching out to families or helping family members? 
  5. Are we keeping an eye on our colleagues? Is self-help possible?
  6. What are some next steps for our communities?

Consider attending Educon this year. It's a great opportunity to "recharge" during the winter months. If you are attending, I hope to see you at the Mental Health session. 

Take care!

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Sports and Learning

Today is "Sports Day" at school, when you can wear your favorite sports clothing. The ONLY sport-type clothing I own are a handful of Iditarod t-shirts. When I taught second grade, I used the Iditarod dogsledding race to teach the kids many things, and they and their families had a great time and made lasting memories.

The Iditarod race takes place the beginning the first Saturday in March. We used to prepare weeks in advance. You can check out some of what we did here (although I haven't updated the site since I moved to fifth grade).

You can find out more about the Iditarod and how you can use it in your classroom here:

What I am thinking about today is how project-based learning is an effective way to get kids excited about learning and to actually learn. It takes a lot of prep work, but it is worth it. Past students AND their parents often reminisce with me about one of their favorite parts of second grade - The Iditarod. Some have continued to follow the race years after first learning about it in school.

Here is just a quick list of what the children learned through this exciting sport:

  • Reading (fiction and nonfiction)
  • Writing (fiction, journaling, informational, news stories)
  • Data collection and analysis
  • Time zones, 24-hour time
  • Maps, geography
  • Addition, subtraction
  • Statistics and probability
  • Singing, dancing
  • Northern lights
  • Water color painting
  • Technology - tracking mushers and dogs
  • Community service and volunteerism
  • American history
  • Current events
  • Point-of-view
  • Animal care
  • Alaskan culture
  • Marketing

I encourage everyone to take a look at this event and the great resources provided for educators on the Iditarod web site. And they have fun t-shirts!!


Friday, August 26, 2016

First Week 2016, and Beyond...

"A Fresh Page...A Fresh Start" by Kalyan Chakravarthy Licensed under a Creative Commons 
Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY2.0). Accessed 25 Aug. 2016. 

There were lots of great things happening during our first week of school. Teachers were feeling excited to work with students and families. Rooms were arranged to be appealing to the kids. It's always fun to reconnect with the building and district community. We also got to meet most of our new students at our annual Meet and Greet. The kids seemed excited to return to school. They enjoyed meeting up with peers and getting a first look at their new classroom and new teachers.

Obviously, that "new class feeling" doesn't last for the whole year as we get to know each other and get comfortable with our group. That's OK and normal. But how can we keep the year fresh and exciting even if it's not new? Here are some ideas:

  • Reserve some time during the year to try something new. Sometimes we get busy and fall back into the usual routine. Put in on your calendar now and lock it in. 
  • Plan to have your students take the lead in learning. Let them teach you and the class. 
  • Invite parents and other community members into school to share their knowledge and skills with the class. You might have scientists, artists, or chefs in your midst!
  • Inquiry - If you do not already engage in inquiry-based learning, do some research and find out how you can incorporate inquiry into your lessons. Even if you just start by trying one thing, your students and you will benefit.
  • Creative writing - "school writing" might be required, but don't leave out the creative writing, and give kids choices.
  • Reading - Read along with your students. Read lots and lots and have kids read lots and lots. And talk about it.
  • Go outside - There's so much to learn outside the classroom. Get out of that room!
  • Party Plans - A lot of schools have holiday parties. Many times the teachers and/or parents plan. Let the kids plan. As appropriate with age, give them a budget, available supplies, and time to meet. Make a food, decoration, and activity committee and let the kids work together to have the party they want. Have parents moderate the committee meetings and help the kids connect with all the parents for donations. The kids will learn great skills and have fun. 
  • Play music - in the morning, during the day, dismissal. Make some playlists that kids and you will enjoy. Also, it will help kids build memories - music sparks memory. When they are 50 and hear that song, they will think back to those great school days!

How do you keep the excitement going?

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