Tag Archives: Critical Thinking

Why STEM? An idealist rant from my inner hippie voice.

4 Sep

Tonight after reading a post by Kim Crawford, titled “Don’t Forget to Show Them Who You Really Are” I started to think about how I present myself in this blog. By nature, I do not struggle with vulnerability. Unlike Kim, I’m more likely to need to build a few walls then take them down. But her post got me thinking. Do I ever really share the part of me that is a peace-loving, wildly idealistic optimist that just wants the world to stop making itself so sick, or do I keep that part of me hidden so as not to come off as an “anti-intellectual”?

So, I’ve decided to share my completely self-serving idealist hippie reasons for pushing STEM in schools. I’m going to try not to self-censor or over edit. If it’s a little jumbled, please be gentle. 

In the media and the white papers, improving STEM curriculum in schools is promoted as the means by which we will ensure our national security and create the pipeline of skilled, technical workers that will be needed to keep our high-tech world running and progressing. While I don’t undervalue the importance national security or a skilled work force, these are not my motivators for pushing STEM in schools.

My desire to see STEM improve in schools is based in my desire to help students develop the skills I believe they will need in order to create the world I want to live in and that they will have to live in. What can I say, it’s sounds cheesy when I say it out loud, but there it is, my reason for pushing STEM in schools. 

I want to live in a world where, when a problem or obstacle presents itself, people attempt to solve it, and don’t immediately look to someone else to fix it or blame someone else when it doen’s get fixed. I want to live where people from every race, sex, religion, and age can empathize with one another and collaborate to create positive change.  I want to live in a world where people who think about their actions and the impact their actions will have on others drive innovation and progress. I’m not naive. It won’t happen in my lifetime, but I can still want it and I can still take steps to try to make it happen.

I sometimes judge myself harshly. I should be championing the efforts to keep music, art and physical fitness in schools. They are equally important and they are the reason I stayed in school. I guess I see the current focus on getting STEM into schools as an opportunity to keep these activities from disappearing altogether for now. Art with an emphasis on applied math and technology. You can can make that happen. Physical activity with an emphasis on applied physics, technology and engineering. You can make that happen. With STEM as the buzzword of the moment, you can say, “Don’t worry! It’s not an art lesson, it’s a STEM lesson” and no one will question.

I’m technically an advocate for SHTEMPALM… but that sounds a little silly, right?

I’m getting a little punchy and it’s a little late, so before I back out and save this as a draft that never gets posted, I think it’s time to sum it up. 

I want to make sure that students engage in problem-solving and critical thinking especially around issues that are relevant in their lives. I want them to think about problems and to work together to find and design solutions. I want them to have the information and the skill sets they need to make their solutions realities. I want them to learn to fail with grace and to bask in the intrinsic joy that comes with success. I want them to build a beautiful world for themselves.

Peace. 😉

LEGO WeDo Vehicle Challenge: Using WeDo kits with older students

20 Jun

The LEGO WeDo kit is designed and marketed for early elementary children. It’s so basic that even a first grader can use it, but be careful not to write this kit off as a “just-for-the-little-kids” kit too quickly.

This year, one of my favorite mini-lessons with the 7-9th grade students in the after school STEM club was this “WeDo Vehicle Challenge”:

Design a WeDo vehicle that has either 2, 3, or 4 wheels. Use only the pieces in the Wedo kit. The vehicle does not need to have steering, but it must be able to drive forward and in reverse. Innovation is encouraged. You have two class periods (1 hour each). We’ll present at the end of the second.

The kids usually take a look at the WeDo kit and presume the challenge will not be much of a challenge. Once the students get started, it isn’t long at all before they realize what makes it challenging; there is only one motor, the motor is fairly heavy relative to the parts, and that the axle sticks straight out of the center of the motor. Hmmm….

I’m guessing the challenge is probably easier for students that have prior experience working with LEGO kits and robotics; I’m not sure. (Let me know if you try it.) All my students were new to working with the NXT kits when I tried the WeDo lesson. I wanted to see how they worked when asked to think out of the box and to be creative. Following a blueprint is great for developing spatial skills and following instructions, but it doesn’t necessarily foster innovative thinking.  I found that forcing the students to work with the limited parts of the WeDo kit encouraged them to be persistent, to attempt multiple solutions, to redesign and improve, and to work together.

I’m curious if other teachers and after-school educators have tried using the WeDo kits with older students? Let me know!

Here are a few examples of our WeDo vehicle designs if you are curious… (The kids filmed the clips.)

Sandwich bag saves the day.

4 Feb

If you plan to launch a LEGO WeDo program with your little ones, here is a tip.

Buy a box of sandwich bags.

Yesterday, we revisited a lesson with the first grade that had not gone well the previous week. This time the lesson was a success. The only difference? A sandwich bag… (ok and a good reflective conversation between two teachers.)

In the lesson, students construct a model using eleven pieces from their LEGO WeDo kits.  The model has a motor turn a wheel that drives a belt that turns a second wheel. In my original lesson plan, students were instructed to open the tub, identify and remove the pieces they saw on the screen, close the tub, and build the model. I knew it would be important for the students to have only the necessary pieces in front of them and I thought having the kids separate them from the remaining pieces before building the model would be a good way of keeping the parts they needed separate from those they didn’t.

But first graders are first graders and my careful planning still backfired. Here’s why…

After some effort, each pair of students found and took out most of the pieces they needed, closed their tubs and started to build their models just as I had instructed. Unfortunately, the minute they experienced frustration or doubt regarding the construction of their model, they assumed they had not “done it right” and opened their tubs to look for the “right pieces” or the “missing pieces”.

This activity that I had intended to last no longer than 10 minutes was suddenly creeping up into the 20 minute zone and with the exception of one pair of students that had followed directions to a tee, every other pair had LEGO pieces all over their towels and were not at all close to completing their model.

Yikes. It was definitely time to reflect. Was this lesson too difficult for our first graders?

After class, I spoke with my co-teacher about what had happened during the lesson and asked how he suggested we revise the lesson. He suggested we guide the next group of students through the tutorial, step-by-step, identifying each piece and assembling the models together as a class.

I respect my co-teacher and his ideas and this for me was not an acceptable solution.

One of our main goals in implementing a robotics program at such a young age is to immediately immerse our students in an environment where they can solve problems by working together and develop an understanding that there are many ways to solve the same problem.

Sure, if our goal is to have a room full of kids build a bunch of  little models that work correctly, then a step-by-step lesson would work well. But making them follow step-by-step directions, would completely defeat the purpose of the program. I already know I can get a room full of seven-year-olds to do what I tell them. The question is can I not tell them what to do, and instead facilitate their learning process when they are given challenging tasks to accomplish as a team?

I shared these concerns with my co-teacher and he was receptive and willing to continue exploring how we might improve the lesson a different way.

We decided to review what did work in the lesson. The students clearly demonstrated that they could navigate the software, find tutorials, open materials windows, correctly identify and select most of the pieces on a materials list, and use an on-screen arrows to rotate model diagrams.

We reviewed what was difficult for students during the lesson. There was no evidence that students knew where to start building the diagram or how to use different views of the diagram to get clues. They were also having trouble sharing the workload, managing the materials, and being confident that they had selected the correct pieces.

When I sat down to revise the lesson I realized I was trying to do too much, too quickly with our first grade students.

Originally, I thought it was important for the students to identify the pieces  from the kit on their own. I believed it would be beneficial in helping them to develop stronger spatial skills. But I realized that identifying and selecting the pieces from a diagram should initially be an activity in itself. If  what I want them to learn is how to quickly identify specific pieces from the larger pile,  I can create an activity that focuses on identifying parts quickly, maybe some type of “LEGO Part Bingo”.

Asking them to both select the pieces (which demands spatial skills) and also construct the model from a diagram (which demands spatial skills) was spatial skill overload. If Vygotsky were around he might suggest that the original lesson plan left the kids just outside of the Zone of Proximal Development for most of them.

I decided to not worry about selecting the pieces for this lesson and instead placed the emphasis on 1. using a diagram to look for construction clues and 2. having a plan before being to build.

Today, before the lesson I headed down to the lab and pulled the 11 pieces from each kit and placed them in a sandwich bag. Then I put the baggies of parts back in their kits.

That little sandwich bag made all the difference. Today, doing the exact same lesson, in under 10 minutes, every student pair had successfully built the model with minimal support from an adult.

By removing the process of identifying pieces, students were able to focus on the more immediate goal of the lesson: examining the diagram for clues and using a plan to construct. (We’re still tackling the “sharing the workload” dilemma.)

Final thoughts…

I can be hard on myself and by the end of the lesson yesterday I had already moved on to reflecting on how I might improve other parts of the lesson for the next group. That’s why it was especially nice to hear my co-teacher say, “Wow. Those sandwich bags really made a difference. I think we should definitely continue to use them as an organizational strategy in future lessons.”

So the sandwich bags not only saved us some time, but also helped me to remember that we can’t do it all the first time around. Great teaching takes practice and time.

This is a pilot program. We’ve never done it before. We don’t know what will happen next. 🙂

A side of Critical Thinking with that STEM Please.

2 Feb

I’ve been thinking about my Quaker education lately. It wasn’t perfect, but it came really, really close as far as I’m concerned.

I was never a “good girl” or an A+ student with a perfect academic record. My  junior year English teacher even wrote on my report card that I was demonstrating “anti-intellectual behaviors”. I broke school rules, violated dress codes, and generally did my best to rebel, and yet somehow…

I graduated from school believing that I had a voice in this world and knowing that my actions mattered and that they could help or harm a community. I left knowing that risk taking was not only acceptable, but necessary if I wanted to make an impact or experience a rich life. I valued compassion, tolerance, and difference and I had a sense of civic duty. I understood that there were consequences to all actions. I left hungry for knowledge and eager to explore my areas of interest.

In classes, I learned to write well enough to test out of the freshman writing course deemed mandatory by my college, and I didn’t have to retake any math courses. So I guess, from a curricular standpoint, I was also well prepared for college.

There was a culture of communal responsibility and of collaboration in my school. We were in it together and we wanted each other to succeed. Adults on campus consistently modeled positive behaviors over the years. They challenged my ideas and they pushed me to take risks and to go beyond what I was asked to do in order to sate my own curiosities, not to simply aim for a grade. I  felt like I belonged and that I was valued as a member of my community.

I left school educated.

So what does this all this nostalgia and reflection on my schooling have to do with the current implementation of a LEGO robotics program at my school site?

Having been in and around education for about a decade now, I’ve grown quite fluent (as I’m sure many of you have) in eduspeak through exposure to the non-stop stream of acronyms that come in and out of fashion depending on whose in charge (of the country, of the state, of the school). Every few years there is a new something that we absolutely must do, or solve, or document… and there is always an accompanying acronym to make it sound extra important.

Right now STEM is a big hot acronym on the ed scene, or STEAM, depending on who your administrator is. (I don’t have a preference. As far as I’m concerned the “A” belongs and has a place in every area of education, but that could be the artsy anti-intellectual in me to whom my high school teacher was referring.)

I agree that improving “STEM” curriculum and expanding “STEM” curricular options in schools is important. I understand that as a nation we need to be proactive and promote “STEM” curriculum now to ensure that we have more engineers, mathematicians, physicists, and computer scientists coming down the educational pipeline. I’ve read the literature explaining that if we don’t get on it as a country there are serious risks to our national security and economic consequences that we may face.

Unfortunately, STEM is just another acronym. Like every other acronym, STEM can be carelessly wielded by administrations and administrators who may be too busy to understand and plan for a truly enriched STEM curriculum. Saying “We need more STEM! STEM! STEAM! STEM!” can end up simply becoming the addition of more math and more science and more technology classes.

And here in lies the problem. More math and more science and more technology and more eduspeak will not lead to more people solving global or local problems or meeting the needs of our communities.

More critical thinkers, more citizens, more activists, and more problem-solvers will. (What can I say?  It’s how those dang Quakers taught me to think. Blame it on my education.) I propose that in addition to teaching “STEM curriculum” or developing “STEM skill sets”, we need to educate students to have “STEM sense”: sense of purpose, sense of self-awareness, sense of social responsibility, and sense of personal and professional passion because if we don’t…

I’m guessing all we are going to wind up with is a bunch of young men and young women who, when asked to by an authority figure, can “make stuff” that can “do stuff”, but who won’t necessarily know to ask what they are making and for whom and what purpose they are making it.

This, at last, brings me to why I am loving the opportunity to be involved with teaching robotics to young students at our school site. So far, even with my limited experience, robotics seems to be a great outlet to teach students important academic skills and concepts that support the STEM initiative, while simultaneously immersing them in an atmosphere where they can articulate ideas, try and fail and try again, trouble-shoot and fix, overcome and work through frustration, experience the intrinsic joy of problem-solving, relax, play, create, explore real-world issues, collaborate, encourage one another… and think critically about what they are doing and how they are doing it.

In both the elementary and middle school groups, we have plenty of room for improvement in our new programs. (Myself included!) Right now I am placing emphasis on how we communicate with each other, why it matters, and how it impacts our learning community. Many students want to cling to the safety of “Show me how to do it right”, “Will you do it for me?” or “I don’t care anyways”. But many have started to take down their walls and have begun to take some risks. It’s exciting and they are learning and they know that it is exciting and that they are learning.

See it for yourself in our latest video. (All clips were filmed by the kids.)

And now, to sum up this very-wordy-not-succinct-at-all post into a few sentences…

My Quaker education taught me to think critically and to ask questions. I value these skills and I value that my school worked to instill me with those values. The new hot acronym on the scene is STEM and it pushes for improved science, technology, engineering and math curriculum in schools, which I think is a good thing, but only if we can also educate students to think critically and ask questions about the science, technology, engineering and math skills they are learning. Oh, and by the way I enjoy teaching robotics because I get a chance to teach STEM curriculum and support critical thinking in positive, collaborative learning environments.

BTW: Here’s a little FYI for all the ALs (Acronyms Lovers) out there who like to practice your eduspeak. Here’s what I have discovered so far about implementing robotics curriculum at the elementary or middle school level. (Purely anecdotal of course…)

Robotics is hands-on so it works well with students that have ADD, or ADHD and for students who require scaffolding or SADAE methods because they happen to be ESL, or EFL, or ELL, or LEP. The curriculum can be easily modified or differentiated to challenge your GT or GATE students or to meet the needs of your students with IEPs or an ISPs.

If you teach robotics curriculum using the language of the discipline and consistently ask students to articulate ideas through speech and writing, you are also likely to help them improve scores on their BLTs, DRAs, and PSSAs. Eventually they may even score higher on PSATsSATs and GREs!

Regardless of whether your school endorses TERC, or MMdM, or MkMM,  or Saxon, the AMTE will surely be pleased if you are careful to help students make mathematical connections and to use mathematical formulas when programming their robots.

Get enough students involved in your robotics program taught by HQ teachers and your school may make AYP so you can keep your Title I funding by meeting and exceeding your NCLB requirements.

Was that TMI?

Any one care to propose a few new acronyms? It could be a really fun activity. 😉

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