Exploring STEAM Education

Here's what happened - IT WAS AWESOME!

I announced in my previous post about my upcoming involvement in a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, ART and Math) day at the Nevada Museum of Art. I was trying out a new idea to integrate art into what before had been strictly a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) inquiry lesson utilizing cantilever spans (the lesson is explained here).


The original lesson was built on the work of Ken Wesson who gave Lou Loftin (my frequent collaborator in PD delivery)  the original idea of using cantilever construction as an inquiry piece. He encouraged us to “go with it” and we have. We report back to Ken whenever we see him about how awesome the cantilever spans experience is. He usually just beams and encourages us to keep promoting it and innovating with it. Ken, by the way, is a great speaker, I’ve seen several of his keynotes and he brings the house down!

My idea to add the art component to the lesson was this: We started out following the original introductory lesson, pass out the materials and challenge the participants to build as long a span with those materials as possible (in groups of 2 to 3) … the difference was on this day that I only gave them 5 minutes to build. I mainly wanted to give them some experience with the materials and building a span AND to have them experience the STEM version even a tiny bit. We debriefed their experiences, I described the multiple ways to continue and leverage the lesson (which can go for days or weeks BTW) and then I changed the challenge … the focus:

“This time when you build your cantilever span your total focus is to be on the aesthetics of the span. It doesn’t matter how far out from the edge of the table it reaches, as long as it does, …make it beautiful, creative … GO!

I was pretty sure this was going to elicit some creative structures … I way under estimated … the designs, even in the limited time we had (15-20 minutes) were fantastic! Here are just a few examples:






































See what I mean?  There are just too many to post … but here is a link to all of them on Flickr.

I had four groups of educators cycle through the 50 minute lesson during the day. When I debriefed them each group spoke about how they loved the creativity aspect. We would always make time for a “gallery walk” during each session and many noted how they were so focused on what they were creating that they didn’t even notice what those all around them were doing until we did the walk. Many took photos and asked questions and conversations began about the process … unfortunately we always had to cut those conversations short. We did discuss the writing, math, research and other integrations and connections … including collaborating with classrooms anywhere in the world, that should happen along with the STEM or STEAM version of this or any lesson.

If you’ve already experienced cantilevers with your students I fervently suggest going back and having them experience this “art” connection variation. If you’ve never done it I suggest having your students build long spans for awhile (days or weeks) and then after they have experience with the materials try the aesthetics piece (but certainly do it any way you and they want … just a suggestion) I can’t wait to get into some classrooms and try this with students! Reminder: The cantilevers lesson is appropriate for ALL students Pre-K – 12. When I do get into classrooms I’ll report back! If you beat me to it, please share your experience!!

Learning is messy!

Exploring STEAM Education

Through Resilience and Design

When I was approached months ago about being part of this STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, ART, and Math) training at the Nevada Museum of Art this Saturday I jumped at it.STEAM_teacher_training_flyer_winter_2016-3_pdf There are close to 100 teachers registered and a waiting list … apparently there is a an unmet demand – who’da thunk> :)

Cheryl Barton will be kicking things off with her keynote, “The Theory of Here.”

To tie-in to Cheryl’s work I’m doing a hands-on lesson with cantilever spans that I’m adding an aesthetics component to that I’m excited about. I’ll be doing it 4 times during the day and have to fit it into 50 minute periods … I’ll let you know how it goes.

Learning will be messy!

The “Teacher in Space” – Still Touching the Future

Christa McAuliffe and The Space Shuttle Challenger

I’ve seen numerous “tweets” today, on the 30th anniversary of the event, from people sharing where they were when they witnessed or heard about the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. I was teaching 7th grade in Oakland, California, and our principal called my classroom to make me aware of what had happened since we weren’t watching live. We tuned in and watched the coverage for awhile and then discussed what had happened. The fact that Christa McAuliffe, the “Teacher in Space,” was a crew member added layers and significance to the discussion.

Twenty some years later my class had the privilege of having Grace Corrigan, Christa’s mom, visit our classroom. (the link takes you to a post about that day)grace4.jpg

We only had one day to prepare for her visit so we learned a bit about Christa and the history of the Challenger, including watching video of the tragic liftoff, but then spent the rest of our limited time writing questions to ask her. We were told Grace would love to answer questions so that’s what we focused on. What to ask and what not to ask  … what is appropriate and not. It was a more powerful learning experience than I expected and the students (4th graders) did a great job. Earlier in the year we had worked hard on speaking up and not showing nervousness, as much as possible anyhow, and that really paid off. You can read about the day we had – here and here

One of our major takeaway’s however was realizing how much we learned about incorporating technology just as part of how we learn and work. When my class first went 1:1 with laptops … it was all about the laptops and what they could do … they were a shiny, bright object students couldn’t stop staring at. But now, however, because they had easy access and used them routinely, the technology had become more like a pencil … just things we use when needed without thinking about them much. And that was true of the other technologies and applications we commonly used – video-conferencing, cameras, blogs, wikis. The shiny-ness and bright-ness hadn’t totally worn off, but now more often than not, partly because of ubiquitous use, they are just powerful tools we utilize in our learning.

As part of Grace’s visit students researched the questions they were writing and wrote them out on their laptops and our printer. We shared her visit live on Skype (audio only) with collaborators in Virginia and New York. We recorded and posted her visit as a podcast and video-cast (I recently changed internet providers and will have to re-post those at some point). Students took the photos that illustrate this post and the other posts I’ve linked to. And, as we often did, we blogged about the experience as part of a process of debriefing and archiving learning we were finding valuable. GraceCorBlogPost


We did all those things not so we could use the technologies, but because using the technologies helped us learn and made it possible to share and collaborate on our learning globally.

An incredible learning experience meant for 28 students broke through the walls of the classroom that day.

A great day and way to learn and share about history and science! (and so much more) Christa’s legacy and message continue to “touch the future.”

Learning is messy!

NASA Pathway to Space Class


Starting next week a team of educators (including me) will be providing a class for local teachers of grades 3 – 12 which will include hands-on training in building and flying drones, rockets, planes and designing payloads which we will then launch on a high altitude balloon to somewhere between 65,000 to 100,000 feet. The class filled in one day.

This is the second NASA Pathway to Space class we have offered, but the first to include drones. Last year’s class included rockets, planes, tissue balloons and a high altitude balloon experience as well.

We love providing Professional Development like this where we not only train teachers in the building and flying of the various “vehicles” – but also provide them with the materials and support to make it happen with their students as well. Teachers will either get their own drone as part of the class, or be able to check one out depending on our funding, but also planes, rockets and a balloon launch their students can utilize to send payloads they design up to near space.

Funding for the class came from a NASA Space Grant that includes funding for a second class next fall – so local educators watch for the announcement for that class, probably in late summer. Lots of hands-on messy learning for both teachers and students … my kind of class! :)

Learning is messy!

Solid Professional Development + ALL the Materials to Implement Powerfully = Student Learning

The PD We Need

One of the major downsides of 15 years of NCLB and RTTT has been the silo-ing and narrowing out of subjects, especially in elementary schools, and brutally so in the most “at risk” schools. Beside students missing out on the most engaging subjects, after 15 years of NCLB and RTTT, the basic and  support materials for subjects like science, and therefore STEM, have either long since been thrown out, or are painfully out of date.

Throw in the Next Generation Science Standards that have been adopted by my state that (thankfully) are performance based standards … standards that cannot in any way be met by reading about them and answering questions or taking a multiple choice test (YES!!!) … standards that require students TO DO science and engineering and then be assessed via being able to model or in other ways demonstrate their learning. Even the state assessments are being designed (supposedly, hopefully) so students have to model and demonstrate learning instead of bubbling answers.

I remember only too well during my 30+ years as a classroom teacher the frustration in receiving professional development (PD) in language arts, math, science, art and pretty much every other subject, and being supplied the necessary materials for myself during the training, only to be told at the end of the day that, “We don’t have the supplies you need to take back to your students, but maybe you can talk your principal or PTA into funding the materials you need to do these great activities in your own school and classroom. Good luck!!”

With that in mind we work hard to write grants to fund not just the PD we deliver in STEM, but also to provide ALL the needed supplies and materials to implement the lessons and activities in the classroom. Teachers consistently give us feedback on how much that means to them and how much more successful they are at providing quality learning experiences for their students when they are not spending valuable time begging and rummaging for resources.

Unfortunately we are not always successful, we are too often told that the grant would have supported the PD, but monies have already been allocated to schools for books and materials and they have to provide that themselves (did I mention my state is too close to 50th every year in supporting education with resources?) so we are not funding your grant at all, or only the part involved in delivering the PD.

Fortunately, we have from time to time been successful at receiving grants that fund the PD AND required supplies. Recently we received just such a grant (but got turned down for an even bigger one for the very reason stated above).

Another issue that diminishes the impact of PD is when it is not grade level specific. Certainly not all PD has to be grade level specific, but what we have found over the years, is that especially in subjects like science and STEM (and art, PE and others too to varying degrees) that teachers have so little content knowledge and experience in teaching them (again thanks NCLB/RTTT) that they struggle taking PD in those subjects back to the classroom successfully if the examples and lessons demonstrated and experienced are not mostly specific to their grade.

The good news is the grant we received this fall, and we started delivering PD for this week, is both grade level specific AND supplies the necessary materials AND includes several follow-up day long trainings during the year.  It doesn’t get much better than that. PD We started with 2nd grade teachers on Monday teaching them about the materials they were receiving to use with their students and what to do with them … but at the end of the day we walked them into our warehouse and they picked up boxes and plastic containers of materials and a literacy component and links to a support wiki page and Flickr photo site we will build during their trainings and year long classroom experiences … the smiles were wide. Supplies

And then, get this, they get the consumable supplies that they use up replenished each year by us … they don’t have to take the time or expense to do that … just focus on the lessons and the learning.

This is the PD teachers need. It’s a model we’ve found to be successful, now we have to get the decision makers to buy in.

This scenario will repeat itself through 2 cohorts this year for every grade level K – 7 (hoping to go Pre-K – 12 next year (note that grant folks – teachers need the materials too!!!). And all teachers trained get access to all the materials for at least the next few years.

Learning is messy!

Waterwheel Challenge

A Maker / Engineering Inquiry Lesson

I endeavor to post lessons I’ve observed or facilitated when I find them valuable. I’m not always successful, as my bloated draft blog post file will confirm … as will my constant frustration these days with lack of writing time. But this is a really good one, so I felt extra motivated to get it out there.

Grade level-wise, depending on how you set this up, this could really be a Pre-K – 16 lesson. There are many, many ways to take this, including which variables to control for and the goal of the inquiry. In this case it was lifting weight, but it could be speed or number of turns per specific amount of rice (I share a few ideas below). You could charge for materials (a common way to bring more math/data into the inquiry) and challenge students to get the biggest bang for the buck. Anyway here is the challenge:





(We substituted lifting 150 grams of weight for the 15 washers.)

As part of an energy project one group of my 5th graders, a few years back, designed a waterwheel and we actually ran water through it which was messy (usually a bonus for me), and caused the waterwheel to fall apart when the materials got soaked … which is a great challenge for them to overcome on the one hand, but a real time suck you might not want on the other. You decide. To overcome that issue Dr. David Crowther, from the Raggio Research Center for Science, Technology Engineering and Math, borrowed an idea he got from elsewhere, tweaked it some and therefore we used rice instead of water to power our “waterwheels.”










Here are the materials the middle and high school science teachers participating in our training had to work with. They could only use these materials, but we didn’t limit them in the amount which could be another challenge to overcome.

They also had these wood dowels to use as axles, note the dowels were of various circumferences and participants could choose any size or even change axles (some added tape and even pulleys made from paper plates to make the diameter larger for example ). Dowels


Participants formed groups of 3 and got right to work. One requirement was that groups had to develop a written plan and sketch before they could start construction:























After 45 minutes of initial design and construction time each wheel was tested. A large plastic trash bin was turned into a test facility by taping 2 large washers to the top that the dowels fit in.






















The challenge was to lift 150 grams of weight as high as possible with 2 liters of rice. Here is slow motion of one wheel. Note the weights being lifted:

After an initial trial participants were asked to improve and redesign their waterwheels. Then we did one more trial. Here was the winner:


Next we increased the weight gradually and this same design won by lifting 500 grams about halfway. In the classroom what we did in about 2 hours would probably be 2-3 days. And you could easily go much, much deeper. Possibilities include, but are in no way limited to:

  1. Examining the best designs and then having everyone start over from scratch. BTW, the slow motion was shot with my iPhone. Think of using that feature to really see what is going on to help in redesign and also how you pour the rice. Slow motion has implications for data collection leading to redesign in many activities!
  2. Using the same waterwheels but change the task to spinning the fastest with no weight attached … did the designs that lifted the most weight spin fastest? Why? Why not?
  3. Start over and design a wheel that spins fastest as the goal.
  4. Allow different materials or limit materials even further.
  5. Increase and/or decrease the amount of rice allowed from 2 liters.
  6. What design uses the least amount of rice to pull the given weight to the top?
  7. One photo above shows a design utilizing a pulley made from paper plates. That design failed as it could not develop enough torque to overcome the extra load the pulley provided. Can you design a wheel that would work with the pulley (they didn’t have enough time to redesign in this case).
  8. Thinking of the pulley example, can you attach something else that the pulley would cause to turn? Perhaps transforming the lift into some other kind of work or energy? Turn an electric generator? Pump water?

Please add your ideas in the comments.

In addition, as I’ve stated many times, this kind of learning is also a powerful integration to other subjects – collect data and crunch it in math, write (and blog to share!!!) about the procedures, learning, data, what was interesting … and perhaps invite/connect with students elsewhere to participate and share their experiences, data, photos. Lots of powerful ways to integrate technology as well – photos, video, blogging, wiki pages, video-conferencing between schools and more. Creative writing stories from the waterwheels point of view explaining what the experience was like for them … this again makes students have to be very observant about everything that happens to the wheel so they can accurately explain what the wheel experiences with lots of description. “When the tiny white grains of rice hit me I was taken by surprise, and at first the grains felt like tiny stinging bees, but I quickly got used to the sensation and then was exhilarated as I began to turn and quickly picked up speed ….” History lessons tied to the development of waterwheels in history and their impact on society. Are waterwheels still being developed in new innovative ways? So much here to research and learn from.

Learning is messy!

STEM Ambassadors Program

Bringing STEM experts into our schools

STEMamb1Beth Wells, the Executive Director of the Nevada STEM Coalition (I’m on their board of directors) asked us to provide a training to STEM professionals that have volunteered to be part of our new STEM Ambassadors program. From the STEM Ambassadors web site:

“The STEM Ambassador Program is a statewide initiative by the Nevada STEM Coalition and partners, designed to connect students with volunteers who use science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) skills in their majors and careers.

Volunteers register on the STEM Coalition website with their availability, interests and skills. Teachers contact the Coalition when they need speakers, project participants, or contest judges. Training is offered for volunteers who would like more knowledge about what to share and what kinds of activities enhance the new Nevada Academic Content Standards in Science.” (Next Generation Science Standards)

We fed them dinner and then got them involved in a hands on engineering activity building a “cart” from a bag of materials …  but no directions. The idea for the activity (which we tweaked a bit) came from FOSS (Full Option Science) out of the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, California. FOSS is really the only hands-on program out right now that is fully aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards and provides all the materials required to facilitate the lessons in a classroom.STEMamb2

After 20 minutes or so each pair had successfully constructed a cart that had rolling wheels. Next we had participants rotate around the room and inspect each others’ designs. They were require to “push” each cart as they inspected it to learn how well each one rolled. We encouraged taking photos of designs they liked and some did.

Next we asked them if all of the designs were the same and they noted that no two were alike. We gave them 8 minutes to incorporate anything they learned into their cart (re-engineer). All changed at least a little, but over half made changes based on designs that rolled better. Half made aesthetic changes to their carts when they noted they still had time. That was a discussion point and the connection to STEAM (adding art to STEM) was noted.







Ramps were set up and the STEM Ambassadors ran trials and collected data on how far their cart would roll from the top of their ramp.





Then we debriefed the data and experience in general.

The goal of the night was to prepare the participants, some from non-profit organizations, some business owners, but all with connections to STEM, to volunteer in schools. We informed them that there were multiple ways they could be involved in promoting and supporting STEM in our schools (see quote above) and we wanted them to be aware of the kinds of activities we were training teachers to facilitate in their classrooms. That way they could better support those kinds of learning experiences and even facilitate and provide the materials for their own hands-on learning piece when they visited schools if it fit their situation – for example if they were a transportation company the activity we did tonight, or one similar would be a great fit.

It was a great night that ended with a round of networking (sharing contact info).

Learning is messy!

Some Thoughts About The “T” in STEM

And Technology Integration In General

In several of my presentations on STEM Learning I share how it seems some grade level planning sessions approach STEM.

X   Science – “We have science twice a week now for 30-45 minutes.” “Check”

X   Technology – “We go to the computer lab once a week for 30-45 minutes and run apps on the school iPads in class occasionally.” “Check”

X    Engineering – “We’ll fold paper airplanes the last 30 minutes on Friday, fly them, then refold them to see if we can get them to fly further.” “Check”

X    Math – “We do math every day!” “Check”

“LOOK! We’re a STEM school (or grade level) and we didn’t even know it!”

There are several (at least) major issues with the above scenario, but this post will deal mostly with the technology piece. I’ll just say it right up front. When I visit schools, attend trainings or presentations that purport to be about “model,” or even just “pretty good,” STEM learning programs, what I mostly see are what I’ll call “SEM” learning programs. I’m not saying there are no good STEM programs, just what I mostly see is “SEM.”

Why no “T”? The technology use/integration I observe is usually poor … often just an afterthought or so we can say it was there, rarely used powerfully, rarely used as a collaborative/connecting piece, rarely used beyond fairly mundane, “instead of a pencil,” …  “to look something up” kinds of ways. There is some interest now in using computers to “code” or program using computers, and that is definitely a good thing, but not if its just during “The Hour of Code“. One issue is some STEM programs teach that anything from a rock, stick, pencil or paper cup, if used thoughtfully is technology (which is true) … but then pretty much anything anyone ever does would involve technology. But I don’t think that “T” in STEM was included with that in mind. DSC06565

Blogging and video conferencing and making a web page or podcasting or producing a video or programming and any other way someone might use technology are OK. But if they are not being used consistently to produce, analyze, problem solve and share, its a bit like dieting to lose weight a few days a year.

I see time and again students involved in inquiry and other lessons that involve data collection and drawing conclusions and more, but that’s where it ends. Often these experiences are engaging and motivating and kids are excited and we end right there. We have the students right where we want them, where they are motivated and have reason to analyze and learn more about what happened … and to get there they should be discussing and arguing and deciding (maybe agonizing over) how and what to post that their data and observations showed AND their conclusions.

Now, how best to share that? (another creative problem to solve). It involves that “making” piece online.” What are we going to “make” to publish our learning, and how can we make that piece engaging as well? Something we can create that will make others want to learn what we learned and perhaps converse and even collaborate about? The process of sharing learning is often where misconceptions or errors in trials, basic understanding or data collection arise and can be dealt with.

I’ve found that this is when students relive what they did and get excited about it again (even though this is hard work). Partly through the give and take and creative release from designing and writing a program or producing a video/podcast/blog post/captioned photo or whatever, and since they have shared … now they have the opportunity to discuss and perhaps collaborate (if that wasn’t already part of the learning) with others … perhaps experts they or you have found to share their work with, or just others that come across their posted results, … there are so many possibilities here that utilize that “T” in powerful ways that stress problem solving, communication and collaboration … and too often this vital learning is left behind. Perhaps because it’s value is not understood or valued and because the perception is that, “We don’t have time.”.

I’m not saying you to go this deep EVERY TIME, but MORE of the time for sure. It is how technology actually becomes a powerful learning tool.

I emphasize all the time how all those publishing and analyzing pieces are what make a solid STEM program the best ELA and math learning your students will do. But not if we leave it behind. It’s hard work on the students’ and teacher’s (facilitator’s) part … and it is time consuming … and we have that incessant “tick, tick, tick” that time is going by and I have to get through this and move on! Maybe just to get done, or worse so we will be ready for testing. But this is the “messy” learning our students deserve. Publishing to the world is another reason to be accurate, clear, concise, creative and much more.

What are your thoughts?

Learning is messy!


Use Powerful Tools Powerfully

Over the years I’ve had the pleasure to work, via various social networking sites, with Kathy Cassidy, a teacher “of six year olds,” in Saskatchewan, Canada, according to her class blog. We’ve even met face to face at conferences. My class (4th – 6th graders) shared blog posts and comments with her students a few times, and we Skyped at least once. Kathy recently shared a post on the Powerful Learning Practice blog about “Five Ways To Use Skype.” Some of the aspects of the post I want to highlight are that yes, ‘even’ 6 year olds can connect online in ways that provide powerful learning opportunities for them, and Kathy makes the point that, “If we are going to use technology, we need to use it well.” Check out her post, she shares some great ideas on connecting your students.

Reading Kathy’s post had me re-visiting a point that has been made by others (and me) over the years, but a point that needs repeating … repeatedly, because it is such a vital point to make.

There are very powerful learning tools available on the “inter webs,” and many are free to use … video conferencing tools like Skype, Google Hangouts … blogs, wikis, online photo and video archive sites (like Flickr), and many more. As Kathy and others point out there are powerful ways to use these tools that connect students, experts, facilitate collaboration globally, provide the ability to design, produce, edit and share content in any subject, and so much more (and yes, occasionally just to do something fun or cool!).

There are many of us that have been working very hard to spread the word about how these tools facilitate new, innovative and engaging approaches to learning. How they require teaching our students to be active learners instead of teaching them to be taught … sit quietly but attentively, raise your hand if you have a question, then wait for me (as the teacher) to decide this is an OK or appropriate time in my lesson to break from my cadence, my lesson, and answer your question or listen to your comment … now … or not.

So what’s my point already? It’s the point Kathy made: “If we are going to use technology, we need to use it well.

Ever since personal computers and other technologies were introduced, their praises as learning tools have been sung from the highest rafters. Unfortunately, much more often than not, when technology has been purchased with improving education, improving student learning, improving student achievement or (yuck) improving student test scores as the goal … the technology or tool has been the focus with too little thought or professional development or teacher autonomy considered to actually use the technology in ways that empower students and/or their learning. The results therefore have been ugly and have lead to a backlash about the actual value of technology and connectedness as pathways to learning.

In addition, the tunnel-vision of test scores in language arts and math have turned too many computer labs and other technologies into drill and practice, test prep and “what apps can we get that will engage the students” dead ends. That use of technology as learning tool is like buying a Ferrari just to listen to the great stereo while its parked in the garage.

There is nothing wrong, especially as a way to gain experience with the technology, to do a video-conference or two that is mostly about saying hi to a class in another state or country and share some basic information. But if that’s all you do … then that’s probably not “using it well.” Collaboration, sharing and analyzing data, simultaneously performing an experiment or activity to see if location changes the results, read alouds between students, an international poetry festival between classes … that’s more like it. Students tend to be more engaged, spend more time editing, ask more clarifying questions … because these students from somewhere else, and maybe others, are going to see it … I want it to be good.

Blogging is awesome! Blogging is writing for sure. But its also posting photos, videos, podcasts, vid-casts … and because blogging is a two way street (because others can leave comments) its a conversation. Students can post any kind of writing you do in class, and yes, I’ve even had them post a written response about their reading. But also creative writing, science experiments, reports on any subject, short stories, long stories, explanations, diagrams and representations of math problems and concepts (that other students from around the world can see, discuss and argue about). But also photo essays, video clips of anything, pieces they write just because they want to (my new puppy, my birthday party, what happened when we got a flat tire, I was so scared when …) … and again, these pieces are published to the world … and the world responds, and that leads to more writing and thinking deeply about the response, and sharing ideas and realizing what is different about living in different parts of our city, state, country, world.

I could go on explaining the power of wikis, photo and video sharing sites and more. But that will just belabor things.

Too often we utilize technology and the web because they seem to be automatically engaging for students .. at least for awhile. If we aren’t learning as educators how and why to use these powerful learning tools and opportunities to enable our students to do important, meaningful work. If we allow ourselves to feel unprepared or stupid or phobic about using technology and perceive that our students know more about it, or worse, see it as a way to keep students busy in the computer lab while we grade papers or do other “teacher stuff.” (yeah I know that you probably don’t get enough prep time). Then we are leaving its promise and capacity as a learning facilitator, connector and collaboration tool on the cutting room floor. We might as well not bother with it.

So as Kathy said, “If we are going to use technology, we need to use it well.

Learning is messy!