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!

Men Don’t Believe There is Gender Bias In STEM Fields?

My last post about engaging more girls/women to be interested in STEM fields was apparently at least somewhat prescient … at least the topic. This recently published study: “Quality of evidence revealing subtle gender biases in science is in the eye of the beholder,” comes to conclusions such as:

“Ever-growing empirical evidence documents a gender bias against women and their research—and favoring men—in sci- ence, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Our research examined how receptive the scientific and public communities are to experimental evidence demonstrating this gender bias, which may contribute to women’s underrepresen- tation within STEM. Results from our three experiments, using general-public and university faculty samples, demonstrated that men evaluate the quality of research unveiling this bias as less meritorious than do women. These findings may inform and fuel self-correction efforts within STEM to reduce gender bias, bolster objectivity and diversity in STEM workforces, and enhance dis- covery, education, and achievement.”

It’s even a fairly short read as these things go, so getting bogged down in a time suck isn’t much of an issue. Note the limitations to their study as well as how they did their research which the authors report as well. You might also find this post from Think Progress about the study interesting as well .. note studies the author of the post shares too.

Do the results mirror your experience with gender bias in STEM?

Learning is messy!

One Way To Get More Girls/Women Interested In STEM

(and actually everyone)

This is a subject I see consistently being discussed online and in meetings I’m involved in as part of my job. That is how do we get more girls/women involved in STEM? I don’t mean for this to be “THE” answer, but part of it for sure, and its not that difficult to implement.

So what is it?

Provide a broad, rich, integrated curriculum that includes science, engineering and inquiry based learning opportunities from an early age. Pre-school is not too early – and it is solid learning, so it should start there – but honestly I got students in 4th grade that came with almost no experience in those areas, and provided lots of STEM and/or project/problem based opportunities for 3 years, and my girls were just as involved, interested and motivated as the boys in STEM (and I know other teachers that have had similar experience).

Perhaps the problem of getting girls/women “involved in STEM” is that too often what we offer in elementary school just doesn’t include much in those areas. And certainly during the “No Child Left Behind” and Race To The Top” eras, the attitude was and is to narrow the focus during elementary school to language arts and math, and when students get to middle/junior high school “we’ll catch them up” in science, social studies, art and more (yeah, that’s worked well). AND to introduce students to STEM and “making” and other subjects as late as 7th grade … that’s when gender based biases, because students haven’t become interested before those impressionable, difficult years, become an issue. 7th grade is TOO LATE for students to be just finally introduced to those subjects, pedagogies and experiences.

So again, I’m not saying this one “intervention” would entirely solve the girls/women in STEM careers issue by itself, but I suspect it might be a pretty important piece of it.

What are your thoughts?

Learning is messy!


A Learning Is Messy Idea Gone Awry?

Looking for ideas here ... any thoughts?

Awhile back on a visit to Boston … specifically at the awesome Museum of Science in Boston to be part of a training on their Engineering Is Elementary curriculum …  I spotted this cool looking paper airplane launcher in the museum store. I’ve seen it for sale in other places since then as well.













I immediately envisioned a powerful hands-on STEM inquiry lesson. Students fold paper airplanes and launch them with this launcher. While doing so they can make adjustments to the design with the goal of the longest flight, or perhaps adjust the angle of launch and through multiple trials ascertain the “best” angle of launch to attain the longest flight … lots of possibilities.

So I gladly bought one and brought it back to Reno. It still sits on a shelf above my desk reminding me of the possibilities it seems to promise. I even had specific classrooms in mind to help develop lessons around it (I’m always on the lookout for inquiry pieces).

So why haven’t I posted here about the great lessons students and teachers have experienced?

Soon after I got back from my trip to Boston I started folding planes (I’ve done this a lot from the time I was a kid … and have experience with paper airplanes in my own classroom over many years as well). I installed batteries in the launcher and started launching! This was going to be my newest great inquiry lesson to develop and I was pumped! Then an issue became apparent. Any thoughts here? What might make this not work as well as I’d hoped? What needs to happen to be able to be able to accumulate data that leads to better design? There are lots of ways to fold planes, and although this launcher requires that fold at the bottom it can “grab” … and that might exclude some designs … there are tons of folds that include that fold it could grab … so no worries there. So what did I find to be the issue?

The issue is …….. it doesn’t throw the planes even “kind of” consistently. To really be of value it would have to be REALLY consistent in how it throws or launches each plane … and students could learn a lot … and it could still be a valuable if it in even threw them fairly consistently … but it doesn’t. It doesn’t throw them in anything even remotely approaching consistency … in my experience. Bummer! I was kinda counting on that … my bad.

Now if I’m missing something here (which I would gladly concede I am) and I’m just doing something “wrong” please let me know. And, actually you could easily use the fact that it “apparently” does not throw the planes in a consistent fashion to teach students about inquiry and the fact that you have to be able to rely on consistent results to gather valuable data … then that turns this into an awesome lesson, right there …  and please feel free to “go there and do that” and share how you got this great idea from me on how to teach students about the importance of collecting completely valid data (you’re welcome). :0)

But otherwise, can you or you and your students see how I can make this a valid inquiry piece? If so … share your idea(s) in the comments here. If not … see my idea above on teaching students about the importance or collecting valid, dependable data. TIA :)

Did I mention I paid for the launcher out of my own pocket? I did … and I know that is something that too many people don’t understand that teachers do. So help if you think of how to make this valid inquiry piece! Again, TIA!

Learning is messy!

The Eclipse That Almost Wasn’t

Have telescope, will travel

Along with millions of others last night we set out to witness and observe the “Blood Moon, Supermoon Eclipse.” Living in the high desert has an advantage when it comes to using telescopes since we have a greater percentage of sunny days and “Moony” nights. But that wasn’t the case on this night. There was a thin cloud cover that we were optimistically hoping would clear, or be transparent enough to see through at a bit at least. We set up two Celestron 9 inch wide telescopes and hoped for the best.

When the time came for the Moon to make its appearance however it was a no show. We instead found a tower on a distant peak and zeroed in on it. The image, per how telescopes work, was upside down and backwards … and not all that interesting to see … but a crowd that grew to over 200 people on the top floor of a parking garage at the University of Nevada, Reno, didn’t care. Soon there was a line at least 20 people long queued up to take turns peering at whatever we could find.

Hopeful eclipse watchers line up to view tower on top of mountain peak since eclipse is obscured by clouds.

Hopeful eclipse watchers line up to view tower on top of mountain peak since eclipse is obscured by clouds.













Actually what was behind us to the west was much more interesting to look at than the cloud shrouded sky where the eclipse was happening.

Note the mirrored surface in the back of the telescope looking into a blank sky while the real show is behind it.

Note the mirrored surface in the back of the telescope looking into a blank sky while the real show is behind it.


















Next door, the Flieschmann Planetarium was showing a brief video about the eclipse and how eclipses work, as well as a live stream from NASA of the eclipse from a cloudless location. Little by little the tower on the mountaintop became less and less interesting and the crowd dwindled to a handful. Most made their way to the planetarium until the live feed stopped coming in from NASA.

A local TV news team showed up to do a story about the eclipse and they were as disappointed as the rest of us. They did shoot a photo of the eclipse shot from somewhere else in the country that I pulled up on my phone. I held it out in front of their camera approximately where the eclipse was actually happening and they taped it and we all had a good laugh. Then, since things weren’t looking good they interviewed us and left.

Dan Ruby, Director of the Fleischmann Planetarium is interviewed about the eclipse.

Dan Ruby, Director of the Fleischmann Planetarium, is interviewed about the eclipse.

Cars full of disappointed viewers departed and we were left behind to watch in case the clouds cleared (the eclipse was still going on up there for another hour or so), but eventually we decided to pack up.

Move along, nothing to see here!

Move along, nothing to see here!















So we started to take down the telescopes when I looked up and saw just a hint of Moon which quickly disappeared again, but others had glimpsed it too. We stopped and waited, and sure enough several minutes later the Moon popped out … mostly … still clouds partly obscuring the view, but there it was and we quickly started resetting the telescopes.

As we were getting things lined up people started showing up. Some were here before, others were new visitors.

There it is!

There it is!

Soon we had a line of viewers. Once everyone had had a chance to look we took turns holding our phones and cameras up to the eyepiece to try and snap photos. Holding steady and pushing the button at the same time without moving is a challenge, but we got some views:




















What you see is the part of the Moon coming out of eclipse. The dark area is still red, but too dark for the phone’s camera to pick up.













We managed to get one that showed some of the "Bloodmoon"

We managed to get one that showed some of the “Blood Moon”













So what could have been a disappointing evening turned out to be a good time had by all. We managed to answer questions about eclipses and made some connections with people in the community. As usual there was some messy-ness involved … but that’s what made it a great evening!

Learning is messy!














Yes, the High Hopes Project will rise again!

Photo taken from near space, June 2015, from the High Hopes Project balloon.

Photo taken from near space (26,200 meters / 86,000 feet), June 2015, from the High Hopes Project balloon.

I’ve been asked a number of times since the new school year started if the High Hopes Project will happen again this year, and the answer is yes! We met yesterday with a group of dedicated local middle school teachers that requested to have major roles in the project for their classrooms this year and discussed their participation as well as how the rest of the world can be involved. There will be some differences this year, but the return of some of the most popular aspects of the project as well. This Edutopia article about last year’s project will give you some notion of the project and the links on the project wiki page will further inform you about how you can be involved as well as links to photos and videos. We have to resurrect / restore the project blog and web pages, but the Flickr, YouTube and Twitter accounts are still up and running.

We will be bringing back, with a bit of a twist, an elementary bio-engineering project where students (yes, your students can  participate!) do a long term experiment to find a type of paper that will biodegrade quickly, or a substance that can be put on paper to induce it to biodegrade as quickly as possible. The paper has to be able to run through a printer or copy machine BTW …. and we will explain more about the project fairly soon. So be looking for updates here and on the project blog.

Learning is messy!

Why STEM Education Is Important – Podcast

A few weeks ago I was asked, along with Lou Loftin, to be interviewed about STEM learning for the 21st Century Mindset Podcast produced by Doug Taylor. We discuss a couple of recent blog posts about STEM and Making, and then share what we are up to lately and how STEM learning is being implemented (and not) in our area. We also deal a bit about what STEM is and isn’t and how it is too often silo-ed into a school’s schedule as opposed to becoming a culture within the school. The link to the podcast is HERE.

Learning is messy!