STEM: “Career readiness” in elementary school—really?

“When do we get to be engineers again?” is not something you would expect second graders to ask. But when Woodland Elementary School in Ohio completed a grade-wide engineering unit, that’s what teachers reported hearing for weeks afterward.

Even as a novel part of their school lives, engineering lessons can make a mark on kids’ imaginations and shape their desire for what to learn. And even without anything like the kind of training they get in language arts and math, elementary school teachers can make engineering work with the right program and a bit of professional development.

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STEM: Leveraging SEL Skills to Improve Science Instruction

Let’s begin with a conversation among fourth graders. These students were sitting in a group of four and discussing structural and behavioral adaptations in plants and animals.

DeVon: Hawks have sharp claws that kill their prey.

Casey: What is this? (looking at a worksheet)

Reshma: Bear?

Diamond: A artic fox has…

Reshma: Insects are shaped like a leaf so predators think they are real leaves.

DeVon: A rosebush has thorns to…where’s this go [inferring the question: is this a structural or behavioral adaptation]?

Reshma: Frogs have long strong legs to hop really far.

At first glance, this sounds like a conversation. The students are talking about the science topic and they are facing one another around the table. But, unfortunately, this isn’t a conversation at all. To qualify as a real conversation, students need to talk to one another, listen carefully to each other, and take turns in the discussion so that one idea builds upon another. This scenario falls short. Although it is terrific to see students actively engaged in a science activity, there is so much more that is possible and necessary in a science classroom so that students get the most out of the instruction. High quality science discussions require students to use social and emotional skills (Hunt, Rimm-Kaufman, Merritt, & Bowers, in press). Without those skills in use, students remain focused on their own ideas. The quality of their answers reflect individual, not collective knowledge.

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STEM: Pi Day and Other Irrational Math Ideas

Pi Day is an annual fun day when people employ a homophone connection and celebrate the day with pie. Irrational? It has taken me by surprise a few times. The most notable was when a popular breakfast restaurant publicized that they were honoring Pi Day. My family begrudgingly put on the Sweetie-Pi and Cow-Pi t-shirts I had purchased at an NCTM conference and wore them to the restaurant. Not a single employee of the restaurant even noticed we were dressed for the occasion (I had to ask a waitress to notice them). Still, I am a fan of Pi Day. In 2015, in fact, I had quite an irrational party, in which we all toasted with champagne at 9:26. (If you are wondering why, consider that Pi is infinite and look at its digits beyond 3.14) But wouldn’t it be great if we could celebrate a little bit of the value of Pi and other mathematical ideas? At the very least, can we take on some of the irrational ideas that people hold about today’s mathematics and replace them with more rational ideas befitting the 21st century? Here are my top three irrational ideas I regularly hear from lay people and educators, and my suggestion for what is a more rational perspective.

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The Elephant in the Classroom: Nature-Inspired STEM Approaches Go Global

At this very moment, I am at a workshop with educators from the United States and all over Europe, the theme of which is Nature-inspired approaches to teaching STEM. It’s gratifying: some 14 years ago, when I first started teaching educators about this pedagogical approach, Nature-inspired STEM in schools didn’t even exist. Today, hundreds of primary and secondary school teachers in schools all over the world wouldn’t think of teaching STEM any other way.

But for some of you STEM educators out there, I may have just said something a little surprising. Nature? What does the natural world have to do with teaching STEM? The short answer is: everything.

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