Archive for category STEM

Engineering to Learn Science

I teach a one-trimester 9th grade course called Engineering & Physical Science.  For the engineering standards, I fell into the same kind of engineering projects that I’ve seen many science teachers fall into.  My students did a short straw tower project that did an okay job of teaching the nature of engineering standards from the Minnesota Science Standards and was something the students enjoyed, but connected to science concepts at a superficial level, at best.  I was well aware that, since students were not able to apply their knowledge in a meaningful way to design their towers, the project was really just tinkering.

This summer, thanks to a combination of my district’s participation in the University of Minnesota EngrTEAMS project and a generous grant from 3M, I was able to not only get some professional development over what good engineering instruction looks like, but I got the significant curriculum writing time and the materials budget that developing more meaningful engineering instruction takes.  The past two weeks in my 9th grade classroom, I had the rewarding experience of implementing the unit I developed with a teacher from St. Paul Public Schools and an instructional coach from EngrTEAMS.

The unit began with instruction over Newton’s Laws to prepare students to design a cargo carrier that would protect an egg in a head-on collision after rolling down a ramp, a variation on the classic egg drop project.  To keep students focused on the cargo carriers, where they could apply Newton’s Laws most directly, we provided cars the carrier could Velcro to.  The cars also had a spot on the front to attach a Vernier Dual-Range Force Sensor to measure the impact force when the vehicle crashed.

student project

A student project ready to head down the ramp

Realistically, students could create an effective cargo carrier without knowing anything about Newton’s Laws, so a major instructional task has been to give students a reason to make the connection.  Next week, students will be delivering presentations where they make a pitch for their design, which must include references to Newton’s Laws to justify design decisions.  To prepare students for this task, I’ve been spending a lot of time going from group to group to ask them to explain what they are doing, and I’m excited about the results.  Students who are normally checked out were not only able to articulate connections between Newton’s Laws and their designs, but some even started participating in class discussions intended to extend their understanding to other contexts.  Even when I just listened in, rather thank asking about connections to Newton’s Laws, students had a lot of great conversations about how to use Newton’s Laws to improve their design.  Next week, students will be preparing presentations intended to serve as a pitch as their design and will have a chance to share what they’ve been thinking with the entire class.

The past week and a half, while students have been designing, building, and testing, my classroom has been chaos, filled with noise and mess and activity.  Because that chaos is a result of students who are engaged and excited about their work, I was glad to embrace it.  My challenge now is to find ways to bring some of that same energy and ownership into other topics in the 9th grade course.

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Teachers as Educational Engineers

At this summer’s AAPT meeting, I spoke briefly with a few people about the idea of teachers as educational engineers.  This idea started rattling around my head earlier this summer when I participated in an NSF-funded program called EngrTEAMS looking at meaningful STEM integration (I’ll be writing more about that as the year goes on).  A good place to start is with what the engineering design process looks like.  Just like the scientific process, it can’t really be distilled into a neat package, but the EngrTEAMS folks have a version I can live with.  Moore et al. provide some of the rationale for this model of the design process in their Framework for Quality K-12 Engineering Education.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

It turns out, this is also a pretty good model for how a lot of teachers develop curriculum.  Just as a good engineer always starts with the problem to be solved, teachers start with the objective or standard to be addressed.  During a lesson or a curriculum unit, teachers mirror the implementation and testing phases of engineering design.  As part of this, we collect a wealth of data that includes classroom observations, formative assessments, student feedback, and summative assessment results, all of which we use to evaluate our teaching.  We constantly cycle back to the plan phase as we revise what we are doing, whether on the fly in the middle of a lesson or over the summer when we have time for more thoughtful reflection.  Teachers regularly visit the background phase, too, as we try to find out what’s working in someone else’s classroom or learn more about our content area.

This analogy can do a lot to inform how teachers (and students!) think about assessment as well as suggest a process for developing, refining, and revising curriculum.  I’ll save all of that for another day.  For now, I want to focus on the aspect that came up during AAPT, which is what thinking of teachers as educational engineers has to say about how we should interact with researchers.

I went to a lot of talks at AAPT that fall under the umbrella of physics education research, or PER, and noticed some patterns.  The majority of the talks were only 8 minutes long, and most of that time was spent on methodology, including data analysis.  This information is important and, as a teacher, knowing a bit about the methodology can help me decide how seriously to take a given study, but its the PER types who seem to get the most out of those portions.  I usually have two questions: what does this mean for my classroom and how does it fit in with what I already know?  Just like an engineer watches scientific research to find what will help build a better car or a smarter phone, physics teachers look to PER to find what will help us give our students a better education.  Give me the bottom line and an overview of the big picture and I’ll figure out how to make it work in the classroom.

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