STEM Education

Making the Connections

Woodrow Wilson School's Angela Kadian takes a project-based approach to science education to help students grasp the connection between what they're learning in the classroom and their lives outside of the classroom. Integrating technology into the learning process is a major component of that approach.

Angela Kadian couldn't believe her ears. Did the fifth-grade student sitting in the front row really not know that the same sun that was shining right outside of his classroom window generated solar energy? And did the rest of the class actually answer "no" in unison to the question: Have you ever used solar energy?

"They weren't making the connection between the science they were learning in class, and what was taking place in the rest of their lives," said Kadian, a science and social studies teacher at Woodrow Wilson School in Bayonne, NJ. "There's a real disconnect between their 'real lives' and science. As teachers, we really have to work to bridge that gap."

Project-Based Learning
Rewind back to the fifth-grade student who was unaware that the sun generated solar energy and how simply throwing a wet towel over the fence to dry is a utilization of that energy. Kadian said a light bulb went on over her own head during that particular lesson, and led her to develop a project that would subsequently be recognized by the New Jersey Technology Education Association.

Kadian said she immediately started exploring how students could apply the knowledge they learned in her classroom in the "real world." She saw recycling as a viable starting point, and began teaching students about the impact that product packaging has on the environment. "They would buy an item, investigate how much waste was involved with its packaging, and come up with ways to recycle it instead of just sending it off to the landfill," explained Kadian, who has been a K-12 educator for the last 27 years.

To make the project more enticing for the students, Kadian encouraged all students to create new games or toys from the recycled materials. At first, she said, the end results were rudimentary and incorporated elements like balled-up aluminum foil. "Over time, the toys got much more complex," said Kadian. "My students worked in teams, and even went out hunting through the garbage at home and in the cafeteria at school to find stuff to use in their projects."

Kadian has incorporated the recycling project into her eighth-grade science classes for the last eight years and last year received NJTEA's Innovative Technology Educator award for her efforts. The award, which honors outstanding dedication, innovation, extraordinary contributions and performance by technology education teachers, is bestowed upon six recipients, each of whom receives a $10,000 unrestricted cash prize.

The project is also a hit with students, many of whom continue to apply the recycling principles long after graduating from fifth grade. "I have former students who are now in eighth grade, and who come back to show me items that they've made out of recycled materials," said Kadian, who said she sees the project impacting other, non-science areas of the students' studies as well. "It helps them learn about planning, resourcefulness, measurement, and other concepts."

Knowing that the gap between science and reality can't be bridged with a single project, Kadian has taken other steps to make those connections. Another project, she said, found students assembling into "engineering teams" and working together to develop, design, build, and test a new idea. All of her fifth-grade science students complete the project, which includes a presentation that shows how the concept would work in a real-life setting.

Technology Integration
Kadian said these and other projects go a long way in teaching science to a group of tech-savvy children who learn very differently than those who were enrolled in grades K-12 just 10 years ago. "As soon as they leave school they are using computers, cell phones, and other gadgets to get information and talk to one another," said Kadian. "If you can't bring that into the classroom, then you lose them to boredom."

To make sure that doesn't happen, Kadian said, she tries to integrate technology into all of her lessons and projects. When teaching a class about engineering, for example, she "puts the students in charge of the learning" by encouraging them to discuss the importance of computer technology to the overall world of science. "In one particular class," said Kadian, "the remedial students perked up when we started talking about the relationship between computer technology and engineering careers."

Kadian said she also helps students understand that computers are good for more than just downloading music and watching YouTube videos. At the beginning of the school year, for example, she takes her new classes to the school's computer room and encourages them to bookmark various Web sites that will be of use throughout the year.

The exercise would be even easier if every student had a laptop on his or her desk, said Kadian. "Not that we'd use the computers 24/7, but they would certainly come in handy when we needed to look up facts and information while doing science experiments," said Kadian, who said she sees the Internet as a valuable teaching tool. "Between the information, photos and video, the Web is much more engaging than the encyclopedias we used when I was in school."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].