Project-Based Learning

Hands On with STEM

Just because you're using a computing device to do something doesn't make it STEM-friendly. Here's how to know if your classroom technology is speaking the right language.

Robertsville Middle School students work with Arduinos for a cubesat project.

Robertsville Middle School students work with Arduinos for a cubesat project.

Students: It's About the Doing

Ask Livesay's middle schoolers about STEM, and they don't talk about technology; they talk about what they're doing and how they best learn.

Veda, an eighth grader who had just finished painting her CO2 dragster, explained that in a "normal" science or math class, "you just write the facts down." In a STEM class, "instead of just writing them down, you apply them to a project to show what you know."

And that approach suits her learning style, she added. "People are either audio learners, visual learners or physical learners. And I'm definitely a physical learner. I learn by applying myself and actually doing."

Seventh grader Jackson insisted that the engineering processes he has been a part of are helping him in his other classes too. "We don't just build things. We also give presentations and speak to people. We had visitors from South Carolina today, and I was presenting to them." The process gets you more comfortable about being able to say what you feel and do what you think."

Sam, a sixth grader, has found that how he's learning in the STEM course has made it easier for him to understand "how you'd apply that in real life." His strength, he has discovered, is "the problem-solving part." "I'm a very hands-on learner," he said. "It helps me that this class is just that. I'm getting a lot out of it."

Todd Livesay was amped. An eighth grader in fifth period had just broken the Robertsville Middle School record for building the sturdiest bridge he has ever tested. It was eight inches long, three inches by three inches square and made of one-eighth-inch balsa wood. The structure took her 23 days of classes to design and build using Autodesk Inventor. Up until this moment the record stood at 400 pounds, held by another girl who's now a senior at Oak Ridge High School. But this student's assembly remained intact on the Pitsco hydraulic tower tester for a solid 412 pounds. "When that thing went," said Livesay, "it just exploded all over the room."

So transpired another school day in one of Livesay's STEM classes.

His district, Oak Ridge Schools, is set in a small town in Tennessee where science, technology, education and math are a way of life. This is the same Oak Ridge that hosts the national laboratory for the United States Department of Energy — that same one in charge of extracting plutonium from uranium used in atomic weaponry during WWII. At one time, claimed Livesay, the town had more Ph.D.s than any other spot on the globe.

Now it has Project Lead the Way, a fee-based bundle of professional development, curriculum and assessments for delivering STEM education in the form of activities, projects and problems, sorted out by bands of grades: K-5, middle school and high school.

When the students walk into one of the seven courses that Livesay oversees as a STEM teacher, they quickly learn one thing: What they do will be hands-on. And that makes the difference between a STEM lesson plan and a traditional lesson plan: the real-life component. As an example, he said, "If you were teaching a lesson on how to figure square footage of a room, it's just length times width. To make that a STEM lesson, you could have tape measures in the room and after doing stuff on paper, the kids would pick up a tape measure and measure the room and do the calculations. It's student-centered learning instead of teacher-centered."

7 STEM Titles to Get You Started

Danny Wagner, the manager for STEM education content at Common Sense Education, suggested these seven apps and online programs to help your students follow scientific and engineering practices straight from the Next-Generation Science Standards.

Mosa Mack Science (grades 4-8). "Part of the NGSS is integrating engineering into teaching, which can be scary to some teachers," Wagner noted. This program asks students to solve questions. Through solving those, they do inquiry and carry out investigations. From there, they're given design constraints and a problem to engineer solutions for based on the science they're doing in class. "That's really important, that teachers aren't just tacking on engineering activities randomly in their lessons, that the engineering activities are related to the science that's going on."

ExploreLearning Gizmos (grades 3-12). This program, said Wagner, "has simulations where students manipulate variables and analyze and interpret data they see as they're changing those variables."

DesignSquadNation (grades 3-8) and Monster Physics (grades 6-8) both "really get the kids to define their problems and then iterate on those solutions, which is another part of the engineering process," Wagner said.

NOVA Labs (grades 6-12) and Tuva Labs (grades 9-12). Wagner said that teachers need to use "as much real data as possible." These two programs allow students to do just that, "which makes it more interesting [and] more engaging."

Curiosity Machine (grades 2-12). As students are trying to design solutions, they have the ability to talk with an expert in the field. "We want them to be acting like mathematicians and scientists and engineers," he pointed out.

That doing may be researching and building working models of maglev trains or designing and prototyping CubeSats for a project underway with a NASA contact.

While technology is definitely a component of STEM in the classroom, that isn't defined solely by the use of computers, Livesay noted. It could consist of that tape measure; it could be a tower tester; it could be a dial caliper. "Technology has been around since the wheel. There's a lot of old technology that's still very useful."

The Bonds between STEM and NGSS
And likewise, just because the technology is software, that doesn't make it STEM-ready. As the manager for STEM education content at Common Sense Education, Danny Wagner is one of the people in charge of figuring out what of the tens of thousands of software programs and apps calling themselves educational really are. Those land on Graphite, a free platform from the nonprofit that rates software for classroom or student use and helps teachers sort through and find just the right program for a given lesson or unit.

When he's considering whether an app really falls into the STEM category, he looks for three things. First, does it challenge the boundaries? "We're looking for products that recognize that there's a STEM acronym for a reason. It's because those subjects can all be interconnected in some way. It may also be looking at a new way that students learn." Second, does it allow students to ask questions "like scientists or engineers or mathematicians or artists?" Third, is there a place "for students to construct or make meaning about genuine problems or issues?" Layered on top of those, he adds, there's some "subject connection too — very much an engineering/science/math piece."

Wagner and his team recently launched a new feature in Graphite that will help educators identify the best STEM software that aligns with the Next Generation Science Standards. "STEM and NGSS pair well together," he observed. "We're looking at apps and Web sites that can be used with engineering practices — these practices about making models and analyzing information and engaging in arguments."

The NGSS Explorer, as it's called, lets the teacher plug in a grade, choose a topic and find the relevant "performance expectations." An arrow next to each PE directs the user to suggested tools. Each tool lists the grades it's relevant for, the price, the platforms and gives a "Graphite rating," designated by a specially trained team of reviewers as well as a "Teacher rating," adjudged by Graphite users.

Out of Graphite's collection of 2,500 editorial reviews, he and his team have identified 300 NGSS-flavored programs, with 70 more on tap for tagging this year. What they've discovered, however, is that anybody can slap an "NGSS" label on the package—and companies are doing so. "Those are things that we want educators to be wary of, Wagner cautioned. "Are products designed with traditional standards in mind and now magically say that they're NGSS-aligned?"

On the other hand, he added, certain "traditional" products that may not speak directly to the intent of NGSS "can still be a part of the puzzle." Those include whiteboard tools, CAD programs or video editing creation tools.

Wagner's advice for teachers trying to figure out whether something really fits the STEM mold is to pay attention to what surfaces in the scientific and engineering parts of the science standards: asking questions and defining problems, analyzing and interpreting data, constructing explanations and obtaining and communicating information. "These are all practices that students really should be doing in almost every subject," he said.