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Friday, August 15, 2014

Elementary STEM Program

A teacher recently reached out to me asking for help in revamping their her after school STEM program for 4th and 5th grade above-average learners.  Her goal for this particular program is to create an environment that will extend thinking and promote a true STEM environment.  The budget for supplies appears to be minimal, but they have access to a computer lab.  At this time the students meet twice a week for about an hour.  Last year the students participated in projects that were based on real-world problems.  For example, one of the projects was to research a food additive and examine the harmful effects, find alternatives, and create a tri-fold sharing what they discovered.  To me it sounds like this school has the right idea and definitely headed in the right direction for creating authentic STEM experiences for their students.

So, moving forward, here were a few suggestions for projects that I came up with to help this teacher continue to extend her students' thinking through STEM-based projects.

Paper Plate Marble Track
This idea came from a project I saw on Pinterest and felt could be adapted for a STEM classroom.  My students LOVE to build stuff!  Anything!  As long as they get to create, they are happy.  So, when I am looking at projects for my own STEM classroom I try to incorporate as much hands-on building as possible.  

FrugalFun4Boys posted this idea as a fun and inexpensive activity to do inside during the looooooong winter months.  When I saw it I thought "WOW!  This looks like fun and I can definitely add some math and science to this to make it an authentic learning experience for students."  Let's break this down... The construction of the marble track itself covers the 'E' (engineering) and videos, articles, and simulations on roller coasters would cover the 'T' (technology).  After a three second Goggle search of "roller coast simulator" I found student friendly resources on PBSLearning and Eduplace.  The students can easily make marks on their roller coasters and measure distances to determine the speed of their marble at various points along their ride to cover the 'S' (science).  While that also covers the 'M' (math), I feel that more math could be added by having the students "purchase" their supplies from the teacher.  As the students bring in or select supplies from the classroom stock, they must complete a cost sheet.  When the students are finished with their roller coasters they would be able to present a total project cost analysis based on supplies used (and wasted) during construction.  The teacher could also challenge the students even more by giving them a budget.

Newspaper Construction
 This was an activity I had my long-term substitute recently do with my elementary and middle school gifted students.  My elementary students used newspaper and tape to create a table that could hold books.  My middle school students used newspaper and tape to construct a bridge spanning a predetermined distance and could hold a predetermined weight.  I am not sure how everything turned out (I did not receive any feedback from the students or substitute), but the activity was fun and easy to plan.

I adapted the elementary activity from the Design Squad's Paper Table activity and the middle school activity from the PBS Building Big Educator's Guide (the website was not the easiest to navigate, but if you spend enough time clicking links, you should find instructions and handouts.)  There are TONS of newspaper building challenges for students.  These were just the two that I chose to adapt for my classroom.

This activity is a great use of the Engineering Design Process (EDP).  As the students build, encounter problems, adapt, and build again, they are cycling through the EDP.  It is important that students in a STEM environment are familiar with the EDP.  So with this particular activity, the 'E' would be the introduction or use of the EDP as well as the construction of the table or bridge.  For the 'M' the students will need to know how much weight their structure can hold and whether or not it will span the measurement requirements.  To incorporate 'T' I use the application Bridge Builder on the iPads for students to experiment with how bridges work and what shapes are the strongest.  I am sure there are similar programs and simulations available online for students to use on a computer.  Lastly, for the 'S' the students are applying scientific principles, generating questions, and testing hypotheses.  Could the science be strengthened for this activity, Absolutely! Post any and all suggestion you have! 

Paper Airplanes
 What kid doesn't LOVE making (and flying) paper airplanes?!?!? I think this is fantastic project for a group of elementary school students.  If I were to use this activity with students I would start by having the students all make the same three airplanes.  These could be any three patterns selected by the teacher.  In addition, the teacher would provide the same paper to all of the students and do a brief presentation on how to fold paper and read the directions.  The student groups would take their three airplanes and test them.  All of the data (measurements) and observations should be recorded.  Next, the teacher could show a video on "professional" paper airplanes to inspire the students.  With this inspiration, the students would use the computers to research different styles of paper airplane, folding techniques, paper suggestions, etc. to determine what they feel would be the ultimate paper airplane.  Lastly, the students would create their paper airplane, test it privately and remake the same model again if need be (precision is everything, so students should have the opportunity to refold if necessary), and then fly them as a class.  With all of the collected data the students should be able to produce a graph and lab report explaining their findings.  I find (personally) that in cases like this there is always a group that "fails."  I explain to the group that it is NOT a failure to have a paper airplane that did not fly at all.  Something was still learned and data was still collected.

So, the STEM breakdown... 'S' for the lab report, 'T' for the video and research component (hey, why not introduce Google Docs and have the students compile their group research there), 'E' folding the paper airplanes, 'M' data, data, data, and graphing!

QR Codes
As an Instructional Technology Specialist, I could not let the opportunity pass to suggest a truly technology-based activity.  A teacher in a neighboring school district worked with a group of students recently to create QR codes to use around the school to help bilingual students and parents.  I thought this was an AMAZING use of technology!  HIGH FIVE!!!  So, my suggestion for the after school STEM club was to do the same, but for teachers, parents, and students to use.  QR codes could be generated for teacher websites, homework help websites, the school website, etc.  This could be a wonderful back-to-school night tool.  Parents (and students) could scan QR codes as they are entering teachers' classrooms for contact information and the course syllabus.  While this may be a little bit advanced for elementary students who do not have smart phones or are not permitted to use them at school, it could still be a fun project and great for teachers and parents.

These were just a few of the suggestions I had for relatively easy and low-cost STEM activities that could be used at the elementary level.   If you have any other suggested activities or resources, please post below!  I hope everyone has a FANTASTIC start to their school year!  Here's to 2014-2015!!!

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