What does a STEM lesson look like?  Bears in a Boat!

Bears in a boat.

Everyone’s talking about STEM:  Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.  It’s the “big thing” right now in education.  But, if we zoom in to an ordinary day in a regular classroom, what does a STEM lesson look like?  What makes it different from a non-STEM lesson?  THAT, my dear readers, is the question for today’s blog.  By exploring that question, I hope to help you solve the problem of how to create STEM lessons yourself.  It all starts with a rich task.  We will define “task” as the main component of the lesson, the activity the students will be engaged in, and the problem that they will be asked to solve.

Here are my guiding principles for a great, integrated lesson:

  1. Success is measured in content mastered, not time spent. 
  2. Multiple things are being learned at the same time as the classroom task mimics life: there are many questions that need to be answered and they include many different subject areas.
  3. The teacher’s role is to design a rich task, with multiple roads leading to the desired content; the student’s role is to drive the learning by their curiosity, interest, and attempts at finding a solution.
  4. Teachers spend most of their time asking questions and students spend most of their time thinking, communicating their ideas, evaluating their solutions, and proving their results.
  5. Assessment is an integral part of the lesson, rather than just a separate piece at the end.

Especially here in Virginia, with our very long list of the unfortunately-acronymed SOL’s (for out-of-state readers, that stands for “Standards of Learning”, not what you’re thinking!), the number one lament I hear most often from teachers is that they don’t have enough time to get it all done.  “I just don’t have time to ‘cover’ everything I need to”, they say.   This is something I address specifically in my professional development workshops with in-service teachers.  We must get rid of the mindset of one content standard per class period!  With a rich, integrated lesson, you and your students can achieve 20 or more individual content standards per week!  So, let’s talk about how to do just that:  create a rich, STEM lesson. 

First, I need to go ahead and acknowledge my bias and get that out of the way.  M is most important out of the STEM fields.  I’m not just saying that because I’m a mathematician (well, at least I’m not just saying that only because I’m a mathematician!)  Without math, there would be no technology or engineering and the science would be incomplete and imprecise.  Since math is both the language and the tool for the other fields, it makes sense if you want to create a STEM lesson that you begin with a great math lesson, and that’s what I’m going to do today. 

The great math lesson I’m going to use as the “jumping off” point is by Jim Rubillo.  It’s one of many excellent resources offered at NCTM’s Illuminations site.  Here’s the PDF of the original lesson.

As I said, it’s a great lesson, but right now it’s just a great math lesson and we want to turn it into a great STEM lesson.  How?  I’m glad you asked!

Polya’s problem solving process can be our guide in this:  in order to create a great STEM lesson we first need to understand what that means.  In this case, it is necessary to know what characteristics and components are required for STEM lessons in general, and great STEM lessons specifically.  Let’s start with a list.  (I love lists, don’t you?)

Characteristics of (great) STEM lessons:

  • The specific content goals for each field are well defined for the teacher, but the task is presented as one integrated whole to the student.
  • The task has multiple entry points to allow for varying student skill level and area of interest.
  • The assessment is defined and known from the start, and, ideally, included in the task.
  • The goals and the task are flexible enough to allow for adjustments “on the fly” and include student-created components. 
  • The context is one that students find interesting, engaging, and familiar enough to bring outside-of-class knowledge to bear (sorry for the pun!) in the process.

Ok, so now that we know what we’re trying to create, we’ve successfully increased our odds of actually creating it!  Now, back to our original lesson.  Because we started with a math lesson, the specific math content is already pretty well defined.  Sometimes, too well defined in fact.  I usually need to “zoom out” and create math goals that are a bit broader and concept-based rather than the typical very specific skills-based goals that are usually found in single content lessons.  Most of the time, I also find that additional math tends to be included when I translate into a STEM lesson so be aware of that added bonus.  How do I decide upon the content goals for each field?  I start with both the context and the problem given in the task.  In this case, how many bears can fit in a boat before it sinks?

Note:  you want to ensure that your “main problem” is rich enough to require several sub-problems in order to search for a solution.  It is ideal if there are multiple solutions, as that will require students to compare and contrast, communicate, analyze, and defend choices made.  Our problem meets these criteria.  A few sub-problems that may arise include:  

  1. What material should I make my boat out of?
  2. What shape should my boat be?
  3. What happens if I need to carry something other than bears?
  4. How can I decide which choices are best?
  5. What do I need to keep track of and how can I best do that?

Once you’ve got the main problem and at least a few sub-problems, the content can be defined.  Let’s take each field and list a few “main ideas”:

  1. Math
    • Measurement, in both standard and non-standard units.
    • Data collection, display, and analysis.
    • Problem solving.
  2. Science
    • Force, specifically gravity and buoyancy.
    • Measurement, including mass, volume, surface area, & displacement.
  3. Engineering
    • Structural analysis, including design and materials.
    • Product design, including testing to failure and maximizing results.
  4. Technology
    • Analysis of results, including video and various software (spreadsheet, graphing, calculation).
    • Improvement of design, including programming to calculate ideal values for maximizing results.

From this big picture view, we can then “zoom in” to create age- and skill-specific goals like, “Students will create a box-and-whisker graph to display the class results and use the 5-value summary to compare specific boat designs.”  These specific goals will, of course, depend upon your class details like age and skill level (not to mention overall course goals).  Our jump-off lesson was created for middle school students so I’ll continue to use that approximate age group as our audience.  Keep in mind, though, that we could easily scale up or down to create an equally great STEM lesson for elementary or high school students (or college students or pre-service teachers or a mixed age group of random people… you get the idea).  Note that, for most of us, the science and math objectives are likely to be tied to specific course content while the engineering and technology objectives are likely to reflect overall goals and concepts.  Ok, so here’s what some of our specific goals might be for a class of middle-school students:

1.    Math

a.   Students will measure the mass of each boat using both standard units (grams) and non-standard units (number of baby bears).

b.   Students will calculate surface area of the bottom of their boat (the portion in contact with the water).

c.    Students will analyze data using graphs like box-and-whisker to determine “best” boat designs.

2.   Science

a.   Students will describe the two forces (buoyancy & gravity) in effect and how they affect the success of the boats designed, especially in terms of flotation capacity.

b.   Students will state Archimedes’ law of buoyancy and calculate the displacement of various boats and their cargo in order to compare the actual weight with the weight under water.

c.    Students will define and calculate density, displacement, and specific gravity of the various boats and their cargo and relate that to the relative capacity to float in both fresh and salt water.

d.   Students will determine density of the floating liquids (fresh water, salt water) by using a hydrometer.

3.   Technology

a.   Students will use graphing technologies (e.g. graphing calculators, graphing software, or online tools) to analyze data and display results.

b.   Students will record their process and results using technologies (e.g. digital cameras, video recording, screencasts, presentations, etc.) in order to clearly communicate with others what they have done and learned.

c.    Students will collaborate using technologies (e.g. social media, Skype, VoiceThread, blogs, etc.) to both share their experiences and to gain additional information and insights from others.

4.   Engineering

a.   Students will engage in the engineer design process, using iteration to try and create a boat with the largest displacement possible.

b.   Students will recognize the importance of materials, environment, and constraints of the design process by comparing results of their boat designs used in fresh and salt water.

c.    Use creative and critical thinking skills to design, test, and evaluate various boat designs.

Now that we have defined the specific goals for the content fields, notice that the lesson is almost complete!  All we have left to do is structure how time is spent, including pre-class preparation and outside-of-class extensions, and the details of the assessment.   Don’t get me wrong, these components are critical and will take considerable time to develop and perfect.  However, now that we have a rich, integrated task asking students to design, create, and test various boat designs in order to determine which ones are best under what constraints AND we have defined both general and specific objectives we want the students to achieve in each content field, the majority of the work is done.

At this point, you may be thinking, “I can’t do this for all my lessons, it will take FOREVER to plan!”  Let me convince you that not only can you do this for all your lessons, but you should – however, not all at once.  While it is true that creating an integrated lesson with a rich task does take longer than a solitary lecture on a single topic, it is also true that you will save time later because they are re-usable.  Furthermore, you will save time on re-teaching because students who experience integrated, problem-based learning through tasks like the bears in a boat will learn the content more deeply and retain that knowledge for future use.  Plus, lessons like the one discussed here will considerably increase your students’ engagement, interest, and enjoyment of both the specific content and of learning in general.   If you truly analyze how much time you spend in re-teaching and reviewing after the other types of lesson, you will see that it is far more than the “up-front” time needed to create this type of lesson (and with poorer results in student understanding and performance to boot).

My advice for teachers is to set a goal of creating one integrated, rich task like this one per six- or eight-week period throughout the school year.  For higher education, I recommend one per semester for each course taught.  In addition, I suggest finding one or two teachers who share your subject or grade and have similar teaching philosophies to form a team, then sharing your work with each other.   One of the primary aspects to Rimwe’s professional development is showing teachers how they can add one element to their teaching, in manageable steps, in order to build a complete collection of rich tasks over time using methods just like these.  Send an email if you’d like to discuss professional development workshops for your school.

I hope you now have a better picture of what a great STEM lesson looks like, learned a process that will help you create your own STEM lessons, and are convinced that it is a good use of your time to do so.  I would love to hear about your progress!  I’ll leave you with a list of additional resources on mathematics, science, technology, and engineering that I hope you find useful as well.

Additional Resources:

Lesson Link for original math lesson: http://illuminations.nctm.org/LessonDetail.aspx?id=L856

YouTube link for engineering foil boat challenge: http://youtu.be/4UiWU7eJQ3s

Link for fun science activity for kids: http://www.kids-fun-science.com/easy-science-experiment.html

Quote from above science activity that nicely explains the science in lay terms: 

Science behind the experiment

 There are two primary forces acting on this science experiment. The first force is gravity. Gravity is trying to pull the tin foil and pennies downward. The force of buoyancy is pushing the boat toward the surface.

 The gravitational force is determined by the weight of the tin foil and the weight of the pennies in the boat. The force of buoyancy is the weight of the water displaced by the boat. Your boat will continue to float as long as the force of buoyancy is greater than the force of gravity and you do not overload the boat so it will tip over or leak.

Link for boat designs: http://www.clickmagkids.com/trythis/crafts/more-boat-building-fun

Link for YouTube video of elementary students foil boat challenge: http://youtu.be/a13UcDUMxJI

Link for preschool bears on a boat activity: http://onceuponadayinpreschool.blogspot.com/2011/01/goldilocks-and-three-bears.html

Engineering design process: http://engineeringbasics.net/engineering-design-process/

Children’s Engineering: http://www.childrensengineering.com/

Very related to Polya’s problem solving process is the engineering “design loop”.  This design loop was developed in 1998 by members of CEE to use in their own classrooms in Richmond City Schools, Richmond, Virginia. It was shared with teachers across the state through Project UPDATE classes.

100 engineering projects for kids: http://constructionmanagementdegree.org/blog/2010/100-awesome-engineering-projects-for-kids/

Teach engineering activities: http://www.teachengineering.org/browse_activities.php


The Solver Blog

Author:  Dr. Diana S. Perdue

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