Friday, September 15, 2017

What IS an engineer?

I had an interesting conversation with a colleague the other day as we were talking about engineering in the context of her grade-level standards. She was receptive as I kept tossing ideas her way. At one point she nodded and said, "I think I have to think differently about what engineering really means." She noted she thinks of engineering in terms of building something, like roads and bridges.

Yes, it is. But there are lots of different kinds of engineers: chemical, nuclear, wireless, landscape, environmental, railroad, industrial, and the list goes on and on. Even this definition is somewhat limited in scope.
One of the reasons this matters is because of the current interest in STEM and STEAM. The "E" represents engineer and so often educators, parents, and students have a narrow spectrum of associations with that term.

There was a time in my life I worked as a software engineer. I wrote code to solve particular problems and we followed a specific design process to make sure the solution worked as
expected. We called it a software design process even though it looked very much what people today are calling an engineering design process.

I would spend time with a customer and play a version of "20 Questions." Most customers had an idea of what they wanted the system to do, but it was vitally important to ask lots of clarifying and probing questions to make sure I understood exactly what they thought they wanted. Whether I worked alone or with a team, one of the next steps was to create a preliminary design document that would lead to a requirements design document that would lead eventually to a functional design document. Every step was clarifying the problem and the intent of the solution. Through those design document steps, we would brainstorm options, check them against the parameters, and analyze them before we selected what we thought would be the best possible solution. The functional design document enabled us to think through as many "what if?" scenarios as possible.

If the functional design document got the go-ahead from the customer (or whoever it was responsible for the green light), we would build a prototype and test it. The prototype and testing enabled to find out what we'd missed in our analysis but also test our hypotheses for our functional design. The iteration gave us the opportunity to fine tune our design solution.

When we had a working version of the prototype, we would put it through its paces with the customer. If the prototype performed as the customer hoped and expected, we were usually 90% to the end of the project, and sometimes closer.

The crux of engineering is problem-solving. Maybe this video will help.

We can go another step to compare the scientific method and the engineering design method. The presence of an iterative process is important because it serves to remind students there are
opportunities to check your work before proceeding.

I hear you. You're thinking, "Yea, yea, that's all fine and dandy for science and engineering, but I teach. . . ". STOP right there. Look at the engineering method steps again. How might a student use that as a framework for figuring out how to solve a math problem? Or deciding on an approach to writing a paper? Or analyzing a text? Or thinking about a particular historical event or the characteristics of a culture in social studies? The questions change and the iteration will look different, of course. Once students become
accustomed to a format, whether electronically or using a notebook or journal, it will be easier to ask students to use the design method for any and every class that might require a bit more time for researched problem solving.

Some steps will not be applicable for all problems. Some steps will require more information than other steps. Some steps will lead the learner to figure out something faster than expected. They should be expected to document their thinking for future reference regardless, especially if they keep their work in a journal. They will want to see how they have improved their learning using this particular methodology and how it can be used in other situations.

I suppose it's an oversimplification to say that an engineer is a student of any kind though, in many ways, it's true. But it's not an oversimplification to say that an engineer is a problem-solver who needs to be able to thinks critically and collaboratively with others, and is able to communicate ideas and solutions to others.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Fighting for Day 1. . . Every Day (Still)

You may have already read some articles and blogs about the letter to Amazon shareholders from Jeff Bezos in which he writes about Day 1. The letter begins with this:
 "Jeff, what does Day 2 look like?"
That's a question I just got at our most recent all-hands meeting. I've been reminding people that it's Day 1 for a couple of decades. I work in an Amazon building named Day 1, and when I moved buildings, I took the name with me. I spend time thinking about this topic.
 "Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1."
He goes on to say that he is interested in how organizations can fend off Day 2.

How does that play in education? In the classroom? I've been thinking about that on and off for a while.

What if teachers came to school every day as though it were Day 1? What if they greeted their students with no preconceived ideas about their students' abilities? What if they approached their students' processes and capabilities of learning as full of potential?

That's not to say they should do a Groundhog Day and literally start over every day. Teachers need to be and will be mindful of the very real challenges of their students and because of their students. But a Day 1 mindset suggests more positivity.

George Couros asks if we'd want to be a student in our own classrooms and wonders what students say about their time in school. I can answer that for some students though the answers are slightly different by the end of the year than they are at the beginning of the year.

"The teacher is always sitting at his desk or in his chair looking at his phone when we come in."
"The teacher is checking her email or texting while we have our breakfast and doing our silent reading in the morning. It's almost as though she's just keeping us busy so she can do her own thing."
"The teacher yells at us to be quiet but why do we have to be quiet All The Time?"
"The teacher never listens when we try to tell him we didn't do something but he always blames whoever he thinks is misbehaving. He judges us."
"The teacher gets impatient when I ask questions because I don't understand. So I stopped asking questions and now she yells at me because I don't try."
"My teacher judged me as soon as I walked in the door. What's the point in trying to change her mind? I gotta just get through it."

Some schools are in the first few weeks of the new school year; others are still preparing for Day 1. Even those who have not yet started school are already bracing themselves for disappointment. Yes, for disappointment.
"Kids these days just don't want to try."
"No matter what I do, these kids just don't want to think."
"All of our students are so disruptive. They have no respect for anything or anyone, even the little kids."
"Well my grade is a testing grade and I have to worry about all of my kids who are reading 2, 3, even 4 grades below my grade level. AND I worry that my job is on the line if kids don't pass the test."
"Oh it doesn't matter what new system or new tool or new whatever they try to train us on. It's all going to change again in a few years."
"This back-to-school professional development is a waste of time. Our administration gives us a new five-year plan every two years. They think we don't notice that?"

Well, with attitudes and perceptions like these, it's a wonder teachers or students get past Day 1. Sure, there are a lot of factors working against teachers and students from Day 1. Even so, I can't help but wonder what would happen if teachers and students approached every school day with a sense of hope, possibility, and determination as though it were Day 1.

It doesn't help that teachers and students and administrators feel ridiculous pressure because of a ridiculous number of often meaningless tests.

It doesn't help that too often the adults in a child's life aren't involved in meaningful ways.

It doesn't help that too often the adults in a child's life can't be involved in meaningful ways.

It doesn't help that districts too often can't or won't provide the kinds of classroom support teachers really need--aides, coaches, appropriate resources.

It doesn't help that far too many administrators still think some resource or program is going to be the secret sauce that will make test scores rise.

It doesn't help that one of the professions that should be the most innovative and the most disruptive is often the most afraid to invite meaningful disruption or even opportunity for the smallest meaningful change.

It doesn't help that many educators at all levels cling to the old "because we've always done it this way" or reject something different "because we tried that once, maybe 20 years ago, and it didn't work" or because they and the educational institutions they serve cling to the ideas and policies that have been proven less than effective.

It doesn't help that government agencies at all levels insist on tying the hands of classroom teachers through policies that reek of inefficiency and policy pork rather than respect teachers' professional judgment and provide them with meaningful professional development and support that will give them the means to refine and develop their craft.

Even so, most of the teachers I know who grouse about student behavior and attitude and the range of challenges they face with or because of their students get up and go to school every morning with the hope that something good is going to happen. Most of the teachers I know start to think about how they can integrate something they've learned because it excites their own passion for learning and they want to share that passion.

They need to be able to vent and they will figure out how to make it work. They will not give up. They will fight, even in small ways, for their version of Day 1.

When I wrote last spring about fighting for Day 1, it was too late for the 2016-2017 school year. Whether school is already underway or about to start next week, it's really not too late to fight for Day 1. And keep fighting. Every day.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Being a Powerful Educator

Mawi Asgedom, a Harvard graduate who came to the United States as an Ethiopian refugee has his own powerful story to tell. Through his life, his experiences, and his observations, he reminds us that we are and can be powerful educators.

What does it mean to be a powerful educator? Asgedom notes that a powerful educator is "anyone who loves youth, believes in youth, and takes action to help youth grow" (p. 5). He reminds us that we "create the mindsets and expectations" (p. 4). And even when we are overwhelmed and tired and certain our students' challenges and ours are too difficult to overcome, we have the power. No, we don't always feel powerful. No, we don't always know what to do. But we dig deep because we care, because the kids matter.

I'll be honest: some of his five "powers" grate on me a little, but I think I understand what he's trying to do. Asgedom is a fan of Stephen Covey's work. We have all been influenced by this phrase: "begin with the end in mind." Well, let's think about the end we should have in mind as powerful educators, even when we feel a bit wimpy.

The end is the students and their success.

Okay, so a quick look at these five powers because I know you're curious.

1. Press your turbo button. The turbo button is what happens whenever we take action to improve our lives. An example he gives is of the "dad who reads to his kids for 10 minutes a day" and who, through that action, accepts "his power to be a difference maker and change agent in his child's life." But here's the bottom line: pressing your turbo button is taking action rather than wondering if "someone" is going to do something; pressing your turbo button is recognizing that sometimes you are planting seeds and may not see any actual harvest but you plant those seeds anyway. Because it matters.

2. Relate with heart. Empathy. Letting your students know that you care about them as individuals. I remember noticing that a student was changing, and not in a good way. After a couple of weeks of seeing this kid working hard to be accepted by a bunch of kids who really didn't have his best interests in mind, I said, almost in passing, "Hey! I see you're hanging around. . . ." He looked surprised when I named the kids. I shrugged and said, "Just think about what's best for you." He plopped down in the visitor chair in my office a few days later to tell me he was struggling because he didn't feel like he fit anywhere. I listened while he talked and talked and talked. And then I asked some questions. And then I asked him what he thought his options might be. And then he came to a decision. He thanked me and occasionally I still hear from him. 20+ years later.

We have to remember that some kids will find it hard to ask for help. We have to remember that some kids don't even know they need help. Mostly we have to remember that kids crave someone noticing them, crave having someone let them know they matter. Really matter.

3. Speak success mindsets. You've heard of Dr. Carol Dweck's work on growth mindset. You've probably seen her TED Talk. You may even have seen her TED Talk on The Power of Yet. You can watch just the few minutes and get the idea: her point, after all, is that we need to attach the word "yet" to many statements. "I can't figure out how to solve this problem. . .yet." "I don't know how to study for this test. . .yet." Students with a fixed mindset would rather do what they can and not risk failure, not risk rejection. They are more willing to settle for less because of how they've been taught to see and think about themselves, but also because they are too scared of the negative consequences of failure because they have not been taught to learn from failure.

When I was a kid, my mom would frequently make comments about my dad and his inability to finish a project or whatever it was that was making her unhappy or angry at the moment. My worst moments were when she said to me--and in that particular tone of voice--"You're just like your father." That was never a compliment. It would paralyze me because too often I didn't know why I was just like my father--what I had said or done or not said or done--so I didn't know how to fix it. Now I could have become more withdrawn and just stopped doing stuff, but I opted to do stuff where and how she couldn't see it. I'm fortunate that I had people who affirmed me in various ways, some even good. Even so, I managed to survive though not without scars. It was years before I could acknowledge my capabilities and abilities, and this was long before growth mindset was a thing.

4. Push for skill. "Skill comes from hard work and a feedback loop that builds mastery. And there are simply no shortcuts" (p. 73). This is hard and will be hard for many students to accept. Too often I hear teachers say that students just want to know the right answer or exactly what teachers want them to do. Fine.

I remember seeing looks of despair on students' faces after I gave an assignment. I talked through what they were doing and why they were doing. I answered questions, even when some of those questions were looking for shortcuts. After I paused and saw those looks, I would often say, "You can do this! I KNOW you can do this." And most of my students would be able to do the work, sometimes surprising themselves, and not just because I encouraged them but because they knew I would help them develop or refine the skills they needed.

5. Champion voice. There have been a lot of articles recently about student voice. I've heard teachers pooh-pooh the idea of student voice claiming their students are too young to know their own minds. Well, balderdash! Let me pooh-pooh that. If students aren't given opportunity to explore their thinking and their own minds, then how will they know why they believe what they believe? How will they know what matters to them? How will they learn their passions? Asgedom states, "Voice is that special sauce that makes you you and not anyone else on the planet. It's your passions, your dreams, your personality, and the things that motivate you as an individual" (p. 90).

Before differentiation, project-based learning, and student choice was cool and part of our eduspeak lexicon, I invited my students to create final projects in our literature classes. I'll be honest: I did it because I didn't want to read dozens of papers written by disinterested students who were writing papers because they had to. Painful for them; painful for me. Students always had the option to write a paper because some students were more comfortable writing a paper; that was their voice and choice. I told my students they could write a play, create a movie, create a game, paint a picture, etc. They had to write a sort of abstract to give me an idea of what they were planning to do and how they believed it related to the course. When we agreed on their planned project, they were good to go. I got some pretty half-hearted, last-minute attempts because, well, kids are kids. But I also got some AMAZING work. Some of the projects astonished me because I didn't know those talents and abilities were part of some of those kids. What a very cool thing to learn about my students? What a very cool thing to be able to encourage those talents and skills in my students? And I thought it was genius just because my grading load would be easier, but it was actually genius because I enabled and allowed my students to express their learning in ways that made sense to them.

So what is a powerful educator? In my opinion, it's an educator who genuinely cares about the welfare of each student; who inspires and leads through empathy as well as talent and skill as educator; who makes his or her own passion about their content evident by the way they embrace their work as educators. A powerful educator is one who give students opportunity to find their own voices and then listens to those voices for what they are rather than trying to craft them into what those voices "ought" to be. A powerful educator is one who comes alongside a dejected student or one who fears failure and says, "Okay. Maybe you can't do this yet, but let's think through this and figure out how you can be successful" and then doesn't give up on the student who insists he or she is too stupid or too incapable to do whatever it is.

I've been privileged to work with some powerful educators. They are the ones who are as exhausted as any other teacher at the end of the day. They are the ones who know for which students they need to ask for help. They are the ones who don't whine and don't blame the students but step back and try to figure out what they can do differently the next day to encourage, to reinforce, to support. In those classrooms I see incremental change. Not huge mind-blowing change, but tiny steps forward often followed by a few giant steps back. But because they believe in their students and they believe in themselves, they keep on keepin on'. . .being powerful educators.

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Ladder of Inference & Instructional Support

The Ladder of Inference reminds us that we too often fail to reflect on what we observe and what we infer from those observations. We are often unaware that we are too selective of the data we choose to observe or we simply don’t consider any data other than that which we have immediately or presently observed, so that data may be completely out of context. The Ladder of Inference is used a lot in business but also has application in instructional support and coaching as well as other areas of education.
Systems Thinker
It’s important to note that traversing the ladder of inference takes moments so being aware of how fast and how easy it is to move from the bottom rung to the top is important so that we slow down to assess and reflect. That way there is far less risk of any kind of injury.

Available data
As a coach, I have to take into consideration what I observe and experience. Just as the teacher can’t watch all of the students all of the time, neither can I so I have to be careful to sweep the room to try to see what the majority of students are doing. I also need to refrain from making any inferences or passing any judgment until I talk to the teacher and, even better, talk to the kids. Even then, as I’m gathering data from the kids, I have to be careful not to ask leading questions but general questions to get learning context and perceptions from them.

Select data
As a coach, I have to be careful about selecting data. I try to take notes on everything I see and hear, which is another reason I take pictures and video, and another reason I try to be with a teacher from the beginning of the class through to the end of class. When I select data, then, I try to select that which reflects a majority or close to a majority of the students but I might also select something that I was a superb teaching moment or one during which the teacher faltered and struggled to get back on track. Or all of the above because throughout a class period, there are always good moments and not-so-good, even bad, moments.

Paraphrase the data
At this moment in time, I have to pause to think about how I’m filtering what I see and hear. Did I come in with preconceived notions or specific expectations? Do I have some sort of bias about this teacher and, if so, what is it? How do my filters and other white noise influence what I see, hear, and select to discuss with this teacher? This is not about me, but about this teacher and the impact this teacher has on these students.

Name what’s happening
I have to be honest with myself about what I’m characterizing and how, the assumptions I made about this teacher and this teaching, the assumptions I made about the students and their experiences. I have to be crystal clear with myself so I can remove the detritus of my assumptions and filters.

Explain and evaluate what’s happening
Am I making excuses for me? For the teacher? For the students? Am I clarifying the data for the benefit of the teacher? For the benefit of the students? Or am I mentally trying to sabotage something? Is it possible I’m drawing conclusions based on past experience or what I’ve heard from others? Is it possible I’m not giving this teacher the benefit of the doubt because I’ve seen similar behavior and actions in the past?

Decide what to do
This is pretty clear. Once I’ve climbed thoughtfully up the rungs of this ladder, I can make a decision about what to do. I can revisit the data now that I’ve clarified my motives, questions, assumptions, perceptions, expectations, and anything else so that I can have an honest conversation with this teacher.

I can also frame my questions and my observations in ways that are helpful in moving a conversation about this teacher’s growth and success.

Adapted from

Additional resources

Saturday, August 19, 2017

EdTechTools: Robotics and Coding for K-2 (mostly)

As a consultant I'm often asked for a list of tools for specific grades. I've been working on various lists for a while now but was recently motivated to focus on edtech tools for K-2.

All of the lists any of us create a working list because new tools are developed and old tools upgraded, replaced, or retired.

This list focus mostly on robots but I do include because it can be an easy way to introduce students to Blockly. You can find the list here and I will continue to update it. As I build other lists, I'll link them. The content of the current list follows. Enjoy.



This is one of my all time favorites and I've been so delighted when upper elementary and even high school teachers have found uses for BeeBot. BeeBot is a codable robot with very simple commands: forward, backward, left, right, GO! He's not cheap, but he is durable. The battery lasts about 7 hours and the robot recharges quickly. I wouldn't buy the mats because you can easily create your own that make more sense for your students or let them create mats. I have a teacher who has tables on which she can write with dry erase markers. We measured BeeBot's movement lengths and created grids on some of her tables. Now she can put numbers in the grids and create different kinds of problems. Pairs of students have to solve the problem and the pair that comes up with the most efficient way to move BeeBot from where he is to where he needs to go gets a point (or whatever). She can also put words in the grids so they have to code BeeBot to move between sight words, or to create a sentence, or to match a noun with a verb, or to identify a part of speech, or. . . . An upper elementary teacher wrote state names and the capitals on pieces of tape and randomly put the tape on the floor. Her students had to code BeeBot to match states and capitals. She had a class set (DonorsChoose!) so they worked in small groups. A 10th grade history teacher plans to use BeeBot to help students match dates and events. Other math applications include matching geometry shapes and names or matching various ways to represent numbers (four, 4, 3+1, 6-2, 2*2, an image of 4 circles or squares, etc.). A chemistry/science application is matching information from the periodic table. The list goes on and on and makes that $95 per BeeBot seem slightly less costly.

Available through Amazon or


Osmo offers a variety of games in math, ELA, and coding. I recommend you start with the Genius KIt, which is like a starter pack ($99; You will need an iPad or an iPad mini for each base. Students can play with this as a center or as an extension or free choice activity. Osmo is more than just the game as it requires problem solving and critical thinking skills to complete the tasks. Also available through Amazon

Dash is billed by Wonder Workshop as a child’s first robot. Maybe, if you haven’t already gotten BeeBot! Dash does have far more programmable capabilities than BeeBot. (Dot is Dash’s sidekick; Dot doesn’t move but can be part of Dash’s more complex programming.) For teachers who have introduce their students to, using Blockly is easy peesy lemon squeezy for students. Teachers will need to download the Blockly app. There are other apps available but Blockly is probably the easiest place to start. If you have more than one Dash robot, you will need more than one tablet as each robot is paired with a tablet. You might also have your students name each Dash so they’re not Dash1 and Dash2. You can create a range of possible activities for students to complete using Dash or give students a task for which they have to write the code using Blockly.

Like BeeBot, Dash is not limited to K-2 but those grades are a great place to start!

Available through Amazon and

Note that WonderWorkshop also has a robotics competition (

X is the home of Hour of Code, which can be 30 minutes or 15 minutes of code depending on your schedule and how you want to use it. This is a great place to introduce students to Blockly and coding for a couple of reasons. First, there are the themes! Frozen! Star Wars! Second, each theme has a series of game-like tasks through which students to proceed. If they make a mistake, the game helps them figure out what they have to do. There is no pressure to beat a time or anything else, so they can just practice and keep trying to move on to the next step. Experience shows that students may be frustrated at first, but once they start to understand how the logic of each game works, they get excited when they’re able to solve each problem and complete each task with fewer tries.
Scratch Jr

I know of some teachers who use Scratch Jr with the second graders, but most teachers prefer to stay away from it depending on their own level of comfort with coding. Scratch Jr does use Blockly as its language but it is more complex. I would not use it as a starting place with primary levels.
Makey Makey

One “classic” MakeyMakey board is about $50 but there is so much you can do with one board. You will need a laptop--Chromebook or otherwise--for the MakeyMakey board because students learn how to program the keyboard. What’s fun about MakeyMakey is that the alligator clips that are attached to the keys (front, back, up, down, spacebar, etc.) can be attached to pretty much anything: clay, bananas, paper, etc. You’ll have to see videos to believe it and you’ll want to check out the gallery for more ideas.

As with other coding options, MakeyMakey isn’t limited to K-2. In fact, MakeyMakey may be too complex for kinders and firsts to use without a lot of oversight.

Available through Amazon and

The MakeyMakey Gallery is

With Ozobots there is Evo and Bit. Bit is really small so it’s easy for small hands to grasp; however, it’s also really easy to lose and then step on. Evo is $99 and Bit is $59. The starter pack comes with information about how to program Ozobot and some materials. All you really need is the calibration disk, the legend for the commands, some markers, and some paper. You can use Ozobot with an iPad, but it seems a bit less fun. The pack comes with some coded playgrounds, but it’s so easy to create your own or have kids create theirs. What does that mean? It’s easiest to understand if you watch these videos ( so you’ll see why they have to have the command legend because different combinations of colors tell the Ozobot to turn left or right or around or whatever.

Available through Amazon and

Monday, August 14, 2017

For Those Early Finishers, The Power of "What If. . . ? and Other Ideas

Educators talk about them all the time and fret about them nearly as often: what to do with those students who finish their work early.

The TeachThought team came up with 27 ideas and I thought I'd amplify that a bit, but first a bit of time travel to the past.

In the 1950s, a man by the name of Donald H. Parker began the work that became the SRA Reading Laboratory. I'm old enough to remember that self-paced reading program and I remember racing through the readings and the tests that accompanied each reading to get to the next level faster than anyone else.

When I saw the Level-Up suggestion from the TeachThought team, I immediately thought of SRA and that meant I had to do some research. McGraw-Hill is no longer updating SRA, but with a bit more diligence I found a history of the reading laboratory.

The first several pages are fascinating reading but then you must get to the page that Audrey Watters quotes in her 2015 blog post about SRA cards:
Parker went on to state, "To give students still more responsibility for their own learning, I had each one keep a chart of his or her daily progress. When the chart showed that the student was maintaining high comprehension, vocabulary, and word-analysis scores, it was time to move up to a higher color-level."

He further notes that they spent a week learning the system they devised because he gave credit to the thirty-two students who helped him figure it out.

So when you think about planning level-up activities, think first about implementing some sort of a learning portfolio system so students can track their learning and then give them the opportunity to design their own level-up activities.

Some of the TeachThought suggestions are fairly rudimentary and, depending on your students, might work really well. Number 18 is "Beads: Allow students to bead something." I confess that I was dismissive when I first read that, but, as so often the case, I saw it a bit differently when I came back to it to try to figure out why it was included. And then I thought about creating patterns and inviting students to bead those patterns. Or having students create patterns and beading those. Or developing some sort of a class programming language and having students use beads to "write" simple programs. Or. . .  the ideas kept flowing and they will for you as well. Just keep it simple or you'll make yourself crazy trying to gather all of the materials students might need.

Oh, by the way, the class programming language? Personally I think that's pretty genius and in my next blog I'll have some more specific ideas about that. This blog post already has enough rabbit trails.

The TeachThought team had some other ideas related to chatting, texting, reading jokes, journaling, or troubleshooting. The chatting corner leads to too much noise simply because kids are kids. Texting could be a problem because of school or district policy. Reading jokes could lead to noise as could designing a game. Journaling is a good idea but kids will want ideas for a journaling topic. Troubleshooting and planning for a new level could also be good ideas though kids will need and want more direction. So let's say the noise issue isn't an issue; there are ways to manage that anyway.

For example, one of "my" teachers has a counter bell in her room. When some students are still working and the chatter volume gets a little too loud, she taps the bell and the volume falls immediately. That's all she does: reach out and tap the bell. Now she had to train her kids to respond to that bell, but she told me it didn't take long for her 4th graders to learn that responding positively to the bell had positive results for them.

Maybe you have an erasable board on which students are able to keep a list of topics in which they're interested. Maybe it's something they pull from newsela (Gr 2-12), Student News Daily, PBS Newshour Extra (Gr 7-12),  CNN Student News (Gr 6-12), and others.

The students can use that board as idea starters for writing jokes, writing stories, designing games, etc. Or, if they want to chat but you're worried about noise, have them table top text. This is a strategy I learned through Discovery Education. One student writes on one side of the paper and the other student writes on the other. They can use different colors of ink. They can pose and answer questions. And, hmmm, it's possible that their table top texting could become the basis of an interview for a PSA or the PSA itself, or a script for a readers theater, or. . . .

Letting early finishers try something in which they're interested and covertly using strategies that might help them learn something they don't realize they're learning can most definitely lead to something powerful, profound, and positive.

By the way, though the SRA Reading Laboratory became something that educators seem no longer interested in buying, you have to admit that there is something to the basic premise. And maybe, just maybe, your students can use the basic idea to create something for themselves, their classmates, or maybe their younger siblings. You just never know what might happen when you let them pose and try to answer, "What if. . . ?".

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Understanding STEM: Beyond Those Four Letters

Mundelein HS
The focal point of this article is Ireland (and the relationship Microsoft has with some colleges and schools); however, much of what is true for Ireland is true for the rest of the world. Girls lose interest in STEM and many girls--and educators--do not understand how STEM (or STEAM) is relevant to their lives. What gets in our way, I think, is our understanding of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths. For example, when we think about science, we think about the sciences--chemistry, biology, etc. The same is true for math. The other day there were some kids in my neighborhood who were trying to build a low decorative wall. They were busy building it as I drove by and when I came back by an hour or so later, they were standing there, staring at the wall, hands on hips. I turned and parked on the street and ambled over.

"So what's up?"

They turned to me in surprise. I surveyed the work they'd done so far, the piles of stones, the wheelbarrows, and the tools. Finally one of the sighed and said, "We think we made a mistake because the mortar doesn't seem to be holding. Some of the stones are sliding."

The other also sighed and said, "I'm not sure we measured right for the mortar and I'm sure we didn't measure right for stones because it's not coming out right."

Long pause.

"We didn't realize there would be so much math. . ." said one, "or science" said the other. "We thought we were just gonna get to build stuff."

Someone who appeared to be a supervisor of sorts had joined us and just grinned at those comments. He clapped both boys on the shoulders with a big smile, "Great learning, fellas! Now let's see what we need to do to fix this!"

He nodded at me and they got started discussing options. The boys got animated as they started to problem solve and maybe because they realized their mistakes weren't the end of the world and, I hope, that they could learn from them. I've driven past the finished product a couple of times since then. It looks good and it's still standing.

The experiences of these two young men are what we need kids to understand about STEM. Math and science are part of the everyday world. Putting in a garden? There's a reason the nursery has some plants and not others, and why the labels let us know how much sun, space, and water they'll need. Want to create your grandmother's famous recipe but for 10 instead of 4? There will be math. There is no getting around that. As you review the recipe while shopping you realize one of the ingredients isn't available? Well, there is some science to find the right flavor profile or get the right reaction among ingredients. Many a novice baker has learned the difference between baking powder and baking soda the hard way.

Let's go ahead and make it STEAM. The arts? You bet--in designing that border wall, in designing the landscaping for that garden, in preparing the final product of that recipe (we eat first with our eyes).

Trying to find a more efficient way to remove last season's products and replace them with the upcoming season's products? There is math involved as well as a science of consumer buying and behavior. If you need to make some adjustments to the design and layout of the shelving, there is some engineering involved and maybe even some technology. Oh yes, and art because the designing the layout of those shelves and organizing those products to attract the consumer is no small thing.

(My focus is mostly on STEM rather than STEAM because I think we see the "A" in some things more easily than we see STEM. On the other hand, I also know we find it hard to see the STEM in things that seem to be more readily a part of the arts. Even so, I'm going to continue to use the STEM acronym although I'll also reference that which is clearly A. Why? Because most of our schools refer to STEM which may very well be part of the problem.)

The other day I was watching one of those building shows when the crew is creating a home out of weird stuff. In this case they were using old dairy trucks as the "base." Yes, of course, there is a lot of math and a lot of engineering and not just because they had to figure out how to move the dairy trucks to the building location, but just all of the "wish list" features and then adjustments based on necessity. There were some really cool features. But what struck me was their use of cedar, which was repurposed. I was surprised they had access to cedar in Bastrop County, Texas. Especially because I'd just watched another show in which they had used cedar in a floating home for a couple in Seattle. Hold on a minute! Those are two different kinds of climates and yet they were using repurposed cedar like it was no big deal. Was it because others had imported to those locations or was it because cedar can really be present in those varied climates and areas? Well, that meant I needed to do some research to get the answer to my questions because it puzzled me. Science? Yes. Among other things.

My point is that elements of STEM--the actual sciences, maths, engineering, and technologies--have a presence in many ways we likely overlook. I might also note that too often we come up with activities that are particular to only one letter of the acronym as though it's not possible or not appropriate for there to be overlap, even though one of the superpowers of STEAM is that it promotes inter- or transdisciplinary ways of thinking and learning.

For example, I found this activity is listed for art and design: research what happens when mixing watercolors and oils. Um, well, does it matter what percentage of watercolor and what percentage of oil? So maybe there is some science as well as math involved as well as the art and science elements of the artistic result of a watercolor and oil mixture. Does it stay on the canvas? How does it work with different types of surfaces? If an artist really does want to combine watercolor and oil, is there anything an artist has to do to achieve a particular result? Different tools? (Engineering) Specific surfaces? (Science and maybe engineering) If you think oil and water just don't mix, you might want to check out this YouTube video, just for kicks.

In this TeachingChannel video, an English teacher is asking her students to develop a reality TV show. There is math as they think about timing; there is engineering and technology as they think about production; there is social science as they think about what will appeal to viewers but also the possibility of some other sciences as they think about what will be on their show and how it will work.

Michele Perchonok, NASA Food Scientist
I loved watching Good Eats. Alton Brown's show, which hasn't been on for a while. One of the things I loved about the show is how he explained the science of food and made that science accessible. It made me wonder if I'd taken a different path if I'd had a different exposure to chemistry when I was in school.

Kids who are trying to figure out how to land a jump or do a trick with their skateboards probably aren't really interested in the physics, but if they understood the physics they might have a better chance of figuring out what they need to do differently. And if they understood the physics and could do the math, they might be able to build better ramps and other features. Just think about the skills and various content knowledge they might need to craft a proposal for a skateboard park in their neighborhood, especially if they had to submit a design for approval! STEM, STEM, and more STEM.

The kids who want to design furniture or clothing need to understand which materials are most appropriate. You want to create a gown that will drape in a certain way? There are fabrics that will work and other that won't. These are the kinds of careers we typically don't associate with STEM, and yet. . .  Going to a fabric store, pulling bolts of fabric off the shelf, and examining those fabrics can be quite a learning experience in STEM. Ask any seamstress or tailor about what they do and how they do it will be an eye-opening experience in various elements of STEM. The same is true for furniture designers. Or jewelry designers. Or those who make designs with clay, glass, and a thousand other kinds of things including food designers, and not just pastry chefs and bakers. They don't think about their work in terms of STEM, but you can be sure there are elements of STEM in the work of almost every single artisan.

One of the reason girls lose interest in STEM-related subjects around the age of 15 has something to do with biology--their own. But it has a lot to do with the way we teach those subjects as though science, technology, engineering, and math have very narrow capabilities and possibilities.

I was going through some old books not too long ago and realized some of them need some binding TLC. Ahh. Book binding. STEM, or STEAM. Which made me think about how typesetting has changed, which made me think about how book publication has changed, which made me think about how even the invention and innovation of writing utensils has changed and that while some think the next edtech unicorn is speech-to-text so kids will not have to learn how to type, I still see some fascination with calligraphy and fountain pens.

We are awash in STEM (and STEAM) and don't even realize it.

We need to realize it so our kids can realize it so that instead of becoming less interested in STEM they become more interested in finding new applications for STEM and new ways of thinking about STEM. And when we refer to STEAM, let's do so as though we mean it and not just as though we are paying lip service to whatever we think the inclusion of arts might mean.