In 2012, Michael C. Riley adopted a school-wide focus on STEM learning, in an effort to engage all students in building 21st century skills, to prepare our population with such wide-ranging demographics for futures in high-demand fields, and to encourage real-world application of the concepts that we were already successfully teaching. This focus gained a great deal of momentum with our acceptance into a grant program that provided consultants and support from the S2TEM Centers SC to guide our journey into STEM learning. Through professional development and collaborative evaluation of our long-term curriculum planning, teachers have been able to design units and project-based learning around each grade level’s content areas, aligning standards from various curriculum areas towards a challenge with real-world application.
All grade levels have been involved in STEM-based professional development and have worked to incorporate inquiry methods and scientific habits of mind into daily lessons. Within that umbrella, the focus of evaluation and unit development, as well as our collaborative teaching model between STEM lab and classroom teachers, has been in third, fourth, and fifth grades. Successful learning activities and those targeted for improvement in these grade levels are discussed below.
Based on PASS data in science from 2014, students were most successful in the areas of Scientific Inquiry and Habitats & Adaptations. (84.2% of students showed competency or strengths in the area of Scientific Inquiry, 77.2% showed competency or strengths in the area of Habitats & Adaptations.) Throughout the school year, third graders were engaged in explorations and activities that involved inquiry skills and habits of mind, both in the STEM lab and regular classroom. They worked collaboratively through the iterative process on various challenges and assignments, including designing hand pollinators and modeling the rock cycle, and also regularly explored concepts in hands-on ways. This helped to build capacity in scientific habits of mind, including making observations, recording data, and analyzing outcomes to solve problems. Such hands-on activities likely also contributed to their overall success in the areas of Measurement and Geometry on PASS Mathematics during the same year (90.3% of students demonstrated proficiency or strengths in these areas).
Student strengths in Habitats & Adaptations are likely based on the natural connection between the content and our local environment, which teachers helped students to link by planning a walking field trip to a local park. This park is located on the bank of our local estuary, the May River, so students were able to experience maritime forest, salt marsh, and estuary ecosystems first-hand. Third graders were also engaged in an interdisciplinary writing project, in which they researched animal adaptations and used new learning to create their own informational texts.
The same PASS data signaled a need for improvement in the area of Heat & Changes in Matter (66.6% showed competency or strengths in this area). Project-based learning during the Heat & Changes in Matter unit focused on an overarching challenge that required students to create a habitat for an ice-cube “penguin” that would keep him frozen, even at the Columbia Zoo in a South Carolina climate. Students researched conductors and insulators in STEM lab by measuring differences in heat change when various materials surrounded a container, and applied this knowledge to design their penguin habitats. Since collaboration and hands-on connections to learning were present in this unit, a likely area of teacher concentration when this unit is taught again will be to help students make deliberate connections from the hands-on activities to the vocabulary and conceptual ideas. We are also working toward a goal of evaluating student mastery on particular skills more formally within and at the end of each unit. Students will be asked to demonstrate proficiency through performance tasks and written assessments and teachers will collaboratively determine the level of evidence required to demonstrate mastery.
Similar to third grade, fourth grade standardized test data shows the greatest student success in the study of Organisms & Their Environments (87.4% of students showed competency or strengths in this area). Learning activities related to life science in fourth grade included an interdisciplinary project based around the local environment, survival, and the Civil War. The “kickoff” for the unit was a field study in which each class walked to downtown Bluffton to photograph antebellum buildings and native organisms. Those pictures were brought back to school to be analyzed and used for making maps and to facilitate discussion of the survival of native plants and animals. The fourth graders were also visited by a guest speaker who is a historian and expert on the history of Bluffton, particularly around the time of the Civil War. He shared information with them about what life was like in Bluffton before the Civil War, the burning of Bluffton, transportation in the area at the time, and what life would have been like after the Civil War in Bluffton (and most of the South).
Students used the information gained from these experiences to design and create maps of Bluffton after its burning. There was a focus on the idea of survival in an environment – everyone in the area had to find a way to get necessities or leave, just like organisms in nature. Groups determined what necessities they would require for survival after the war, and designed plans to gather supplies from a local railroad or nearby city (Savannah) to help their families survive post-Civil War. They had a budget and list of materials for planning which materials to purchase and bring back (including sustainable and non-sustainable items, and organisms from other environments). While planning their purchases, students also designed, built, and tested a vehicle for bringing those items back to Bluffton. They were required to choose a route (land or water) and build an appropriate vehicle for carrying the greatest amount of weight possible. Immersion in this unit, as well as students’ familiarity with life science concepts and our local environment, likely contributed to their demonstrated success in this area.
Evidence of the benefit of authentically integrating content was also found through our students’ success in the Civil War elements of SC PASS last year (90.1% of students showed competency or strengths in this area). Proficiency in the area of Measurement and Data/Geometry (95.5% of fourth graders showed competency or strengths) was also likely gleaned from map-making and data collection activities included in this unit, as well as other STEM activities throughout the year.
Earth science units based around Weather and Astronomy did not show such high levels of demonstrated proficiency in the same year (24.3% of students showed a need for further instruction in Weather, while 23.4% of students showed a need for further instruction in Astronomy). These topics were explored during first and second quarter, and the severe weather and moon exploration activities in these units are areas to improve the next time they are taught. With an eye for improvement, this year’s weather unit requires fourth graders to use weather maps to predict and create their own forecasts as the STEM-based culminating project. Better alignment of the hands-on project to the more abstract concepts will ideally lead to more favorable learning outcomes.
Fifth grade students demonstrated most success last year in the areas of Scientific Inquiry (77.1% showed competency or strengths in this area) and Forces & Motion (75% of students showed competency or strengths in this area). Regular inquiry-based lessons and hands-on investigations, including the use of interactive notebooks, data recording, and reflections helped students develop their Scientific Inquiry abilities and explorative habits of mind.
For their spring inquiry unit, fifth grade classes focused on World War II and technological advancements in transportation at the time, along with Forces and Motion. While learning about the forces involved in flight and the battle strategies of the Allied and Axis forces, students were asked to design an airplane to travel as far as possible and land on target (in an effort to simulate the “island-hopping” strategy of the Allies in the Pacific during World War II). They were also asked to improve their vehicles by making them capable of carrying more cargo. Finally, students researched typical symbols and battle flags of the Allied forces who fought in the Pacific, and integrated art skills by decorating their planes to become models of real WWII fighters. As a culminating event, fifth grade classes visited the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum to apply their learning to life-sized aircraft and to learn more about American involvement in World War II. This interdisciplinary project-based learning activity and immersion in the real-world applications of the content made the forces and motion unit successful.
Mathematics skills naturally connected to this unit, as students measured flight distances, recorded test results, and averaged data. Students at this grade level were first introduced to STEM learning experiences in purposeful ways in fourth grade, and they have shown growth in math throughout their immersion in such learning. Spring mean RIT scores on the Measure of Academic Progress test have shown continuous growth over this time period.
Less effective learning activities were part of the Landforms & Oceans unit, in which only 64.5% of students demonstrated competency or strengths. The large-scale nature of the concepts in this unit made it less naturally suitable to practical, realistic explorations. Although learning activities centered on modeling and building various landforms and forms on the ocean floor, as well as exploring erosion and types of soil by designing and building TarPuls, the teachers’ reflections revealed that more realistic models and challenges would be desired to scaffold students’ learning more solidly in this area. The next time that this unit is taught, classes will connect standards about watersheds directly to research about our local May River and Colleton River watersheds, and will experience changes to Earth more directly while designing and constructing a schoolyard habitat and beautification project.