July 30, 2015

STEM vs. "Traditional" Design

In my last post, "In a Test-Weary World, Design!", I laid out a chart comparing and contrasting STEM Design vs."Traditional" Design.  You might wonder why the "Traditional" is in quotation marks.  Many people would consider traditional design in line with project-based learning (PBL).  In a PBL approach, a content is typically taught through formal lessons first, with a design project/challenge serving as the application of knowledge at the end of a unit of study.

My view of traditional design is what I have traditionally used in my classroom, which is much more in line with Doreen Nelson's Design-Based Learning (DBL). This is due in part because I received a Master's degree in DBL, but moreso because I have firsthand proof to how effective and engaging DBL can be. Over the years, I've taken enough liberties with the methodology that I probably can't call what I'm doing true DBL, but certainly, I apply many of its tenets. 

DBL applies Backwards Thinking™, which I will describe in greater depth in the next post. The defining characteristic of  Backwards Thinking™ is that students respond to design challenges before conducting research or participating in formal lessons.  This leads to more innovative designs; designing post-instruction often leads to replication of that which already exists.  Design pre-research also has the added benefit of providing context for scaffolding learning and provides opportunities for students to apply new learning in design revisions.  In short, my view of "traditional" is actually a bit backwards!

Let's revisit the STEM vs. "Traditional" Design Chart.  I want to call out the sections in blue font below:

STEM & "Traditional" Design: Content-lessons support an engaging, context-providing design session.  According to NGSS standards, STEM challenges should be used in the PBL traditional sense; that is, content-lessons and research are conducted pre-design challenge.  It is up to you whether or not to follow that approach, but I do not.  For both STEM and "Traditional" challenges, I've found it far more effective - not to mention interesting - to issue the challenge first. It's fascinating to see what students create when they do not have pre-conceived notions in mind.  They key is giving students the opportunity to revise and refine their designs again after lessons and research to show application of knowledge.

STEM and "Traditional" design both incorporate integrated content lessons, but there is a stronger focus on that in DBL challenges.  STEM focuses on, well, STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) plus some supporting ELA standards support engineering, whereas DBL seeks to integrate standards in a rich, deep way from all content areas using the context of the design as the jumping-off point.  That isn't to say the same approach couldn't be applied to STEM designs, just that the NGSS standards don't stress integrated content lessons to the same extent as Nelson's DBL.

STEM Design: Output focus is on engineering an object to perform a certain way or do something. For STEM, obviously, the focus is on engineering.  The challenges include criteria for the object to do something, i.e. carry a capacity, withstand a certain weight, travel a certain distance, etc.

Student STEM design"boat" to carry as much capacity (measured in pennies) as possible before sinking.

"Traditional" Design: Output focus is on designing an object to be or represent something and communicating about the design.  "Traditional" design challenges do not require the designed object be able to perform in any way.  This opens up opportunities to tie in different types of challenges and potentially more content standards. For example, if the design challenge was to create a never-before-seen (NBS) way to provide a city with energy, students are not expected to build a working prototype.  Instead, they create a model and speak to how they envision it working.  Students learn to ask and answer questions about designs and think on their feet.

Student answers questions from peers about his NBS way to provide power to an NBS city.

If you're thinking of trying design challenges in your classroom, both STEM and "Traditional" are fantastic options.  I recommend both - and often!  My advice is just to dive right in.  You really can't go wrong, and you'll get better at integrating content and squeezing every last drop from a challenge with experience. In the interim, there are pre-made lessons and many resources out there for beginners. (Shameless plug: Visit my store for examples!) 

I'll be adding to this series over the next few months, but feel free to leave any questions you might have below. I'm always happy to help people get started with design in the classroom!   

Next time: More on Doreen Nelson's DBL/ Backwards Thinking™ and creating effective Criteria/Constraints lists for challenges.

July 24, 2015

In a Test-Weary World, DESIGN!

Do you ever feel your class has lost that loving feeling?  You know what I'm talking about - that buzz of I-love-learning electricity that signals to all that your class is THE place to be!  Design challenges - STEM and otherwise - are a great way to get back on track.  In a test-weary world, teach with purpose, teach with passion, teach with DESIGN!

In my classrooms, I gravitate toward two kinds of design challenges: STEM and what I call "Traditional." The two have far more in common than not, as shown in the chart below.  As a caveat, my view of traditional design might differ from others. This post uses these commonalities to do a little myth-busting, and an upcoming post will offer up tips and go into greater detail to contrast STEM and "Traditional" Design Challenges.

Four common misperceptions about Design challenges- STEM, Traditional, or otherwise - in your classroom:

1. It's just play; there's no rigor

Build a Boat Challenge
It is play, but it's also enormously productive!  The problem-solving, critical thinking, and application of knowledge is at extremely high levels during Design Challenges. Fun, engaging, and meaningful are by-products of Design is done right, and it's nothing to fear or apologize for. Fun & rigorous aren't mutually exclusive!

A strong approach is to conduct a challenge as an opening activity to a unit of study.  This sets the foundation, providing the context and motivation for learning.  Next, teach related content lessons and/or have students research.  Then conduct at least one additional iteration of the challenge to give students an opportunity to apply their learning.

Build a Boat Challenge Materials
2.  Materials are too expensive

As with so many things, it's as expensive as you let it get.  The most important feature of Design Challenge materials is their malleability.  I've used an awful lot of foil, pipe cleaners, tape, and newspaper over the years.  I've also included special, pricier materials from time to time: Crayola Model Magic, sequins, feathers, etc.

Generally, I look for materials inspiration at my local Dollar Tree, and I ask students to bring in "clean trash" (water bottle lids, packing materials, cardboard etc.).  There is absolutely no reason Design challenges should lighten your wallet!

3. Too much prep

Build a Boat Lesson Guide
I would argue that you can pretty easily conduct a challenge without much prep, and it would be engaging and require students to think critically and problem-solve.  It would be a valuable exercise on those counts alone.

However,  to get the full value from a Design Challenge, there is some work involved.  Probably the most important prep work is the construction of your criteria and constraints list (more on this in next post). This is your opportunity to bake in content standards you will teach in follow-up lessons.  Finding the opportunities in your content standards takes some prep, but after one or two challenges, it won't take long to do.

There's also lots of lesson plan help available around the web.  The photos above are from this lesson pictured (left) and there are fun ideas available at the Odyssey of the Mind site as well.  

4.  Takes too much time

Part of the beauty of using a criteria and constraints list is that you can constrain on time in order to complete challenges in a set time frame.  If you commit to using Design Challenges in your room, it will be helpful to set up some materials procedures for getting started and cleaning up.

For the actual Design activity, it can be conducted as a one-off with very little prep and you will find, the creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving involved in Design justify the time.  Going a step further to tie in content lessons and Design in multiple iterations do require additional time, but the juice is worth the squeeze!


Related Posts:

STEM vs. "Traditional" Design Challenges

Halloween STEM Olympics

Thanksgiving STEM Olympics

Christmas STEM Olympics

Valentine's Day STEM Olympics

St. Patrick's Day STEM Olympics

Easter STEM Olympics

July 9, 2015

The Elusive Work-Life Balance

I recently read an article called "The downside of no downtime for kids" (that is their stylistic capitalization - not mine). It suggests, unsurprisingly, that over-scheduling denies children the opportunity to wonder, ask questions, and come to grow and develop their character.  It got me thinking quality downtime is critical for everyone - young and old.

I am endlessly interested in exploring work-life balance.  It's kind of my elusive white whale.  I just can't seem to figure it out, but I'm obsessed it!

Ideally, each day would include time to work (job, creative endeavors, errands, etc.), time to exercise, time with friends & family, some downtime, and 8 hours of gorgeous sleep.  

The reality: I burn myself out with work during the week to the near-exclusion of all else and attempt to recover on the weekends with downtime and friends/family time.  On a particularly exhausting week, downtime usually translates to sleeping in and binge-watching Netflix & Hulu, and I might not have much energy for socializing. I do not consider this quality downtime, but rather medical downtime.  My physical body has time to relax, but I am not pondering any of life's great questions or challenging myself in any way to grow as I watch an entire season of Orange is the New Black.

If I enjoyed a standard week, quality downtime can be had.  I might hike, have friends over, or even read.  I guess that's a sort of balance.  But if work = 5 days and life = 2 days, it's not really what I'm going for.  And if I'm being honest, I allow work to encroach on the weekends, too.

It's difficult to achieve the balance partially because I do enjoy most of the work I'm doing. Creating good work is tremendously satisfying. In and of itself, this is not a bad thing, but it can go too far.

A few years ago, some colleagues and I had a two-day lesson study professional development.  Day 1 entailed preparing a "perfect" lesson on comparing fractions.  Day 2 of this lesson study involved us actually teaching the lesson to several classes with reflection and modification in between each class, arriving at the end of the day with something closer to a perfect lesson.

On my way to Day 2, fraction manipulatives in tow, traffic was moving swiftly.  As I came around a bend in the freeway, I lost control of my tiny Geo Prism and I was flying across four lanes, perpendicular to oncoming traffic.  In what I thought were the last moments of my life, my final thought would have been, "Damn, they won't have the fraction tiles."   

When my car came to a stop - perfectly centered in the left-hand carpool lane facing the opposite direction- I was beyond fortunate to find oncoming traffic completely stopped with the drivers waiting, their eyes locked on mine.  After a brief, stunned pause, I made a u-turn and drove to school, my leg shaking violently the whole way there.

I think about that day a lot.  However much pride I take in my work, I don't want to be thinking about it on my death bed - or death car, as the case may be.  The search for life-work balance continues to elude me. I keep failing, but I also keep trying.  That day in the car serves as an important reminder and metaphor for me:  When I find myself facing the wrong way, I'm grateful I'm there to recognize it.  I have to take advantage of these second chances and make the u-turn.

On that note, I think it's time for some quality downtime with my special lady.

Dog treats may have been required to capture this moment.

Next time: Inspiring Writing Prompts


photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/10787737@N02/17332458531">December 30, 2014</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">(license)</a>

photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/51458526@N00/5456523073">Cecilia Compare</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/">(license)</a>

July 6, 2015

NGSS: 7 Steps for Getting Started

If you'll be rolling out NGSS this year, you might be unsure where to begin.  Below are 7 steps to get you started.

1) Gut Check

You have been told you will be implementing the Next-Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and you have seen a few examples of these standards.  The changes from your previous science curriculum could be significant.  It's possible you might find the depth of some performance expectations/standards daunting.  

I love teaching science, and there still were a couple of times I caught panic rising in the back of my throat and that nasty thought, "Hmm ... I'm not sure I could complete that performance standard myself ..."

It's important to acknowledge - at least to yourself - which standards give you pause, if any.  A common defense mechanism is to sweep it under the carpet and ignore it.  Don't give in to that temptation!  

Make a note of these areas and jot down some ideas to address them.  I usually start with internet research*.  If that's not enough, I generate a list of people I might know who could a) teach me or b) class swap with me so we each cover an area of strength with the other's classes.  

Another option could be available at your district level.  Due to supply & demand for district resources, I usually start closer to home and work outward: myself, friends, school colleagues, and then district support.

*You Tube videos can be a Godsend in illustrating difficult or new concepts.

2) Understand how to read the standards.

3) Get the full list of your standards by grade.

If you are an elementary teacher,  it will look like this:

For middle and high schools:

There is also a search option:

4) Get the Big Picture

For elementary, read through your standards and those at the surrounding grade levels.  
For middle and high school, someone in your district is likely to have sorted through and assigned standards by grade level.  If they have not, you will want to schedule a meeting with the science department teachers ASAP to create your own standards plan by grade level.  NGSS has laid out a Model Course Mapping for middle and high school, which serves as a nice jumping off point.

5) Year-long Map

Map out your standards and performance expectations for the year so you can decide how much time to devote to each.  If you teach all academic subjects, note where there are cross-curricular opportunities. If not, try to set up interdisciplinary meetings to find areas of collaboration with your colleagues. 

The shift from state standards to NGSS likely means fewer standards to explore, with an expectation to explore each more deeply.  One you adjust your timing to account for this shift, you have a good framework to build your plans in greater depth.

6) Plan & Gather Resources

It is quite likely you will find yourself short on resources with the implementation of NGSS.  Your science texts might not align well given the changes.  Embrace this freedom!  

At least for your first unit of study, begin pulling resources.  Keep the mantra in mind "Doing science."  It's not that we don't want students to read about science, but we want to keep the balance shifted in favor of doing.  Hands-on and collaborative activities focusing on higher-level thinking and  scientific reasoning should be your focus!  A few of my own resources are shown and linked below.

Metaphorical Cells Freebie
Analyze & Interpret Data Unit
STEM Challenge: Boat Building
Photosynthesis Hands-On Modeling
Characteristics of Living Things

7) Baby Steps & Kindness

It might be a struggle at first, but you'll be walking and running before you know it!

When we attempt too many changes at once, we are less likely to be successful.  Implementing a new set of standards, incorporating engineering standards/practices, setting up cross-disciplinary collaboration, gathering new resources, and providing more opportunities to "do" science (perhaps in a less than ideal classroom space) are just a few of the potential changes you are facing.  

It is unlikely in the first year you will be completely satisfied with your performance in all areas.  And keep in mind, it will be quite a shift for students as well!  Prioritize a few areas on which to focus, and add more as you gain facility and comfort.  Be kind to yourself - just not too kind!  As you always do, focus on what works for your kids, but continue to challenge yourself to grow and improve!  

And may the odds be ever in your favor!

Related Posts: 

July 3, 2015

NGSS & the Romantic Comedy: More in Common than You Think

Will your district be implementing the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) this year?  If so, have you gut-checked your visceral reaction to the news?  

If you've been around awhile, you might anticipate the introduction of a new set of standards much as you do jury duty or summer flu.  There's a chance you've come to see these roll-outs as much ado about nothing new - and the reaction would not be unfounded based on past experience.  We have too often been directed to teach standards our career education has taught us are developmentally inappropriate.  For instance, before Common Core's sweeping changes, California State Standards had me teaching 2nd graders to describe particle motion in the three states of matter.  I also recall 5th grade physical science included a few dubious standards involving the periodic table.

Knowing my options were to introduce content too abstract for the age group or risk students being blindsided on standardized tests, I tried to create learning experiences to make the content accessible and fun - as is my approach in general - but I never felt good about it.  The internal dissonance created when asked to do something that isn't right for students has led to many of us feeling jaded and resistant when presented with yet another curriculum change.  

So I have been poking into NGSS's past and digging into the details, expecting to find dirt ... and here I should stop for a moment.  You know the romantic comedy cliche where the new guy comes into town and shakes things up, threatens the status quo, and makes bunch of enemies?  Then perhaps his greatest foe comes to begrudgingly respect him, and eventually finds herself shocked when she discovers she is - in fact - in love with this guy? I may or may not have just gone through this dance with NGSS.  As unlikely as it first seemed, I think I might be in love.  

At first, I was annoyed with NGSS.  Why are these standards so flippin' hard to read?! Admittedly, I did just dive in because I wanted to get to the good stuff.  NGSS, that was my fault.  I thought I knew better than you.  I'm a grown woman, a ten-year teacher, and I know how to read!  So I skipped the page NGSS laid out to set the foundation for reading the standards.  Don't make my mistake; start with a quick review of how to read the standards

Next, I cruised around the NGSS site a bit, trying to get to know it better.  (Cue begrudging respect, quickly followed by excitement.) There is still much to explore and read, but I've yet to find a standard that creates dissonance for me.  

My overall impression is that these standards represent a much needed and welcome sea change.  The underlying premise is that kids should be doing science, and working to deep levels with developmentally appropriate disciplinary core ideas (DCIs).  At least in California, this changes dramatically which concepts are taught at which grade levels at the elementary and middle school levels, and I've not seen such a shift before. Also at the foundation of NGSS is that scientific & engineering concepts and practices should integrated and connected rather than being taught as isolated units.  Finally, of course, there is alignment with Math and ELA Common Core.

This is my go-to link for the big picture.  It helped me quickly find where standards had moved grade levels, and exactly what students are expected to do and know at each grade level.  It took awhile for me to happen upon this page, so I wanted to call it out. 

Line after line, standard after standard, I was met with that beautiful simpatico feeling where it all rings true and aligns with my core beliefs and philosophy about teaching science.  NGSS ... I think we're soul mates.  I want to have a Tom Cruise-hopping-on-the-couch-on-Oprah moment with/about you.

It's not all going to be perfect.  No relationship ever is.  But I like what you're about, and I think we can make this thing work. 

Next time: NGSS - Getting Started and the Intimidation Factor