As Gina and Amanda pursued professional development opportunities to strengthen their science content knowledge, they were introduced to STEM education. They were intrigued by the real world nature and “out of the box” thinking of STEM education. Together, they applied to and were accepted into the Verizon Design Lab Fellowship that was run by the New York Hall of Science. During this fellowship they learned the design process and developed STEM projects that they implemented the following semester. Although they enjoyed the Design Lab as adults, they were both hesitant about bringing it to the classroom, expressing concerns about how students would respond to participating in design challenges without only one “right answer”.
Despite their concerns, they worked together to design a structure for implementing STEM instruction in their classrooms. They discussed materials management, group member roles, and student accountability that would support this new type of learning. Despite their initial fears, they risked being out of their comfort zone to bring STEM-based design challenges into their classrooms.
Gina and Amanda began implementing their STEM projects and units in their special education and general education classes and noticed three very interesting trends amongst students. Many of the students that usually struggled with basic academic tasks became leaders as they were the most engaged and successful when given the chance to express their creativity. On the other hand, many of the higher achieving students struggled significantly with the open-ended tasks and became frustrated when they experienced failure. These students had difficulty embracing the idea of failure and were caught up in being “right” or “the best”. They also observed that many of their female students deferred to their male peers instead of taking the lead during STEM group work, saying, “I'm just not good at math and science”. Their observations convinced them that their students needed to experience STEM learning all year instead of only working on one project during science class. To help foster developing the ingenuity in all of their students, helping students to embrace failure and encouraging girls to seek out STEM-related opportunities, Gina and Amanda were inspired to propose a STEM elective to their administration.
Simon Baruch Middle School (J.H.S. 104) is a large middle school with nearly 1,200 students in grades 6-8. The student body is diverse academically, ethnically, and socioeconomically. The student population is 40% Asian, 28% Caucasian, 21% Hispanic, 8 % African American, and 3% other. Approximately, 20% of our students received special education services and there is a 5% ELL population. Given the vast range of students, the school tracks students into different programs based on their academic needs. J.H.S.104 also has a SP (specialized placement) program for students who perform well on the NY State ELA and Math exams. These students have the opportunity to take high school Regents courses in Algebra and Earth Science.
Designing the STEM Course
To design the STEM elective at J.H.S.104, Gina and Amanda revised their proposed syllabus multiple times. Each revision reflected an increased focus on identifying skills that students needed to develop in order to successfully engage in their STEM curriculum. This led to the creation of a comprehensive STEM curriculum map for a year-long elective course. Units were designed reflecting Gina and Amanda’s shared professional development experiences such as designing earthquake proof structures; building bridges with simulation software; and, biomimicry (looking at nature as inspiration for solving human problems). Their goal was for their students to understand how to learn from both success and more importantly failure using their creativity to design divergent solutions.
Their syllabus was approved and they were finally able to advertise the course to current 6th graders for the following year. Student interest was overwhelming. Over 90 students wanted to take the course! The first class of 7th grade students was over 60% female. During the first year, Gina and Amanda were fortunate to be able to co-teach the class and make revisions to the curriculum as needed.
The 7th grade STEM elective was such a success that Gina and Amanda were able to expand the program and create a new 8th grade class for the fall of 2014. To create this curriculum they traveled to Iceland during the summer to study sustainability since this was going to be a major focus of the course. They planned together to identify ways that the 8th grade curriculum could push the students to meet high school engineering course standards and expectations. The development of the 8th grade course focused on creating a truly student centered classroom. The implementation of different strategies to support student-guided learning was hugely successful as students were able to develop their own questions about and design solutions to real world problems utilizing urban agriculture, biomimetic structures and circuits.
The STEM team visited every 6th grade class and presented the STEM elective course proposal to the students. Each student was given a survey to indicate their interest in the course and were given a chance to apply. After students applied, the applicant pool was narrowed down based on teacher recommendations, interest in STEM, and student’s ability to collaborate and work in groups. Twenty-eight eager and excited seventh graders made up the first student cohort for the STEM elective course. The STEM teacher team continued teaching their regular schedules and in addition would teach the STEM elective once a week for a double period (90 minute block). While it was difficult to find time to plan, a double period was extremely beneficial since the students had ample time to engage in hands-on building and to design and test their prototypes. The curriculum was divided into six major design challenges based on a real world problem. Each week instruction focused on different aspects of the engineering design process as related to their design challenge. The teachers also presented different strategies and protocols to the students to better promote collaboration and teamwork throughout the curriculum.
Following the success of the 7th and 8th grade elective course, Gina and Amanda were asked by their principal to create a 6th grade course that started in September 2015. To help, a new teacher, Jeannie was added to their STEM team based on Gina and Amanda’s suggestions. Gina and Amanda had collaborated with Jeannie on a literacy initiative run by the American Museum of Natural History. Their ability to collaborate as a team coupled with Jeannie’s work with a STEM camp for the last two summers made her a perfect fit. The new STEM team decided the new curriculum should bridge the gap between understanding the scientific method and learning the engineering design process since students are often learning formal science process skills for the first time in the 6th grade. The 6th grade curriculum they developed focused on thermal and fluid dynamics where students learn how to conduct experiments with a single variable and then use their data to inform and create the ultimate design to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem the students were given. As a team, they decided that each team member would be responsible for a specific unit. They met several times over the summer to plan and revise the new curriculum.
They also began work on integrating STEM into the regular 6-8 science curriculum at their school. For this work, they added another member to the team. The team now includes a science teacher from each middle school grade level and a special education teacher. They meet to design STEM challenges aligned with the current science curriculum to share with the other science teacher teams at their school.
Below is a list of some of the design challenges that they’ve designed for STEM and Science classes at MS104.
Playground for All Challenge
You are a student in middle school. Your class has been assigned to use your newfound knowledge of simple machines to re-design your school’s playground (or a playground in your community if your school does not have a playground) to be used by all children.
Keeping It “Cool” Challenge
You are a zoo habitat designer that is in charge of recreating the penguin exhibit. As you are renovating, you need to create a place for the penguins to live in temporarily. Your habitat has to stay “cool” so the penguins can live comfortably.
Erosion Reduction Challenge
Grade 7 Science/ Earth Science
The Soil Science team hired you to help decrease the erosion happening near the lake because every time it rains soil gets washed into the lake, polluting the water.
West Point Bridge Design
Grade 7 STEM/ Computer Modeling
You are a civil engineer and you have just been assigned to redesign the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis, MN which collapsed. In your civil engineering teams, use the simulation software to redesign and test your prototype.
Extra Terrestrial Habitat
Grade 8 Science/ Astronomy
You work for NASA and your job is to design a structure that will sustain life for a family of four for at least one year on a planet or moon of your choice.
Urban Agriculture Challenge
Grade 8 STEM/ Human Impact
You are a city planner. Design a model for an urban farm that best fits to needs of your specific community.
The development of J.H.S 104’s STEM program has had a significant impact on the students and teachers who participated in the courses. The curriculum was intentionally designed to focus on developing collaboration skills. Teachers observed that shy and reserved students gained confidence as they progressed through the curriculum and became able to share their ideas and collaborate using the engineering design process. Students with more dominating personalities, learned how to compromise with their peers and to understand that sometimes it is beneficial to not always be the leader. Another important noticing was that the level of engagement in of female students in STEM was significantly higher than that of male students as evidenced by the higher number of girls who opted to continue with the STEM course in 8th grade.
Students that participated in the course in both 7th and 8th grade used their newfound abilities to successfully collaborate and communicate with their peers to become STEM mentors and ambassadors for J.H.S. 104. Many of the students in the 8th grade course volunteered to present their work at the school’s first STEM Expo in addition to mentoring 2nd and 3rd grade students at an elementary school in Queens. A special group of girls from the first STEM class are still very involved in the school’s STEM community and often volunteer their time to present at different events at other public schools or museums. In addition to gaining experience as STEM mentors, many students are inspired to attend STEM camps, specialized after school programs, and apply to high schools with an engineering focus.
In addition to the positive outcomes experienced by the students, the STEM team also grew tremendously as a result. The iterative process of designing curriculum offered the team a unique opportunity to hone in on their collaboration skills, to further develop their understanding of STEM and to share their experiences and knowledge with other educators across the country. Through this process, Gina and Amanda learned how to work with each other’s strengths and weaknesses to be an efficient and effective team. As they progressed through their STEM journey, Gina and Amanda were able to identify different levels of STEM learning and the skill needed to progress from one level to another. Most importantly, their success with the STEM program provided them with the knowledge and the confidence to support the STEM community by designing workshops for professional development, collaborating with other educators to design curriculum , and partnering with informal institutions to implement STEM based programs.
Gina and Amanda describe going through the process of designing a brand new course and curriculum as an exciting yet terrifying experience. As pioneers of STEM education at J.H.S. 104, they had to identify and reflect on what skills were needed to teach students in order for them to be successful with a curriculum that was student-centered and focused on using the engineering design process, critical thinking, and collaboration to solve real world problems. As this was new work both to the teachers and students, exposure to open-ended challenges with divergent solutions often cause teachers to be apprehensive since they had no idea how students were going to react or approach this type of work and were afraid to let go of the control in their classrooms. However time and time again, students continued to impress the STEM team by rising to the challenge and demonstrating creativity, ingenuity, and collaboration in their work.
While the benefits of seeing students engaged in this high level work that requires the use of 21st century skills such as resilience, persistence, etc. is incredible, it certainly is not easy to design a year-long STEM course for a team yet alone one person. Gina and Amanda both stress the importance of collaborating with other teachers and working as a team. Most importantly, they’ve learned that if you want to do something different, you must do things differently, meaning if you want students to be innovative problem solvers, you needed to design a course that allows them to do so. Gina and Amanda made the bold decision to step out of their comfort zone, take risks and encourage their students to do the same and were rewarded by having a lasting impact on their students, the school community, and fellow STEM educators across the nation.
Gina Tesoriero and Amanda Solarsh are teachers who’ve started their teaching career as New York City Teaching Fellows . Gina is a middle school special education teacher and Amanda is a middle school science teacher. Together, they created and developed a new STEM education program at J.H.S. 104 which focuses on utilizing the engineering design process to solve real world problems.