Sunday, January 24, 2016

STEM in the Social Studies Classroom

Isn't it funny how education likes to rebrand ideas?  One of the more recent suspects of rebranding is the idea of STEM in the classroom.  I'm pretty sure when I was a kid, it was just called hands-on science.

Moving on.

As a sixth grade social studies teacher, I thought I may find it difficult to incorporate STEM activities into the curriculum.  Surprisingly it's been easier than I thought.  After-all, the ancient Greeks and Romans were nothing less than innovative, impressive engineers.  Having the ability to combine such rich history with critical thinking skills typically reserved for the science and math classroom has been an amazing bonus this school year.  Throw in the technology we have access to and it's been an environment I could have only dreamed about three years ago.

Recently, I challenged my students to "think as the Romans do" and build an aqueduct that would carry water from point A (mountaintop), across point B (an arcade-Roman bridge structure), and finally emptying out at point C (Roman town).  I was so excited about this project, I had difficulty sleeping the night before!

The use of technology in this activity was instrumental.  Students had to complete research about Roman architecture and design, use the Sketchbook app to sketch designs, and in some way record the thinking and building process.  Hands-on by itself is good.  Technology by itself is good.  Together they are GREAT!

The screenshot to the right is basically the "script" we used to present this project to the students.  My "wing" partner and I (other sixth grade SS teacher) really tried to get into the role and play this up.  The excitement was buzzing before we even got started.

STEM is all about requiring students to think for themselves.  When designing this project, students were only given basic information and direction.  While we were on hand to facilitate discussion amongst groups, we were careful to not interject our opinions or guide them too specifically.  This was THEIR project.

Their successes.  Their failures.  Their learning.

Groups were given access to a wide range of materials to construct their aqueducts and arcades.  They were allowed to use their materials however they chose, but they also knew if they blew through, broke, or otherwise lost a material...there were no more!  We played this up by talking about Roman taxes!  The material we saw most students destroyed...the tape!

*Side note: HUGE shout out to an amazing parent/high ability coach who helped us organize our material set up FIVE times throughout the day!  It was nothing short of an exhausting task!

Here are the materials students had access to:

One of the more interesting arcade designs using
spaghetti and marshmallows.

  • 20 strands spaghetti
  • 2 tissue boxes
  • 8 large marshmallows
  • 20 small marshmallows
  • 8 straws
  • 5 popsicle sticks
  • two long pieces of masking tape
  • one long piece of duct tape 
  • one foil pan (this was their "town")
  • one bottle filled with water
  • one small cup 
  • old textbooks (just for fun...who says textbooks can't be valuable?..wink wink!)

A countdown timer was placed on the large screen while students worked.  They divvied up group roles (material gatherer, supervisor, recorder, etc.) and set to work.

It was loud.  It was busy.  It was messy.

It was amazing.

I think I actually teared up a couple of times watching them.  While it was all of those things, what it definitely WASN'T was chaotic, obnoxious, or boring.  When students are 100% engaged, behavior becomes a bygone issue.

Everyone on task.  Everyone learning. 
We had our fair share of great successes and even greater failures.  The photo below sums up my favorite group.  They were overly ambitious, not super organized, and probably had too many chiefs. I think though- they learned more than some of the successful crews.
Having the freedom to fail brought some of the
best lessons. 
At the end of the work session, groups had the opportunity to demonstrate their aqueduct.  I loved the cooperative, encouraging atmosphere the students created for one another.  There were some tremendous flops, and it was great to see students have the ability to laugh in spite of themselves.  Groups got to share and reflect on what made them successful or not and what aspects of the project were easy/hard.  Students followed up by completing a reflection via discussion in our LMS, Canvas. Having a list of questions for students to ask themselves helped guide their reflections and made them more meaningful.

I recently had the students complete a survey to wrap up our first semester of learning (thank goodness for Google Forms).  I wanted to have their input on our classroom to better guide my instruction for the rest of the year.  One question asked students which activity stood out most and will stand the test of time (aka...they will remember it when they are my age).  Seven out of ten students mentioned this project.

So was it hard work?  Yes.  Exhausting?  Yes.  

Worth it?  Oh yeah!  

How have you incorporated STEM into your classroom?  



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