Off to the STEM Races

Building race cars made of food and powered by potential energy stored in a rubber band is one of the hands-on, inquiry-based activities in the Roads, Rails, and Race Cars after-school program, held in schools around Nebraska. Photo credit: Mid-America Transportation Center

When students build race cars and compete in races, they can learn science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) concepts, are more likely to retain what they learned, and have fun in the process, educators have found. Building and racing CO2-powered dragsters— miniature race cars propelled by a carbon dioxide cartridge—“creates a lot of excitement and anticipation in students. When I tell students that [there] is going to be a competition, that sparks a lot of students to want to try and make the best car possible,” says Matt Hall, a fifth-grade teacher at Manchester Middle School in Manchester, Michigan.

The project began two years ago when Amcor, a global supplier of plastic packaging that has a local office, gave the school a $2,500 grant to fund a science project. Hall and the other fifthgrade teachers “decided to do CO2 cars. It lined up with what I was teaching in fifth-grade science, in a forces and motion unit,” Hall explains. “When I was in high school, we built CO2-powered dragsters, and it was a memorable project for me. I liked designing something and building it and seeing it in 3D.” Continue reading …

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A“Fair Test”

Photo Credit By dotmatchbox at flickr

I’m starting to plan some formal assessments but, because it’s my first time, I’m not exactly sure if I’m creating a test correctly. Do you have any advice? —L., Nebraska

The notion of a fair test is an important tenet in science and we strive to teach our students how to develop unbiased data collection for the purpose of making sound conclusions about phenomena. This should also extend to the science teacher—developing fair, unbiased assessments that allow you to make a sound conclusion of what your students have learned. Here are just a few ideas on formal assessments that I have used and a few suggestions to help you along:

Try to build some success for all your students. Work from easy to hard questions.

  • Fill-in-the-blanks: place the blank at the end of the sentence.
  • Multiple Choice: Avoid “None of the above” or “All of the above”
  • Assessments should not be a punishment. This includes ‘snap’ quizzes.
  • Don’t surprise students with questions completely different from what they have seen before. (I can discuss exceptions to this in another blog.)
  • Do not try to trick students with double negatives, complicated wording, etc.
  • Set one copy of a test aside to take notes on how the test went: mistakes, ambiguous wording, etc. Fix mistakes as soon as possible or you’ll forget. Record how long it took for the first, median, and the last tests to be handed in and adjust the length accordingly.

Hope this helps!


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Hello everyone!

Wow, do I have big shoes to fill! Mary Bigelow is stepping down as NSTA’s original Ms. Mentor after years of advising teachers across the globe. She has demonstrated a noteworthy commitment to helping the science teaching community with thoughtful, sage advice on a vast array of topics. And now I’m taking over. Wow.

As I started writing my initial blogs, I was reminded of my first day of teaching. The head of the science department (and my former biology teacher!) put his arm around my shoulders and said, “Now that you’re here, you’ll really learn how to teach.” In my guided tour of the inner workings of the school he pointed out everyone’s filing cabinets in the science prep area. “In here, you’ll find everything you need—tests, labs, assignments, diagrams, notes. If you can’t find something—just ask! We’re here to help.” I immediately got the sense of community as I embarked on my career. From this initial exchange I took up the torch and committed myself to sharing, mentoring, running workshops and supporting my colleagues in any way I can.

Now that I have retired, writing an advice column feels like a natural progression in my journey as a science educator. I just hope that I can reach the standard set by Mary and provide you with advice that will be helpful on your own journey in our teaching community.

Kindest regards and…just ask! I’m here to help.
Gabe Kraljevic

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Challenging Our Brightest Thinkers

Although I encourage all of my students to consider a career in the sciences, I know it is probable that only the most persistent, passionate, and brightest will chose such a career path. I’ve been fortunate to teach many such students. This past May, a former student of mine earned the Best in Mathematics Award at the prestigious INTEL International Science and Engineering Fair. Such students are present in all of our classes and thus it is incumbent upon us to foster, nurture, and sustain student interest in engineering and the sciences. Many of these students are gifted; they are the kids who ‘get it’ after one explanation, who don’t need to review in to order pass tests with stellar grades, and who probably don’t need to do the majority of the drill and practice activities designed to develop comprehension of course content. These are the kids who finish everything early. While some may quietly read a book until the class catches up, others may drive you crazy with their antics and off-task behavior. Although you may be tempted to utilize these students as tutors, I caution you against this practice. All students have a right to learn, but tutoring does little extend or enrich learning; it merely reinforces what the student already knows.

Something that I’ve had success with in the past is requiring these students to participate in our school’s science fair. Although this can be a daunting prospect (for both the teacher and the student), tremendous growth can occur when students are scaffolded through the process. Probably the most difficult aspect of the science fair project is selecting the topic—but this is critical if we are to challenge our brightest thinkers. Choice allows our students to pursue a topic that they may otherwise not be able to study as part of the standard curriculum—especially critical when dealing with those students who have a focused and specific interest. Once the topic is selected, students need to engage in researching their topic so that they fully understand the real-world implication of their results. Designing a fair test, collecting and analyzing data, and drawing valid conclusions based on data are rigorous processes that will challenge most students while deepening their understanding of the nature of science—and of the disciplinary core content they investigated. There are numerous websites and materials available to help you guide your students through the steps involved in planning and carrying out a project. Continue reading …

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Retooled, not retired

I did not have a formal mentor when I was a new teacher. As I struggled, several colleagues and an administrator must have seen some potential and offered me advice and support. I was glad to return the favor during my career as a classroom teacher and administrator by mentoring and providing professional development. However, when eligible for retirement, I was not ready to give up my role as a science educator. I saw this advice column/blog as a way to retool rather than retire!

Interacting with teachers through their questions (or informally over coffee at a conference or meeting), reflecting on issues of interest, and sharing concerns of new teachers as well as career-changers has been a rewarding opportunity.

However, after 10 years and 400 MsMentor blogs, it’s time to pass the baton to another. Thanks to all those who submitted questions, added comments, and shared resources through the blog and NSTA Reports.

Once again, I’m retooling not retiring. I still write professionally, and I’ll continue as an online advisor in NSTA’s Discussion Forums. I’m involved in local environmental groups, citizen science projects, and informal science organizations.

Helping students learn about the world around them as a science teacher is a noble calling. We have a responsibility to model our own interests while engaging students in STEM and environmental topics as they develop into informed residents of our communities who enjoy science as part of their lifelong learning.



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President Trump Calls for $200 Million Boost for STEM Education

Last week President Trump issued a presidential memorandum calling for a $200 million boost to STEM education and computer science in K–12 schools. The memorandum,  signed during an Oval Office ceremony attended by Ivanka Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, is intended to help make STEM education a bigger priority for schools.

“My administration will do everything possible to provide our children, especially kids in underserved areas, with access to high-quality education in science, technology, engineering and math,” Trump said during the ceremony.

To focus on STEM and computer science the Department of Education will be asked to create a priority for these areas in existing discretionary federal grants, to be determined by ED, to the tune of $200 million. Grants that emphasize female and minority students in STEM/computer science will be given additional priority. The Administration is expected to announce the priorities soon.

Education Secretary DeVos was also tasked by the President to explore administrative actions” that would enhance computer-science education.”

As you will recall, former President Obama also called for a push to include more coding and STEM in the school curriculum, but the initiative was never funded. Continue reading …

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Intersection and integration of play and science learning

I was at a conference proudly wearing my tee shirt that says “Play” when I was given a chance to reflect on what I meant by an esteemed colleague and mentor who asked, “Ah yes, but what kind of play?”

My reflection continues as I continue to work with children and other educators in early childhood settings. 

Adults in cooperative play during a session at NAEYC.

Adults in cooperative play during a session at NAEYC.

Participating in an NAEYC conference 3-hour sessions on play by members of the NAEYC Play, Policy, and Practice interest forum  included participating in both hands-on solo and cooperative play experiences using a variety of open-ended materials. As we reflected on our play by journaling about it, I considered how this experience was like the open-ended exploration children do when they are beginning to investigate a natural material such as water (Young Scientist series). The individual-directed (child or adult) play is also like Phase o of  Frances and David Hawkins’ “messing about,” a time for unstructured, open-ended play while teachers observe the children’s work.

Children building structures using foam and wood blocks

Children play cooperatively building structures using “loose parts” of foam pieces, pom-poms, and wood blocks.

I wondered how the experience of play relates to science learning, asking myself, “Was exploring science concepts part of my play?” 

Co-facilitating a similar 3-hour session on play with colleague Jennifer Reynolds in the tradition of the NAEYC Play, Policy, and Practice interest forum and the Institute for Self Active Education for my local -AEYC affiliate allowed me to share the experience and these thoughts with early childhood educators in my area. 

The experience was meaningful to teacher Ms Gulilia Bismil who said, “When I made that structure I felt free…that moment I was who I am, just to enjoy to make something. That moment that was some feeling that came to me, I just enjoyed making something, relaxing. That moment I felt free.” 

Here are some questions for my colleagues when we meet for a second time to continue our play, reflecting on our own experiences and how our responsibilities for young children’s education can be centered on play.

Were you using the conditions of the physical world, the constraints like the presence of gravity, to guide your play? 

Did the physical world put limitations on your play or support it? 

Were exploring science concepts part of your play? Such as using our senses, or exploring balance of objects?

How does your play here today remind you of play children do in natural settings?

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Toward High School Biology: A New Curriculum for Your Middle School Students

Would you like to challenge your middle school students to explain a range of phenomena—from how nylon thread can form from two clear, colorless liquids to how a snake that eats only eggs can make body structures that don’t look anything like an egg? Would your students enjoy building molecular models with Legos to understand how an herbicide prevents weeds from growing? If so, then Toward High School Biology: Understanding Growth in Living Things by AAAS/Project 2061 is the curriculum for you.

Developed by a team of scientists and science educators and funded by a U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences grant, Toward High School Biology was field tested extensively. Results show that students who used the unit had significant learning gains compared with students who used other materials. The unit’s 19 lessons support the Next Generation Science Standards and integrate all three dimensions of science learning, with a strong emphasis on supporting students in developing evidence-based explanations. The goal of the unit is to help middle school students overcome many common conceptual difficulties and provide the foundation in biochemistry that students will need for high school biology and beyond.

Jo Ellen Roseman, director of Project 2061 (a long-term initiative of the American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS]) explains, “High school biology is fairly molecular. There has to be something in middle school to give [students] the background they need for thinking about what is happening.”

In the Student Edition, each chapter of the Toward High School Biology unit consists of carefully sequenced lessons and activities designed to draw upon students’ prior knowledge and experiences relevant to classroom activities; support students as they investigate and make sense of phenomena and models; guide students in developing, analyzing, and critiquing explanations (e.g., of a hypothetical student, of their peers, and of those of the scientific community) in light of their experiences; provide opportunities for students to apply or extend science ideas and practices to new phenomena; and help students synthesize their ideas and reflect on changes in their thinking. Continue reading …

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Science specialists

I am K-6 science specialist in Australia. I am keen to make contact with others in this unique employment situation. I’m interested in issues such as timetabling (scheduling), support from the school, and any issues with the teachers’ union. – C., New South Wales

Some U.S. schools have elementary science specialists. Depending on the school, these specialists can have a variety of roles: co-teacher, mentor, coach, resource coordinator, professional development. Some teach science to several classes as an elementary “special,” while the classroom teacher has a planning period and is not in the classroom. These positions are often funded by grants.

At one time, I was a K-12 technology specialist, and my school district also had a K-5 science specialist. We were both part of the bargaining unit and on the teacher salary scale (our district was unionized).

Even though we visited classrooms often, we had no supervisory or evaluative roles. We were coaches or mentors rather than administrators, and teachers were very receptive and responsive to us. If we did interact directly with students, it was a co-teaching experience to assist the teacher with a science or technology-enhanced lesson.

In terms of support, we each had “office” space to work and store materials (a corner of an unused classroom or conference room). Budget-wise we had some funds for materials and equipment, mostly from grants and federal programs in professional development or math/science/technology.

I posted your request on an NSTA Discussion Forum for input from colleagues in similar roles. (Even if you’re not an NSTA member, you can create a free account to respond to discussion posts, ask questions, or access NSTA resources through the Learning Center.)  



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Documenting science investigations in preschool: Solar eclipse and butterfly metamorphosis

Thank you to the director, Sandra Redmore, and the teachers of Clarendon Child Care Center, Andria Shelton, Barbara Foster, and Sarah Abu-El-Hawa, for sharing their teaching practices and science explorations!

Viewing a solar eclipse and watching a newly emerged butterfly use its wings are two ways young children at the Clarendon Child Care Center engaged with transformations in nature. Their experiences were not one-time events but part of on-going investigations into patterns of shadows and changes in living organisms as they grow. Documenting their experiences in the investigations revealed children’s thinking, information teachers can later use for planning future discussions and explorations.
Child watering bean plants in a gardenAt the beginning of summer, the addition of a sunscreen application time reflected the longer time the children were spending outdoors enjoying, but protected from, the sun’s radiation. All summer the children tended their gardens of green beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, and milkweed. Water breaks for plants and people emphasized the seasonal changes in the needs of living organisms. Time passed quickly in play but results were not fast enough in daily hunts for “big enough” green beans and Monarch butterfly eggs.

Transformation in the sun’s appearance
Two children shine flashlights on the wall.Indoors the children and teachers discussed the moon blocking the sun like a shadow or a cloud overhead to prepare for viewing the solar eclipse on August 21, 2017. They played with flashlights and explored making shadows. They practiced not looking at the sun until they were wearing the glasses with solar filter lenses. Families were contacted with safety information and permission forms, and volunteers recruited for the day.
Teacher views the eclipse with the same sense of wonder the children experience That afternoon, the three and four year old classes played in the large muscle (gross motor) room indoors with moon-themed centers while a few children at a time, with the direct assistance of adults, took turns viewing the solar eclipse, each spending at least five awestricken minutes outside. Originally teachers planned for the entire group to go out together and stay outside for a long period of time but researching how to make it a safe experience led them to take the children out in small groups instead, for multiple short viewings of five minutes with adults more directly supervising the children’s use of glasses. The children’s documentation shows what an impact this experience had on them.  Continue reading …

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