Creating STEM Units filled with Options: Challenge by Choice

I was never one for working hard in school.  I did what I was told, but I never went above and beyond.  Sure, my grades were fine, but did I really learn a lot?  Probably not.  Had my teachers offered extra challenges or alternative methods to meeting or exceeding the objectives, I wonder if that would have made a difference.  Would I have been inspired to rise to the occasion and put forth extra effort?  Would I have chosen the more difficult route?  Doubtful, but I’d like to think that the possibility might still have existed.

As a teacher, I want to provide my students with every possible opportunity.  I create my STEM units with plenty of scaffolding to support my ELL students and those who struggle to process information and comprehend abstract scientific concepts and also with plenty of extension possibilities to challenge my accelerated or fast learning students.  This way, I hope, all of my students will feel supported and challenged.  After piloting this STEM program last year in the classroom, I learned a lot about how to help my students grow and develop.  This year, I tweaked a lot of my units to provide plenty of choices and challenges for my students.  I want them to feel empowered so that they own their learning.  Genuine learning happens through engagement and so if they feel as if they own their academic choices, they will be more open to learning the concepts and ideas in a meaningful manner.

In STEM class today, the students began working on the science portion of the astronomy unit.  Following a short video introduction into Earth’s cosmic address, I reviewed the expectations for the Knowledge Phase of the science component.  The boys asked many questions to process the information.  They seemed excited and motivated to work.  The boys had two choices: Complete a Roadmap Worksheet based on an online Astronomy textbook entry or find Astronomy resources and answer three questions based on the graded objectives.  The first choice is the easiest because the information is on our class Haiku page and the worksheet walks them through what they need to know.  This choice, however, means they can meet the three graded objectives at best.  Only the second choice allows them to exceed the objectives, as it requires more higher-level critical thinking skills and the application of knowledge learned in their other courses.  While many of the students chose the first option, two students did go for the challenge.  After much effort and work, one of those students did change his mind when he realized the challenge he faced in such a short time.  That’s okay.  At least he tried.  This is what I tried to convey to him when he switched.  The students worked well in class.  They were focused and asked each other questions when they were stuck or confused.  They seemed engaged and curious about what they were learning.  At the close of the period, I had volunteers share some of the interesting new information they had learned.  They seemed intrigued by it all.  So cool!

Had there only been once choice, would the students still have worked as diligently and been as engaged?  Would “forcing” them into an assignment still have motivated them?  Did any of my changes today make a difference?  It’s hard to tell, but based on the neuroscience research and the importance our school is placing on academic ownership this year, it seemed fitting to offer choices to the boys.  This way, they have the ability to challenge themselves, take the easy way out, or get the help and support they need.  How else could I better help my students than this?


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