Posted in Astronomy, Curriculum, Education, Teaching

Reflections on a STEM Unit

Each year, when I adapt a previously used unit in STEM class, I struggle to remember what I had wanted to change the year before when I finished the unit and made mental notes.  I always kick myself.  Why didn’t I jot some notes down about what I wanted to change or add?  As I barely remember what I had for dinner last night, recalling specifics about what went well in a particular class is close to impossible.  So, as I reflected on what went well regarding our recent STEM unit on astronomy, I decided that I didn’t want to keep kicking myself year after year.  I’m now going to document my reflections on each unit so that I have evidence of what I want to change, delete, or add.  It only took me a few years to figure this out.  Oh well, you live and you learn.  I’m just glad I’m finally doing the learning part.

While I think astronomy is a good unit of study with which to begin the year in STEM class because it’s interesting and gets students hooked right away, what is covered and how it’s covered needs to be changed.  Even after making some slight changes from what I did last year, I wasn’t completely satisfied with the outcome.  Time was an issue.  I felt like we ran out of it.  The students were unable to finish their group project because of it.  Now, yes, I could have been more flexible and provided the students with more time.  But, I also didn’t want the first unit to drag on for 10 weeks.  So, I ended it after about seven weeks.  I was disappointed that we didn’t have the chance to test the space vehicle creations the students had been developing over the unit.  This is one of my favorite aspects of the unit, and so I hated to leave it hanging like a chad in Florida.

So, next year I want to arrange the unit differently to allow the students ample time to tinker and play when creating their space vehicles.  After watching the film Beyond Measure recently, I got a great idea about another change I want to make to this particular part of the unit.  Instead of having the students brainstorm materials with which to create their space vehicles, which tends to be challenging for them to do as they aren’t familiar at that age with what materials are available to them, I am going to give each group the materials when they are ready for the building phase.  This way, I can challenge them to learn and do more.  In the movie, the teacher gives the students a bunch of cardboard, tape, and a motor to construct a Mars Rover.  They have to learn how to wire a motor and make it move a vehicle.  I love that idea.  I want to better challenge my students so that engagement continues to go up in the classroom.  I’ve been looking online at some cool coding and computer programming kits that would be fun and exciting for the boys to use.  This might be the route to go.  I’m so pumped for next year already.

Another change I would like to make is in regards to how the foundational knowledge is covered.  This year I tried something different from last year.  I had the students read a textbook entry in order to answer some basic comprehension questions.  While it was definitely more engaging and interesting than what I had done the previous year, it lacked the engagement factor I was looking for.  What if I had the students work with a partner to create a board game that addresses specific questions I want the students to learn the answers to?  That way they practice using one of the Habits of Learning we focus on in the sixth grade, Coexistence.  Plus, they would be able to problem solve how to create a board game based on the information learned.  This activity would engage the boys, provide them with choices in how to showcase their learning, and allow them to work together to accomplish a task.  I love it.  This seems as if it would be far more relevant to the students than completing a worksheet or answering some simple questions.  It also requires more critical thinking than basic comprehension.  They need to apply the information learned in order to solve the problem.  I love challenging my students to do more than just know the material covered.  At the end of the year, the skills acquired are far more important than knowing and understanding the content.  If the boys learn how to effectively work together, creatively solve problems, and think critically about concepts, then they will be prepared to matriculate to seventh grade.

I was also thinking that I wanted to alter the math curriculum portion of the unit as well.  The math book work seemed so contrived.  The boys didn’t seem really engaged with it.  Plus, the whole purpose of the STEM class is to allow the students to see how the math skills learned are connected to other areas of life, such as engineering and science.  I want to involve the math skills more into the group project and the board game.  But, I also need to be sure the students are prepared for the various math classes in the seventh grade.  If they don’t get used to book work or solving lots of problems, I worry that they won’t be prepared for the “rigor” and repetition of their future math courses at my school.  So, what do I do?  Do I better incorporate the math skills into the other portions of the unit so that the students see the relevance in what we are learning or do I keep to the status quo for my school?  Ahh, the dilemma?

So, changes are sure to come for my STEM unit on astronomy next year.  I’m excited to continue to grow and develop my STEM curriculum as I continue to grow and learn as an educator.  Now that I have a document outlining the changes I’d like to make, I will, hopefully, actually remember to adapt and evolve this STEM unit for the next academic year.

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Author:

I teach sixth grade at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, NH. I'm currently ensconced in my fourteenth year at this small, independent boys' school. I love engaging students in relevant and hands-on learning. I was nominated for the NH Teacher of the Year Award in 2016 by a parent. While I love education and guiding students, my first passion is my family. I have a wonderful son, Jeffrey, and a beautiful and intelligent wife, Kim. I couldn't be happier. Every day is the best day of my life.

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