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Thursday, May 19, 2011

STEM Changed My Life!

Karla is an eighth grader at Perkins Middle School in Sandusky, OH.

Recently, she and her classmates were challenged to design a roller coaster for its amusement park:

To continue its domination as the “World’s Roller Coast,” Cedar Point design engineers need your help. They want to bring a new coaster to the park, one that will generate much publicity and many riders. What is your vision for Cedar Point’s new roller coaster? Where should it be built? What will it look like, and what will it be named? Who should be its target audience? How will the park finance it? How far can designers go with the ride and still keep it safe for riders? If you build it, what will make them come?

This was a STEM project, one focused on developing students’ abilities in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Many schools across the country have adopted such innovative approaches, some in an effort to qualify for Race-to-the-Top federal funding.

Karla worked on a team with several other students acting as CEO, lawyers (Legal Eagles), architects, financiers and marketing experts. During their weekly meetings students had to solve many problems of design, safety, publicity and finance, e.g. “How close to the beach can you build and what kinds of permits are needed from OH?” “What is the g-force on a human body going 75 mph?” No easy task, especially if you were new to the roller-coaster improvement business.

But they had the benefit of experts in engineering, marketing, architecture, and financial planning. Imagine hearing about design principles from someone who actually designs buildings, not from a textbook, and then designing a model yourself!

According to many team members the most valuable aspect of this STEM project was an important 21st century skill, learning how to solve problems collaboratively:

Emmy: “Working together is most important because you all have to be on the same page and if you’re not, you get off task. .”

Nicholas: “The most important thing about STEM is TEAMWORK!!!!”

Sydney noted that “You have to learn how to deal with arguments” and those who do not participate.

Doug Reeves notes that in the future “performance will be measured not by the success of the individual, but by the success of the team. . .[helping] others learn is an essential process and therefore collaboration is essential.” (2010)

In telephone interviews several of the CEOs told me that they found the problem solving most challenging—finding solutions to problems required them to “think differently,” as Karla said, to be imaginative, creative and “think out of the box.” Carlee noted: “I like my team because we are able to bounce ideas off each other and work well to get everything done.”

This involved a lot of brainstorming new solutions, searching Google for ideas and narrowing ten ideas down to two or one. And then the CEOs would have to arrive a consensus, not an easy task by any means. They had to learn, for example, “how to incorporate other peoples’ ideas” into an agreed upon solution. Some CEOs worked for compromise, others made a final decision themselves.

Before a final presentation each team ran a dress rehearsal to get feedback from other students, as Grant Wiggins has advocated. Kids saw others’ ideas, responded, “That’s pretty neat” and changed some of their plans.

And Karla? At first she was bored, but she persisted and made the project her own: “I wanted to find some purpose for the project.” And she did.

“STEM made me actually start to do better in school and to start thinking about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. . . I started to think differently because I realized it was time to become a better person and to grow up and to reach the expectations that my parents have for me and I have for myself.”

So, how did STEM projects compare with regular classes?

What pleased some students was learning “more ways to get things done, rather than just [sitting in class and] answering specific questions.”

There were “more variables” you had to work with, more points of view (others’ ideas) you had to reconcile.

During a subsequent challenge—building a colony on Mars—you had to “project consequences” of, for example, building this or that kind of structure and responding to a variety of “What if?” scenarios—suppose somebody gets killed. . ?

And, said Karla in conclusion, “You had to ask a lot of questions.”

What are the benefits of this kind of project?

Students thought there second STEM project--habitat on Mars--was superior because they had spontaneously used good problem solving processes--creating a challenge statement, brainstorming solutions and thinking critically about them to make decisions. They'd become better problem solvers and team members.

Some teachers noticed a transfer effect into their regular classrooms—students becoming more self-reliant, resourceful and focused on the tasks at hand. “We had to teach ourselves!” said one student.

Mary Darr, the faculty leader of these STEM projects, observed, “Unlike standardized tests, these challenges encourage students to work together in an authentic environment to generate something new, to figure out what to do when answers aren’t obvious. Here they have to pull everything together,” meaning apply knowledge from all subjects they’ve studied.

And Paul Dougherty, Director of Curriculum, noted that life for middle school students today is very “individualistic” and “social only within a cocoon.” STEM provides them with opportunities to create a product and persuade an authentic audience using logical arguments and good reasons.

No wonder Karla transformed her life.

(Photo left to right: Brandon, Karla, Kayla, Laura)