Friday, August 18, 2017

5 Ways to Make STEM Exciting

Above: Year 7-10 Students Listen to Guest Scientists

I had the chance to inspect the work of Year 7-10 students at a Girl's Secondary School in Sydney on Monday evening. It was an amazing feast of STEM project work. So much excitement, and so much wonderful teaching and student learning. This was education at its best, as students enjoyed and celebrated each other's work and the challenge of a possible scientific future.

It seemed to me that the teachers and the school were doing five fundamental things well:

1. Making STEM interesting above all else
2. Creating exciting opportunities for learning
3. Giving emphasis to experimentation, problem solving and curiosity
4. Considering real life applications
5. Enabling lots of first-hand experience

Students at the school were displaying and explaining their STEM projects to parents and teachers, and the scientific experiments and inventions were being assessed as they hosted and explained their projects. The night started with four outstanding scientists from universities and research organizations, challenging the girls to consider the varied options for a science career - research, invention, social good, teaching etc. We then had the chance to look at the exciting project work that the students had just completed. This was varied and of high quality, and students were near their work ready to explain their research findings or their invention.

a) Designing and completing scientific experiments

Three separate floors were devoted to almost 200 original projects as well as activity areas. Each topic was chosen by the student within some basic parameters of scientific method, project design etc. Here are some samples.

What is the ideal number of worms to decompose waste in a home worm farm? This clever student discovered that 500 worms were better than 1000 in producing a great volume of liquid fertilizer. I asked her to tell offer me her interpretation for this outcome and she was able to speculate why this was so.  The method was described well, the hypothesis and variables clear and sound. More future research to come!

The best music for Musical Therapy? Another student investigated whether there is an ideal type of music that is better for therapy? Is there a relationship between specific musical waves and effectiveness?

Does the volume of water affect the optimum setting time for jelly? Another considered whether there is an optimum volume of water to reduce time and yet preserve quality?

b) Inventions

A number of girls chose to come up with a novel invention. One girl in year 9 decided to design an adjustable child's chair that could be adjusted in height, distance from the floor and so on. Her aim was to allow a chair to be changed in multiple ways as a child grew, so that the back, seat and foot rest were properly located to allowing excellent ergonomic qualities.

Another girl in year 8 tried to invent a picnic rug that would repel ants. She designed a clever edging that was soaked in natural oils and was shown to be very effective. 

Above: The novel edged blanket and the report
c) Good Urban Design

Year 7 girls were all asked to design a sustainable house that not only used appropriate sustainable materials, but was energy efficient when constructed. Their 3D models were supported by their theoretical essays that were of high quality. This design had what you would expect: outstanding materials with great thermal qualities; correct orientation to the sun in the designated city they were allocated; energy conserving strategies and so on. The model below had all of these qualities as well as a green rooftop garden that reduced water runoff, and also had outstanding thermal and insulating qualities. It also required reuse of all natural water, self-sustaining solar power, and much more.

d) Experimentation with robotics

Above: A mass of materials
The evening also had a number of locations that allowed scientific experimentation in chemistry, aeronautics and robotics. The robotics station was one of the most popular places to be.

Throughout the night, teachers were interacting with their students and offering advice and encouragement to manipulate the position of motors, materials, writing tools and so on.  The girls gained great satisfaction from seeing their Bots moving and eventually making them work.

One of the most popular activities was the creation of tiny Bots that use the simple vibration of motors and balance to create movement. The exercise was to get your Bot to move, and at the same time scribe a circle pattern. Lots of fun, and a good introduction to many fundamental elements of robotics.

Above: Some of the Bots in action
e) Celebrating STEM

One other thing that impressed me about this school was the way STEM was being celebrated and shared amongst students. It was cool to be doing STEM at this school, and fun!

Above: STEM news, ideas and celebration


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