Encouraging Creativity in STEM Class

Creativity often may be overlooked in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), but STEM teachers are finding ways to make their lessons and courses innovative and encourage their students to be creative. For example, Emily Faulconer, assistant professor of math, physical, and life sciences at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, says, “I challenge my students to summarize a concept in the form of a haiku…It helps them with vocabulary and thinking through the process, and gets students thinking outside the box…Haiku is a literary device, and easy to infuse.”

Faulconer cites “a recent interest in humanistic STEM at Embry-Riddle” that is supporting the infusion of the humanities into STEM courses. “It helps students view the sciences more broadly. They can look at science from other angles,” she contends.

As an online instructor, Faulconer posts haikus—her students’ and her own—in the discussion forum, and they’re not assessed because “the rubric grades on how students engage; it doesn’t have to be on the haiku. Students are assessed on one initial post and two reply posts [and giving] accurate responses,” she points out. While not all students contribute haikus, “the students think haiku is fun, and they comment on them. I enjoy reading them and so do they,” she relates.

“We’ve been doing infusions of other disciplines into science/STEM,” Faulconer continues. As the result of a research project on students’ perception of connections between the Introduction to General Chemistry 1 course and other STEM disciplines; the course and non-STEM disciplines; the course and their future careers; and the course and their academic degree, Faulconer and her science colleagues have changed the course’s module titles, “[leaning] more on other disciplines to make the modules sound more engaging,” she reports.

For instance, the course’s Introduction to Chemistry module has become Bacon and Gunpowder. “Philosopher Roger Bacon was the first European to develop a formula for gunpowder. [The new title] shows how important math is, which is taught in introductory courses,” Faulconer contends.

Solubility and Intermolecular Forces in Oxidation is now Water, Water, Everywhere because understanding “solubility and intermolecular forces in the context of water [makes sense because] so many reactions occur in aqueous environments,” she maintains.

And Solution Chemistry has become The Liquidation of Witches. “The phenomenon is from The Wizard of Oz, [when the Wicked Witch says,] ‘I’m melting!’ But she didn’t melt; she might have dissolved, but not melted. In the movie, she smokes when ‘melting.’ Smoke is suspicious; it was a chemical reaction,” Faulconer explains.

Last year, Faulconer and another Embry-Riddle professor created an interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary science course called Science of Flight. “Students are assessed on all subjects: biology, chemistry, environmental science, geology, and physics. It’s a general education course, [created] to give non-science students more interesting options. It’s a really popular class and is now running multiple sections online. Student feedback is positive,” Faulconer reports.

“I enjoy finding the interdisciplinary connections,” she relates. “The College of Arts and Sciences is so broad! It’s easy to stay siloed and not reach out to colleagues. This has encouraged me to work more closely with instructors with whom I haven’t worked before. Now they’re asking me about the science slant to, for example, Edgar Allan Poe and his possible death by carbon monoxide poisoning.”

Linking Robotics and Physics

“I am teaching Conceptual Physics and Robotics together [to first-year high school students] during the same class period. That has compelled me to be creative, searching for ways to link robotics and concepts in physics,” says Kathy Snyder, science and math teacher at Mary Help of Christians Academy in North Haledon, New Jersey. “The current project students are working on takes a jigsaw approach (experts in physics and robotics), with each team comprised of one member from each class.”

Snyder challenged student teams to “identify the key issues to enhancing ROV [remotely operated vehicle] design based on depth-pressure, kinematic, and dynamics to better gather scientific data in deep ocean trenches.” She told students, “In addition to building a model to scale, [you] will identify financial issues, research and [develop], prototype, and market for [your] device. [You] will present [your] models and needs for financing to instructors at our school in a Shark Tank–style event.”

Snyder says she developed the idea for the project when she read an article about Jason and Medea, ROVs designed and built by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s (WHOI) Deep Submergence Laboratory. She also was inspired by “research vessels that had gone to the bottom of the Mariana Trench” in the Pacific Ocean in record-breaking deep dives. Snyder cites WHOI’s Dive and Discover website (https://divediscover.whoi.edu) as a resource in creating the project.

“Each team’s underwater ROV must be better than…[Jason and Medea],” Snyder instructed students. To accomplish this, the robotics partner’s primary job is to “assess the current weaknesses of Jason and Medea,” she explains. Students’ models also “must go deeper than any previous ROV,” including the ones that traveled to the depths of the Mariana Trench, and students must “describe the way [their model] handles the pressure challenges of increasing depth,” which is the physics partner’s primary job, she relates.

“Some students are new to cooperative groups. It’s interesting to see them move from the grumbling stage to beginning to understand,” Snyder observes. “Both the [physics and robotics students] had a cursory knowledge of their own disciplines, but I encourage them to share their strengths…We do an engineering talk to share ideas.”

While not all of the students “have been challenged to integrate knowledge from multiple disciplines in elementary and middle school, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) encourage critical thinking and problem solving. This approach is new for many students, [but this] is the way I’ve always taught,” Snyder relates. Her students “are getting comfortable with not knowing the answer” immediately, she adds. Along the way, she did “mini-lessons” on concepts students didn’t know, such as “scale models, for example: 2-D to 3-D,” she explains.

Part of her assessment of her students, she notes, includes whether “groups function effectively. Do they follow their agenda? What did they do when someone was absent, or when someone didn’t do their work?” During their presentations, students were graded on things like “eye contact, enthusiasm, and answering questions that they weren’t prepared to answer,” she relates.

“Giving them choices [about how to design their models] made [the project] more fun,” Snyder concludes. One team constructed their model from LEGO® toy building bricks, for example.

Using Play and the Arts

Gigi Carunungan, chief learning architect of Playnovate—an offline and online science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics learning company for K–8—incorporates play and the arts in science teaching. She developed the Helical Model of Learning, which has five stages: Play, Explore, Connect, Imagine, and Remember. In a science module on germs, for example, third graders start by playing Tag with glitter of various colors attached to their hands with lotion. They spread “germs” by tagging their classmates and leaving glitter of mixed colors on their arms. (Alternatively, students could wear old clothing and aprons that could be tagged, Carunungan adds.)

“The game becomes a way to equalize the playing field because every student wants to play it, so everyone participates,” Carunungan maintains. “The rules are really about creating a socially interactive and physical dynamic,” she explains, because when students run around and tag one another, their arms now contain various colors, and the colors are blended. During the reflection time, “the teacher says, ‘That is like transmitting germs to one another,’” and offers no further explanation because the teacher is using the game as the phenomenon, she points out.

“Students remember this because it’s emotional. Emotional memory is more powerful than content memory in this case because the students have so much fun,” Carunungan contends.

In the next game, groups of students shoot water pistols at targets at various distances from them and observe the results. During reflection time, says Carunungan, students reach the understanding that the closer they were, the easier it was to hit the target. “The teacher says, ‘This is like [transmitting] germs. The closer you are, the more likely you’ll get them.’ The teacher is also showing students how to analyze data.”

In the module’s Connect phase, the teacher creates a graph of the length of students’ absences due to illness and the symptoms they experienced. Students learn how symptoms can be both the same and different for various people. After discussion, the teacher then explains what the word symptoms means. “Students understand the concept before the word. The concept is based on what they say [during the discussion],” she reports.

This activity “helps students develop a scientific mindset because they look  at evidence, patterns, and variables,” Carunungan observes. The activity is done in the Connect phase because the graph “connects to real-world experiences from students’ own lives…[They are also] using data to make conclusions.”

Students then create their own graphs using data from students in other classes. Back in their classroom, they are assigned to small groups and present the data they gathered. Each group merges the data into one graph. “This is what scientists do: Collect samples from different places and compare and analyze and synthesize,” says Carunungan. The teacher can then connect this phenomenon to the work of microbiologist Louis Pasteur.

In the Imagine stage, students use modeling clay to create their own “germs” for a Germs Museum. Then students create posters on avoiding germs and staying healthy and hang them around the school.

When this module has been taught, “there is a jovial atmosphere in the classroom,” Carunungan recalls. “Creativity is cultivating an atmosphere in the classroom [in which] learning is about curiosity, connecting, and figuring out, and the students can get excited [about learning].”●

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teaching Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports, featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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Ed News: What Does ‘Career Readiness’ Look Like in Middle School?

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This week in education news, California schools preparing to ramp up course offerings and equip teachers to lead computer science courses; teaching students together and having them help one another learn may have more benefit to them and society than separating them by abilities; President announces the recipients of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers; 2/3rds of American employees regret their college degrees; schools across the U.S. are grappling with how to incorporate the study of climate change into the classroom as its proximity and perils grow ever more apparent; and ‘improvement science’ helps school districts succeed at new initiatives.

As California Seeks to Add More Computer Science Courses, Teachers Are Answering the Call

As California pushes to increase access to computer science education for K-12 students, schools across the state this summer are preparing to ramp up course offerings and equip teachers to lead computer science courses. Read the article featured in EdSource.

Does Education Focus Too Much on Individual Achievement?

Educators can learn valuable lessons about the purpose and ultimate impact of education on society as a whole from the experiences of veteran African American teachers, who have historically viewed schools as a “public good to expand citizenship, equity, and collective responsibility” rather than an “engine for individual social mobility,” Kristina Rizga, author of “Mission High: One School, How Experts Tried to Fail It, and the Students and Teachers Who Made It Triumph,” contends in an article for The Atlantic. Read the brief featured in Education DIVE.

President Donald J. Trump Announces Recipients of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers

President Donald J. Trump announced the recipients of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). The PECASE is the highest honor bestowed by the United States Government to outstanding scientists and engineers who are beginning their independent research careers and who show exceptional promise for leadership in science and technology. Read the press release.

Two-Thirds of American Employees Regret Their College Degrees

A college education is still considered a pathway to higher lifetime earnings and gainful employment for Americans. Nevertheless, two-thirds of employees report having regrets when it comes to their advanced degrees, according to a PayScale survey of 248,000 respondents this past spring recently released. Read the article featured on CBSNews.com.

Teaching Global Warming in a Charged Political Climate

Their training doesn’t cover it, many textbooks don’t touch it, but teachers are taking on climate change anyway. Read the article featured in the Hechinger Report.

What Does ‘Career Readiness’ Look Like in Middle School?

School districts are pushing career exploration into middle and lower grades, convinced the preparation necessary for tomorrow’s jobs needs to begin earlier. Read the article featured in the Hechinger Report.

Taking Teacher Retention in the Summer Months

Administrators can take advantage of the summer months and build a good work environment by showing appreciation for teachers. Simple gestures go a long way towards keeping teachers connected and excited to return in the fall, Tracey Smith, principal of Brookwood Elementary in Georgia, writes for eSchool News. Read the brief featured in Education DIVE.

A Plan for Supporting New Initiatives

An approach to problem-solving called improvement science may give district and school initiatives a better chance at succeeding. Read the article featured in edutopia.

Stay tuned for next week’s top education news stories.

The Communication, Legislative & Public Affairs (CLPA) team strives to keep NSTA members, teachers, science education leaders, and the general public informed about NSTA programs, products, and services and key science education issues and legislation. In the association’s role as the national voice for science education, its CLPA team actively promotes NSTA’s positions on science education issues and communicates key NSTA messages to essential audiences.

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Summer seed planting

Some plants can be started from seed in the garden in midsummer’s warmest weather and still grow plants that reach maturity before the first killing frost in the fall. With multiple experiences handling and planting seeds children grow their understanding of the function of seeds. “Plants also have different parts (roots, stems, leaves, flowers, fruits) that help them survive, grow, and produce more plants” (NRC, page 144). In the July 2018 Early Years column I wrote about investigating seed sprouting with children to begin learning about plants’ needs for sustaining growth, part of the NGSS Disciplinary Core Idea, LS1.C: Organization for matter and energy flow in organisms.

To learn which seeds to plant outdoors now, ask the families of children attending your program in summer to share their gardening experiences. Other places to find experienced or expert gardeners include the local farmers’ market, the county extension service, Master Gardener program, or a high school National FFA Organization. Consult seed planting calendar guides from local extension services and seed companies and have children help determine which seeds to start in which month in your locality. 

Here are a few examples of such resources: 

Alabama Cooperative Extension System, Alabama Vegetable Garden Planting Chart. https://www.aces.edu/blog/topics/lawn-garden/planting-guide-for-home-gardening-in-alabama/

Farm Advisor UC Cooperative Extension, Vegetable Garden Planting, Planting Guide for San Diego County by Vincent Lazaneo. https://www.mastergardenerssandiego.org/Vegetable%20Planting%20Guide1.pdf

North Carolina State Extension Table 1. Garden planting calendar for vegetables, fruits, and herbs in Central North Carolina. https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/central-north-carolina-planting-calendar-for-annual-vegetables-fruits-and-herbs

Purdue Extension, Indiana Vegetable Planting Calendar by Michael N. Dana and B. Rosie Lerner. https://ag.purdue.edu/hla/pubs/HO/HO-186.pdf

Planting seeds in containers indoors makes it easy to view the sprouting process and tiny seedling structures. If seedlings get enough light from the sun, or from “grow lights,” they may be strong enough to transplant into the garden.

Children can help plan if they have time and experiences to understand the needs of plants.

With the average first killing frost in mind, I’m planning to plant bush bean seeds in the soil in mid August, and put in some collard seedlings to overwinter. The beans take from 50-60 days to maturity—enough time for children in a year-round program to plant, tend, harvest, and taste their own produce. Hopefully the collards will host the eggs of Cabbage white butterflies (Pieris rapae), and when they hatch, feed the larvae, providing an observational experience for children next spring. See the April 2007 Early Years column (free for non-members!) for more on the relationship between Pieris rapae and plants of the  Cruciferae (Brassicaceae) family.

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Split Decision

How does one model a 5E lesson plan for each topic covered when teaching a split grade level?
— C., Illinois

Split classes can be very challenging, particularly if they have drastically different curricula. However, I believe you can manage better if your lessons use a three-dimensional approach. Instead of content topics, you can structure your 5E (Engage-Explore-Explain-Elaborate-Evaluate) lessons around a cross-cutting theme, a core idea, or a scientific practice common to all science curricula. What would differ in your class is what the students “Explore” about the common theme, idea or practice. I believe the core ideas in each subject area would be the easiest to focus on but it would be powerful to wrap a lesson around a science practice like engaging in arguments based on evidence.

Have the students from both grades share what they learned and ask questions that arose from their explorations. This flows nicely to the “Explanation” and “Elaboration” stages of a 5E lesson. Consider pairing students across the grades and incorporating some peer teaching and evaluation.

You can structure formative and summative evaluations around their understanding of the themes, core ideas, and practices by how they apply the knowledge of the topics from the lesson. You might be able to create tests that ask the same questions but would have slightly different answers depending on the exploration used in each grade level.

Please visit NGSS@NSTA (https://ngss.nsta.org/) for ideas, lessons, and workshops involving 3D learning.

Hope this helps!

Image credit: Kaspar Lunt via Pixabay

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Observing children observing bees

Bumble bee resting and eating on pink coneflower

Some children feel a kinship with all kinds of living things. They may reach out to touch a bumble bee on a flower or hug a worm too tightly. Touching a bee may be fine if the temperature is so cold it has paused on the flower overnight waiting for morning’s warming sun but I do want children to be aware of the potential hazards of handling small animals.

Promoting caution but not fear while observing small animals supports all children. We can plan opportunities for observation, where children whose affinity for living organisms is still developing can see while maintaining a comfortable distance. Confining small animals in containers for brief periods of observation is one way to provide that distance. Some children eagerly look at books about animals, gaining a familiarity that can make first hand experiences more comfortable.

Observing children, and thinking about what their actions tell us they understand, is the beginning of formative assessment—assessment that informs the direction and progress of teaching. Documenting other ways of knowing children’s thinking, such as, their drawings or conversations during book read-aloud, as well as our observations, guides our next steps in planning lessons. Our collected knowledge and documentation of children’s actions, thinking, and work becomes formative assessment when we “use the information to inform instruction, plan interactions that scaffold learning, and communicate children’s progress to them, their families, and others” (Riley-Ayers in Bohart & Procopio 2018).

Formative assessment systems can be very individual and a strength-based way of documenting and identifying children’s development. Instead of saying, “This child is afraid of bees,” I might say, “This child is cautiously observing bees while maintaining a distance that feels comfortable.” Reviewing the formative assessment documentation supports children’s reflection on their ideas. Hoisington (2016) writes, “Get ALL of the children’s science ideas out on the table, Provide opportunities for children to investigate their ideas, Facilitate children’s reflection on the evidence.” Follow up activities with discussion to find out what children think they know about how animals get the food and other things they need. The NGSS Appendix E: Progressions Within the Next Generation Science Standards describes how children’s beginning understandings become more sophisticated as they grow and learn.


Riley-Ayers, Shannon. 2018. Introduction to Spotlight on Young Children: Observation and Assessment by H. Bohart and R. Procopio. NAEYC. 

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Starry-eyed Students

Many of the girls in my kindergarten class are showing a lot of interest in space. Space is not part of my curriculum, so how would you recommend I address their interest? Can you recommend any resources?
—M., New Mexico

Curiosity, asking questions, looking for answers are all part of the nature of science and all young children have these in abundance! While you need to focus on certain topics in your science curriculum, do not fear using other topics to get at the nature of science or to quench students’ thirst for knowledge.

Space! What a wonderful topic. There are some simple ways that you can foster interest without stealing away from your curriculum topics:

  • Daily science announcements: include the moon phase, celestial events, and the location of planets.
  • Moon observations: observe the moon during recess or in the evening and report to the class. Have a picture of the current moon phase posted in the class.
  • Take home activities: There are many planispheres (star finders) that you can download for free and build, calendars of celestial events, and moon phase handouts.
  • Astronomy apps: Use these in class and send home a list of resources for families to use. There are many excellent, free starfinder and astronomy apps available.
  • Hold a family astronomy night: almost all local astronomy clubs will help set up a viewing night for you.


Consider subscribing to these sites to get astronomy and Earth news:

Hope this helps!

Image by beate bachmann from Pixabay

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Learning About STEM Through BMX

Fourth graders at Liberty Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona, build a scale BMX track as part of the USA BMX Foundation’s Track Modeling Program. Photo courtesy of Sandra Havelka

Teaching students science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) by connecting it with bicycle motocross (BMX), closed-course bike racing over natural or simulated rough terrain, is possible with programs from the American Bicycle Association’s USA BMX philanthropic arm, the USA BMX Foundation, located in Gilbert, Arizona. Marianne Landrith, gifted education teacher for the Sunnyside Unified School District in Tucson, Arizona, says she discovered the foundation’s educational programs in 2017 when a student was working on “an inquiry project on helmet safety in extreme sports. We had to find resources for Daniel!”

Landrith contacted Mike Duvarney, executive director of the USA BMX Foundation. Through the foundation’s Motivational Speaking program, Duvarney arranged for Olympic BMX racer Donny Robinson to visit Daniel’s school. “Olympians can come to schools anywhere in the country [at no charge]. They talk about how much STEM is involved in the field and the tools used. Each Olympian talks about failure and staying motivated through the lens of cycling,” Duvarney relates.

“We received lots of great information for Daniel,” Landrith recalls. “Donny rode a bike into the classroom, talked about goals and perseverance, and [answered students’ questions]. [The foundation] gave Daniel a BMX bike. [The school has] 92% [of its students receiving] free or reduced-price lunch, so it was very generous of them to do this.”

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NSTA Press Book Uses Three-Dimensional Learning to Help Students Understand the Effects of Human Activity on Climate Change

For veteran science educators Laura Tucker and Lois Sherwood there is no debate about climate science. But Tucker and Sherwood realized that few books provide the much-needed assistance that teachers need to cover the scope of climate science with special attention to humanity’s role.

Tucker and Sherwood’s NSTA book, Understanding Climate Change, fills that gap and does so with “conscious attention” to three-dimensional teaching and learning called for in the Framework (for K-12 Science Education), writes NSTA Executive Director Dr. David L. Evans in the book’s forward. “The authors have made a real contribution … by providing structured suggestions that encourage students to use they science they have learned in considering the effects of human activity,” Evans said. “By making this connections, students have the best chance to use science to positively ‘affect the lives of future generations.’”

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Safety Labels for Hazardous Chemicals

The OSHA Laboratory Standard 29 CFR 1910.1450 details specific recommendations when labeling and storing hazardous chemicals within school laboratories.

First of all, the laboratory standard [(1910.1450(h)(1)(i)] requires that labels on incoming containers not be removed or defaced. Incoming container refers to the original receptacle that holds hazardous chemicals that were purchased and shipped to the lab. But there is not a specific labeling requirement for secondary containers of hazardous chemicals in a laboratory. Secondary containers are used to transfer hazardous chemicals from their original containers. The OSHA lab standard does not require labeling because the contents are only to be temporarily stored in secondary container. Once in the lab, labeling now falls under the OSHA Lab Standard if transferred to secondary container as noted below with reference to Appendix A.

Secondly, the laboratory standard [CFR 1910.1450(b)] allows laboratories flexibility in tailoring their written Chemical Hygiene Plan (CHP) and standard operating procedures to protect employees in laboratories. For example, labels on incoming containers must follow strict labeling requirements for hazardous chemicals under OSHA HazCom standard. Once in academic lab and transferred to secondary container, the lab has flexibility on what is to be required for labeling. This would be noted in the employer’s CHP, and Appendix A provides additional guidance. In addition, 1910.1450(f)(4) requires the employer to train employees regarding the physical and health hazards of chemicals in the work area, the measures employees can take to protect themselves from these hazards, and the employer’s CHP.

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Engineering Fun!

I am interested in high school engineering projects. I’m looking for fun, engaging, and challenging projects for my honors students.
—T., Rhode Island

There is a vast amount of resources and ideas to help you out with engineering projects. Start with teaching the engineering design process – there are some excellent resources in The Learning Center.

Depending on your budget and access to tools and technology, you can offer a range of projects. Catapults or trebuchets are relatively easy to build and low-tech. These can range from hand-held, popsicle stick affairs all the way to larger ones you can test on the football field!

A friend of mine teaches his entire physics course through science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) projects. One student favourite is designing and building headphones. They can listen to music in his class only if they use the ones they construct in class from scratch!

If you want to incorporate computing and coding consider building robots with embedded microprocessors (like Arduino or Raspberry Pi) for specific tasks. A small autonomous robot to find and extinguish a candle is a real challenge. Another option is to build an autonomous greenhouse that monitors humidity, soil moisture and light levels and responds accordingly.

One of the best projects around, in my opinion, is to launch high-altitude balloons with science experiments, cameras, radio equipment. You can check out my collection of resources in The Learning Center on these types of projects: http://bit.ly/2W4Mtbv

These are just a few ideas. TryEngineering.org has an amazing array of resources and ideas.

Hope this helps!

Image by annca from Pixabay

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