Category Archives: STEM Education

Transitioning a Club

By Nicole Bell June 16th, 2014 12:00 PM

During their years in DCPS, many students pour their hearts and soul into school clubs and teams. When they graduate, it can be hard for them to walk away from a team they helped build – raising the question of what we can do as teachers can do to help our students’ legacies live on.

The robotics team captain this year has been incredibly dedicated to the team, to the point where he considered making his college choice based on geography – just so he could stay on as a team mentor next year. Strong students like him are instrumental in making clubs thrive. When they graduate, however, they can sometimes leave a lack of student leadership in their wake (especially when the team is mostly made up of seniors). As the year comes to a close and I think about the year ahead, I’ve been thinking a lot about what type of information has to be passed on from one generation of team leadership to the next. Without a strong transition plan, once vibrant clubs can start to wither and fade away. Below are the key areas I believe should be documented, to give a club its best chance at continuing to flourish.

Club/Team History

Why this matters: 

  • Almost every grant application, marketing flier, or business plan requires a team history, and those histories are hard to recreate once enough detail has been lost. If your team doesn’t have one yet, documenting one creates a great base for the future.

What should be documented: 

  • Genesis story – when was the team founded, by who, why, and with what resources.
  • Major milestones – how many students, number or type of competitions attended, performance at competitions, and other outcomes.
  • Student information – names, years participated, year graduated, where they went after school, and email address (so you can stay in touch! Being able to cite statistics on college attendance and graduation rates for student members can be helpful for telling your team’s story).
  • Student testimonials – these can be used to help improve marketing and recruiting materials, and it’s great to already have a supply of quotes at the beginning of the year.

Finances and Funding

Why this matters:

  • Knowing about your past funding sources is often a key aspect of applying for grants and pitching potential donors, since you need to be able to make the case for how they can uniquely add value.
  • Knowing how much money the team spends and on what is helpful both for planning and for soliciting financial support (so they know how much money you need and what you would spend it on).

What should be documented:

  • If your team has already been tracking finances well, look through all information to make sure it would make sense to a third party.
  • If you haven’t been tracking finances well, you should write down expenditures and purpose of those expenditures (ideally time of year spent as well, to get a sense of money needs throughout the flow of the school year), sources of funding and process for acquiring those funds, and details on any team-driven fundraising efforts.

Resources:

Why this matters:

  • It’s always sad to see a wealth of knowledge fade away. Helping the next set of leaders not have to build from scratch will help them continue strengthening the team instead of rebuilding it.

What should be documented:

  • Key people who are helpful to talk to, and what they’re helpful for. This could include other coaches and students across the city, people at your school (students, teachers, school leadership, and administrative and janitorial staff), parents, etc.
  • Important websites, books, etc. that your team often references.
  • Make sure any supplies for the team are well organized. If there’s time, make a list of the key supplies, what they’re used for (if it’s not obvious), and where they’re located.
  • Documents – gather together all of the documents the team has created (student surveys, grant applications, advertising fliers, etc.) and put them in an online folder that can be shared easily.

Logistics

Why this matters:

  • As with the last section, saving your successors time next year will help them do more with the team. It’ll also help the team start up smoothly the next year, reducing the risk of losing new recruits due to a rocky start.

What should be documented:

  • Team structures – student leadership positions and a description of each position, how often and how long meetings are, when the season starts and ends and is most intense.
  • Things you wish you had known when you joined the team. Little things like needing to bring extra pens, paper, and highlighters to competitions (so you can scout the other teams and highlight your matches) can make things smoother and simpler.

Invest advocates for next year

Why this matters:

  • When the most active students in a club are seniors, the club can sometimes die after they graduate. In these situations, it’s incredibly important to make sure there is a group of people who are prepared and poised to advocate for the continued existence of the club and also to advocate for resources for that club at the start of the year (when they’re often given out).

What should be done:

  • To make sure the team stays strong, you need to figure out who has both the will power and the capacity to advocate for the team next year and make sure it continues. Depending on the team, this could be students, parents, administrators, or teachers. Depending on who they are and what they team needs, they might need to recruit new students, recruit a new team coach, convince certain students to take on leadership positions, or more.
  • Once advocates are identified, work with them to make sure they’re prepared with an understanding of what the team will need next year to keep it running.
  • Stay in touch! If student leaders are willing to be contacted after they graduate, the team should have a list of their contact information. It’ll be a great way to maintain continuity for the team, and for the graduating students to build their mentoring and leadership skills.
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Teaching to Life: Building Leadership through Clubs

By Nicole Bell May 14th, 2014 3:00 PM

People say that leaders are made, not born, and that’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot as my school’s robotics season comes to a close. Back in August when I set goals as the team’s coach, I was mostly focused on supporting my students’ growth in critical thought and engineering, and on exposing them to the excitement of robotics and STEM careers. As I think back on this robotics season, however, I realized that I played a third, equally critical role – that of building leadership skills amongst my students.

Teachers are often called upon to teach topics outside of their content area. Chemistry teachers may need to re-teach decimals, while math teachers review reading comprehension strategies. Beyond these academic skills, teachers of all subjects end up teaching social skills: anger management, time management, interpersonal skills, and leadership, to name a few. These skills can be hard to teach, since many teachers were never trained in how to teach them.

Coaching a school team brings with it an even greater expectation to teach leadership, and at times I’ve found myself intimidated by this tall order. As I think back on this past year, I’m glad I was able to enrich my students’ experiences with resources like donated mechanics kits and the opportunity to attend three competitions instead of our usual one competition. Where my mind lingers, however, is on the ways I pushed my students as leaders and on the ways I could have pushed them even further. Reflecting on what worked, I realized that many of those leadership-building strategies weren’t elusive new methods – they were the same strategies I was using in my classroom each day to teach chemistry. Below is the advice I wish I could have had last August, and that I would offer to any teacher/coach planning for next year:

Step 1: Planning What and How to Teach

  • Break it down: When I plan for my chemistry class, I start by figuring out what I want my students to be able to do at the end of the year, unit, or lesson, and then I break down the specific skills and knowledge students would need to accomplish those goals. With robotics, however, I started with the broad goal of “teaching leadership” and it led me to build leadership skills in a more ad hoc manner. I think it’s more powerful to instead start by thinking about what leadership looks like in the context of your club, and then cohesively build the skills needed for that leadership. In the case of robotics, that would have been a large focus on how to train and direct peers clearly and respectfully, and how to identify what’s needed in a situation and be proactive about making it happen. Different teams might require a different focus, but having a comprehensive vision of leadership will make it easier to address the most important skills and pick the most appropriate methods to teach those skills.
  • Figure out where your students are: Differentiation is just as important for teaching soft skills as it is for teaching hard skills. Getting a sense of the team’s existing skill sets helps you figure out where to go next, so coaches should try to gauge students’ comfort and ability with taking charge, suggesting courses of action, and mediating conflicts. In robotics this year, I mostly gleaned this information through informal observations and interactions. However, I think it would have been valuable to also use self-assessment surveys like the learning style surveys I’ve used in class. I would recommend asking students to rank their own strength and comfort level on key skills, along with how they think others view them and where they’d most like to grow (which can sometimes produce a more honest self-assessment).
  • Address misconceptions: Part of the typical planning process involves addressing up front the misconceptions that students typically have for a topic. With leadership, a lot of people assume that leadership means ordering people around. This can lead some students to avoid leadership positions at all costs, while others order teammates around in an unproductive way. When I assigned students to leadership roles like safety captain this year, I had to be explicit about the types of interactions that were – and were not – expected of them, and I would recommend that any coach directly address key misconceptions up front as well.

Step 2: Teaching Leadership Day-to-Day within the Club

  • Teach the language: Academic vocabulary can often be a stumbling block to understanding concepts. If you don’t understand bonds or valence electrons, it’s very hard to think about what it means when atoms transfer valence electrons to form ionic bonds. Being able to own words and use those words to explain themselves gives students power, while a lack of certitude about how to say things often keeps students from saying them at all. My school’s instructional coach once gave me great advice on building leadership in labs – give students a specific role (like making sure all steps are followed), and then give them the exact language they should use to keep their teammates on track. I’ve been applying this advice with the robotics team, and I’ve given some students specific things they can say to advocate for themselves when they don’t understand something. I’d recommend that club leaders be even more proactive about this – instead of doing it ad hoc when moments arise, it’d be great to give students written language they can consult to prepare for hard conversations like correcting a peer when they’re doing something wrong.
  • Model behaviors for your students: A key part of learning a new skill is watching other people do it. Teachers often lead by example in social skills, but we don’t always speak aloud the thoughts that are guiding our actions. When modeling a math problem, we say things like, “I’m not sure what the formula is, so I check my notes to find the formula. Then I plug these numbers into the formula…” When acting as a leader, however, we rarely say things like, “I’m going to ask Cydney how she feels, because I value her opinions as part of this team. Now that she has spoken, I’ll nod so she knows she was heard…” To be honest, most of my explicit leadership instruction has been talking students through situations and role playing; I haven’t done much direct modeling of my own thought processes. I think there could be added value, however, in figuring out an appropriate way to show students that teachers aren’t born leaders — they actively think about how to best lead. 

Step 3: Building a Lasting Impact Beyond the Club

  • For students to succeed in a class, they need a sense of “I can” (they feel they’re capable of the work) and “I want” (they care about doing well in the class). I believe the same is true for leadership, making it critical to build the “I can” and “I want.” Without students feeling like they can and want to be a leader, any leadership habits that you build during the club season might not continue beyond it.
  • I can: With any type of skill, it’s helpful to build students’ confidence with small successes. For students who aren’t sure they’re capable of leading, having them complete small leadership activities and then noting their success can be useful. In particular, I’ve found it’s helpful to specifically point out what students did well. As with academics, general praise is nice but specific praise on things like using academic vocabulary can be much better for reinforcing what’s important. On the robotics team, for example, I like to keep an eye out for when a student explains something clearly to a teammate, sees a need and makes sure it was taken care of, delegates a task well, or doesn’t give up on a frustrating problem.
  • I want: At the end of the day, it’s not enough for students to believe that leadership is important and to be told that they can be leaders. They need to believe that they are leaders. A lot of people I’ve known didn’t think of themselves as leaders, but rather as people who got stuff done. When they were told often enough that they were a leader, however, they eventually started to believe it. At times, it can be important to make your confidence in your students’ leadership a matter of fact statement, not just encouragement for what they could become. I want each of my students to not just believe they are a leader, but to know it.

STEM in Any Classroom!

By Rabiah Harris April 7th, 2014 7:00 PM

“I finally think I’ve got it!” a student exclaimed as she figured out how to configure the wires in the shell to power her circuit.

“Ms. Harris! Ms. Harris! We got it!” Exclaimed another group of students in the back of the classroom.

As a teacher in a project-based learning classroom, it’s tremendous to watch a student struggle and then come to a conclusion after successfully creating a project. I admit, there are few things I enjoy more than the epiphanies of my students during individual and team collaborative hard work.

You often hear from non-English teachers that “everybody is an English teacher.” This is true!  However, it should also be true that everybody is a STEM teacher. This is because STEM instruction is an effective way to engage students in initial forays into critical thinking, one of the most important skills we teach at school. STEM instruction utilizes pathways that don’t traditionally make students think they are thinking critically, even when they are.

For instance, let’s say that you are a social studies teacher focusing on the Civil War.  You begin your lesson by showing a layout of the battlefield or the area where the Civil War was fought.  You then have students brainstorm ideas or tools that may have been used in combat by opposing sides.  As they are completing this activity, you bring in primary source evidence that describes what actually happened during the war to see if students can recreate those same scenarios.  At the very end, you introduce a final primary source that tells the “whole” story of a particular battle.  As a result of this lesson, students receive a short foray into engineering and engineering design while also learning the social studies content.

A DCPS colleague of mine at Stanton Elementary School has a great Kindergarten example.   Ms. Samples-Wright has her students create houses as they read The Three Little Pigs.  During the project, students go through the stages of the engineering design process and get to share their ideas with real engineers for observation and feedback.  Find this project, and more like it, on Ms. Samples-Wright’s website: 1humbleteacher.com.

Another great DCPS example comes from Mrs. Ford at Maury Elementary School.   Mrs. Ford teaches a “Think Tank” class where students get to experience a lot of STEM lessons with Mrs. Ford as their instructor. Most recently, budding 4th grade architects are being cultivated at Maury Elementary with a partnership with District Architect Center’s “Architects in the Schools” program. Check out more of Mrs. Ford’s projects here: maurythinktank.blogspot.com.

Interesting in trying out STEM in your classroom? Follow these key steps to implementation!

Start small, with only one lesson or one activity.  This will prevent you from becoming overburdened with supporting STEM.

Find one aspect of STEM to focus on and plan to do that well.  Whether it is science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, find a way to focus on one topic.  This will help you later, especially when you are trying to evaluate the effectiveness of the lesson.

Emphasize the path over the answer.  Many of the STEM process skills that we are attempting to highlight for students are more about the process of inquiry and not about the actual answer or product.  The key is to make sure that students understand (and maybe even journal about) the process for creation, data collection or analysis.

Why High School Robotics Matters – Even for English Majors

By Nicole Bell April 2, 2014 8:00 PM

I consider myself privileged to have the sort of friends and colleagues who consider robots cool. It’s a given that when I mention coaching my school’s robotics team, I’m met with an enthusiastic “Awesome!” or “Ooh, can I see your robot?!” I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment, although I have to admit that when I work until 7pm coaching the team (and then go home to lesson plan, contact parents and grade) that robot can seem just a little less cool. What keeps me invested in the team is that robots aren’t just awesome – they can play a critical role in preparing students for their future.

Most students think they should join robotics if they’re interested in engineering or programming, and there’s a certain truth to that. Participating in a high school robotics team helps students learn the basic principles of mechanics, design, and coding that can help them get a head start on college coursework. In addition, being a participant in enrichment programs like FIRST Robotics opens up a wealth of college scholarship opportunities. What students don’t realize, however, is that those FIRST Robotics scholarships are often available to students who don’t plan to major in engineering, and that those same principles they learn through robotics can prepare them for any career.

Developing students’ college preparedness is a goal that looms large in the minds and conversations of high school teachers. Although definitions and theories can shift, there’s generally a consensus that we want our students prepared with a mixture of specific skills (like algebra and grammar) and more general skills (like critical problem solving and flexible thinking). The brilliance of a program like FIRST Robotics, which my high school participates in, is that it seamlessly incorporates both types of skills and disguises them as fun.

Unsurprisingly, math is one of the major skill sets that is developed through robotics. Students endlessly work on fractions through measurement calculations, engaging problems like: “This metal bar is 5 ¾ inches right now. You need to cut a second bar that would be an inch shorter than half that length.” Students also use algebra, trigonometry, and geometry to figure out things like how tall their robot needs to be or how to build a ball shooter that actually works. While performing endless calculations gets tiresome on a worksheet, doing them in the context of robotics provides an immediate and tangible payout for every problem. I’ve seen students who’d give up on a normal math class problem persevere through the same type of problem in robotics – because in the robotics room, math leads to creation.

The connection between math and robotics is well known, but many people don’t realize that robotics also helps students read and interpret complex texts. Each year, FIRST releases a new competition with its own set of rules. In this year’s game, robots work on teams of three to get a large ball across the field and into different goals. Last year, robots shot Frisbees into goals and tried to climb a tower. The rules that govern the match can be complicated to decipher, giving students practice with engaging technical manuals in order to understand them. For example, rule G23 for this year states: If a ROBOT is in contact with carpet in its GOALIE ZONE, and for only one ROBOT per ALLIANCE at a time, there is no height restriction; however, any extension or combination of extensions above 5 ft. may not extend beyond a vertical cylinder with a 6 in. diameter (see examples in Figure 3-5).” Students need to read the rule, break down the meaning, visualize what it’s saying, and then apply it to their design and strategy. Just as with math, students are more dedicated to engaging these texts than a similarly complicated text in their class. In robotics, unpacking the rules’ meaning rewards them with being one step closer to a competitive robot.

Beyond these hard skills, robotics helps students gain the so-called soft skills they’ll need in any career. Teamwork is critical on a robotics team, and throughout the build season students must balance their different ideas and skill sets to collaborate on a challenging task. At the competition itself, for each of our matches our school plays on an alliance with two other schools (in some cases, from as far away as Istanbul). The partners on your alliance change ten times over the course of the tournament, giving students plenty of practice with the delicate art of developing a joint strategy that balances the needs, strengths and weaknesses of all three alliance members. Throughout the tournament students also practice their communication skills, as they try to powerfully and succinctly describe their robot’s strengths and strategy to their fellow competitors and judges. Team members receive a background in budget management, fundraising and public relations as well, since a robotics team is expensive to run and requires pitching yourselves to sponsors and other fundraising throughout the year. On top of those skills, students learn time management and how to work under high-pressure deadlines – there are only six weeks between the announcement of the new FIRST game and when teams have to have their robot completed.

During those six weeks of building students experience great successes, but they also learn and grow from failures. They might measure something incorrectly or try an approach that doesn’t pan out – and that’s okay. Students repeatedly have to put themselves out there, see that something doesn’t work, and then adjust course to move forward. That is an incredibly important skill, and one that doesn’t always get practiced in a normal high school classroom. Doing robotics, students need to think creatively and flexibly to solve the types of problems that are presented to them, and they enter a world where there are no pre-determined right answers that the teacher is waiting to receive. This is the real world, and having those experiences helps students to thrive in whatever they eventually choose to do.

Our future engineers and computer programmers have much to learn from robotics. Any future thinker and shaper of our world has just as much to learn from a robotics team, however – and that’s who we want all of our students to grow up to be.

If you’re interested in learning more about FIRST Robotics, please visit www.usfirst.org