Connect STEM with Social Issues
Students want to feel that the work they are doing is meaningful, and in some way connected to their lives. I motivate my students to invest in my class by using Social Issue Openings to tie the day’s content to current events, social justice issues, or health related chemistry. For example, during our unit on Gas Laws, we talk about how the same principles that help bread rise and make popcorn pop contribute to air pollution and global warming. I’ve found that focusing on issues in science regarding race, class, and gender – subjects my students care deeply about – adds meaning to the work, and frames learning and achieving as part of a larger movement. This year, the conversation has largely revolved around increasing female representation in the STEM career fields, and I hope to continue using real-world examples to drive investment in my class.
The freedom to design, implement, and showcase science labs can be a daunting task for high school sophomores. We end each year in my class with a month of self-paced group projects aimed at constructing an experiment that will test hypothesis around a subject of students' choice. Anything from crime scene investigation, to the chemistry of ice cream preparation, to the reactions involved in instant hand warmers is fair game during this unit. Students collect data that answers their hypothesis and create a website to display their findings. Having a publicly visible product makes sharing the results of student findings easy, and helps them contribute to the scientific community at large. At the same time, it helps hold them accountable to a higher quality of work, knowing anyone, anywhere, can see the incredible things they've created.
Getting high school students to collaborate effectively can be tricky, though certain digital tools do a great job of making teamwork more seamless. Groups in my class keep document their lab activities using video recording, Youtube, and Google Apps for Ed, and compile Wikispaces digital portfolios with their work (see “Lab Documentation” strategy). Before submitting final drafts students engage in a Critical Friends review period where groups present their portfolios and offer critical feedback. First, each group gets Portfolio Preparation planning time where they can revisit the data they’ve collected, make sure all charts, tables, graphs, images, and videos are accurate, and pair them with solid written analyses. Labs are power learning activities, but oftentimes students are too busy trying to “complete work” instead of reflecting on the meaning of their results. Groups exhibit better teamwork when they have time allotted specifically to prepare portfolios, ultimately leading to more polished lab reports and focused class time.
Peer-review is an integral part of each learning cycle, and I spend much of the first three units teaching my students to engage in a critical analysis of each other’s work. Having another set of eyes examine work samples and offer feedback on how to address weak points in their arguments adds a valuable teamwork element to class structure. At the end of each unit, students complete a culminating lab where I pose a guiding question, and groups develop an experiment that will hopefully answer the question. To encourage deeper analytical thinking and avoid students submitting rushed work, I use Critical Friends Share Out periods to facilitate group reviews before final drafts are assessed. Students present their digital portfolios to another group by laying out the argument, evidence, and reasoning that they’ve compiled using Google Apps for Ed, Youtube, and Wikispaces (see “Lab Documentation” strategy). Just walking their classmates through their portfolio causes students to evaluate their own work and fix holes in their arguments. During this time, the other group takes notes and prepares for a critical review period. I want all students to be able to contribute positively to these discussions and give each group member a chance to support their classmates.