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.
Synthesizing a year's worth of content is difficult for any student, so I always look for innovative new ways to keep my students engaged attempt to conquer all of the learning objectives in chemistry. During the 3 weeks leading up to the final exam, my classroom temporarily turns into a Chemistry Hunger Games war zone where students battle to "kill" off districts - each representing a different unit from the year. Using the chemistryhungergames.com website I designed, my students pour over videos, screencasts, text, images, simulators, and practice problems that prepare them for district assessments. Each student is allowed to take the district assessment as many times as needed to master the district’s content, and I rotate enough questions to make about 5 assessment versions for each district. Point values are assigned according to the proficiency level they achieve on their assessments - all of which are tracked online using a conditionally formatted google sheet to help monitor progress. This gamified twist to the learning process keeps students focused on the ultimate task, mastery of content, while also helping to reinforce that with enough practice and guidance, they have the ability to master anything.
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.
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.