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.
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.
My first college lab report really humbled me when it was handed back covered in red ink – my professor was asking for a lot of revisions. However, this feedback was crucial to my development as a scientist, and I want to expose my students to the feedback and revision loops I experienced before they had off to more advanced schooling. Students learn to give and receive feedback during the Critical Friends review period that occurs at the end of big labs. At this stage in the class each group presents their lab results to another group using Wikispaces digital portfolios, and then makes an argument as to how their results answer the lab’s guiding question. Classmates then offer targeted feedback during the Wreck-It portion of Critical Friends, before each group reconvenes to make necessary edits to their work. Students love when they get to play devil’s advocate and present critical “wreck-it” counter-points to other groups' arguments. It’s important to remind students to also offer advice on how to improve the other groups’ portfolio and help them build a more cohesive argument. Each group then reconvenes and makes the necessary edits to their work. Adding more critical eyes to student work makes my job as a teacher more manageable, and guarantees improved overall lab report quality. My goal is that by the time my students take college chemistry or organic chemistry, they will have already had experience assessing the validity of lab analyses and improving experimental design, data collection, and other crucial lab components.