I came across Andrew’s books on Amazon recently and found them to be a valuable resource when contemplating fun STEM activities to do in the classroom or at home. If you like the idea of project-based learning and of doing STEM activities at home and elsewhere but just do not have the time to come up with brand new project ideas, his books are so very helpful! Read on for some of his perspectives on doing, teaching, and learning STEM:
1. Tell me about some of the STEM projects you are currently working on with kids.
I think that STEM has this reputation as being hard to teach, mostly for two reasons: difficult subjects and expensive materials. These factors make STEM seem very unapproachable. To me, it’s really about making just about anything into a hands-on project that involves design and creativity. One issue we had at school was how to teach a unit on Native Americans with a bit of STEM. Native Americans and History are Social Studies, not really lending to STEM, right? The subject actually fits perfectly! How? Here’s a few ideas:
With a bag of random household and office supplies, make a model of one of the following:
(A) An early method of transportation (kayak, canoe, dugout, travois)
(B) An early shelter (roundhouse, teepee, wigwam, lean-to)
(C) An early tool (adze, atlatl, hatchet) ***this last idea might be better for homeschool, but made of packing peanuts and harmless materials, it is an appropriate cultural study.
So, in the end, it’s all about thinking creatively to add some design and engineering to ANY topic. Most lessons can be done with simple household materials or office supplies, too.
My book series, 50 STEM Labs, with its follow-up, 50 Learning Labs, all take a project-based approach to studying. They also focus on making the projects cheap, fun, and hands-on. They require design and innovation as students challenge themselves or each other to accomplish a goal. Lots of it ties back into the fun I had in physics and science classes in high school. I wanted to bring my grade school students that same sort of free-build approach to defeating a task. What started as 5-10 projects quickly ballooned into a complete 50.
With the success of that book, I made the two next volumes, 50 More STEM Labs and 50 New STEM Labs. I also made several add-on books to help teachers. 50 Learning Labs, the new series, takes the same style of project-based learning, but focuses it on a different subject with each volume, such as: social studies, the arts, literacy, and so on…
To teachers, I’d just like to say what a lot of them already know, and that is that some lessons stick with us because they were fun and memorable. If I think back to all of the school lessons I remember most clearly from my childhood and adolescence, almost all of the had something hands-on and tactile. Projects stick with us! That’s so key when kids just want to get from this week to the next and forget what they learned on the way.
To parents, I’d like to say, get in there, shoulder-to-shoulder with your kids and do some projects! Work cooperatively or competitively. Pinewood Derby, Science Fair, Art Fair, drawing comic books, making a cardboard castle… any project that lends to deeper thinking is worth doing with your child.
3. Anything else about your experiences you’d like to share?
This year, I’m back in the classroom as a dedicated STEM/Engineering teacher, and it has been very interesting to work with a lower age group than I’ve had the pleasure teaching science to before. I’ve taught ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) and other subjects to Pre-K and K before, but never science. Teaching this year, seeing how they think, and seeing how they CAN do a lot of these projects with the right encouragement and help is really amazing. It’s never too early to start trying to get STEM into your child’s life.
4. Walk me through 1-2 favorite lab or activities. What was your thinking in including it in this collection? What do you hope kids, parents and teachers will get out of doing it? What are the tricky parts of the activity and what advice do you have for those of us who try it and do not get the results we expected (in other words we failed!)? What larger concepts does it connect to?
One of my more popular projects is paper bridges. I lay out some rough dimensions for length, width, and height, but then let students figure out what designs they want to make that fit within those parameters. After designing the bridge, weight is added to a cup or tray placed at a spot in the center of the bridge, and students compete to see how much weight their projects can hold.
This is definitely one for revisiting and revising. It fits with the engineering-design model of STEM learning quite well. Research beforehand can certainly be a help, too. Students (before or after the project) can learn about materials strength tests, stress tests, and design geometries that allow for stronger structures. It also continues nicely into similar bridge, tower, or crush test projects. It’s really neat to see students learn to use i-beams, triangular tubes, and rectangular tube frames to make the best bridges possible – sometimes as a result of research, other times from trial and error.
A lot of students, initially, try to have the individual pieces of their projects taped end to end, butting up against one another without overlap. They quickly learn that this leads to weak points in the structure, and they have to overlap and reinforce the joints. Once they determine that, it’s a matter of determining the best use of limited supplies of tape and paper.
Another fun project is an unsinkable boats series. Students are given limited supplies of things like clay, foil, plastic wrap and pipe cleaners, or similar supplies to make the best boat possible. Completed boats will be filled with coins or paper clips until they sink. Students are encouraged to design, test, and redesign. Competition makes this a fun activity, whether you are trying to beat your own records or those of your classmates.
Both the unsinkable boats project and the paper bridge project are in my first book, 50 STEM Labs. The following volumes in the series have similar, as well as different, labs to challenge students. For other subjects, my 50 Learning Labs Series takes a more activity-based approach to teaching, instead of focusing entirely on STEM.
Generally, all of the several hundred labs I’ve made for STEM/STEAM and other subjects are designed to give basic guidelines and a list of materials and rules. Students use those to discover their own ways to achieve the goal(s) given. I try to keep materials costs really low by using readily-available materials from home and school, or by having students scavenge around to see what they can come up with. It puts some of the burden on students for making these projects happen, but they can also be done inexpensively at home for homeschoolers or for parents who just want to challenge their children. I hear a lot of great things from gifted teachers!
The final thing I’d like to say about these projects is how they build upon one another. You can do a whole line of similar tower builds, bridge builds, or flying project builds, which make for great thematic units. Rather than gloss over a topic, you can really go into depth with it, and learn from past experiences. The more you do, the more engineering and critical thinking experiences you have to draw upon to meet your next mission.
Raised in a mixture of parochial and public schools, Andrew received his teaching degree in 2004 from St. Petersburg College, FL. He immediately went overseas and taught English in South Korea for nearly three years, which is actually where he met his wife. After that, they returned to Florida. He taught in three different area schools to date. During that time, he became nominated several times for Teacher of the Year in Lee County, and was a finalist once. Andrew always taught math, social studies, and science. He loves doing projects and discovering things, and hopes that his enthusiasm helps lead students to discoveries of their own.
He has recently finished two years working online for HaveFunTeaching.com. Andrew recently started publishing some of his educational materials under his own company, MediaStream Press (mediastreampress.com) and also went back into the classroom to teach STEM and Engineering full time.Teaching provides Andrew with endless ideas for making lessons and activities and is also a profession that he finds to be thoroughly enjoyable. He still writes in the evenings, on weekends, and during vacations. He would love to be at home writing full time to allow for more time with his wife and two daughters. His youngest is a newborn, but he hopes she enjoys doing activities and experiments as much as his eldest, who is already quite a little scientist at age 4!
For Further Exploration:
Paper Bridges Projects and Ideas in Scientific American