Keep STEM learning fresh

When it comes to STEM, or any subject for that matter, teachers not only must spark an interest with students – they also need to find a way to sustain it. Throughout my two-decade-plus teaching career, I have continually tried to find ways to make the learning process fresh, relevant and exciting for my students so that their interest in STEM lasts long beyond their time in my classroom.

Below are three ways I have worked to continually engage my students in scientific learning.

1) Take learning outside. Getting students out of the classroom and into the field really engages them in the learning process and allows them to make real-world -- and often eye-opening -- connections. With my school located just 1.5 miles from Lake Erie, I knew I wanted to take advantage of this great resource when we first launched our environmental science program and provide my students with the opportunity to become real in-the-field scientists.

Our curriculum for this program focuses on the study of the environmental impact of pollution -- such as microplastics and toxic algae blooms -- on freshwater ecosystems. As part of this, students visit the nearby lake a number of times a year to collect water quality data, such as temperature and pH, using Vernier sensors. Being able to collect multiple data points throughout the year allows students to identify and analyze trends over time. Overall, students now have a better understanding of the ecological and everyday impact of these pollutants on our lake and on our drinking water.

We plan to monitor the seasonal cycles of the water quality indicators over the next three to five years, so we can see how the water changes. This freshwater analysis will include the collection of various types of data including dissolved oxygen, ortho- and total phosphates, ammonia nitrogen, nitrates and more.

Of course, in-the-field investigations don’t have to take place at a lake; there are a lot of innovative investigations that can take place at nearby parks, farms, forests, beaches or even at a school’s athletic fields. 

2) Go mobile. When it comes to engaging students in the learning process, I think it is important to meet students where they are -- on their phones! Using mobile devices, as well as technology that can be used with mobile devices, is very intuitive for students and something they are definitely interested in.

In both classroom and in-the-field investigations, my students use data-collection devices in conjunction with a compatible mobile app to collect, share and analyze data directly on their phones. They no longer have to collect data and note their results manually in their notebooks, as the process is all automated. Plus, using mobile devices and mobile technology allows learning to take place anywhere; students (and teachers) are no longer tethered to a traditional lab setting.

While there should be parameters around the general use of mobile devices in the classroom, I have really found them to be a valuable learning tool that students enjoy using.

3) Let students take control. Each year, my students complete an independent research project that really puts them in control of what they are learning. This process gives them the freedom and flexibility to really delve into a topic they are interested in, which I think is key to fostering an appreciation and passion for STEM.

One of my students this year completed a study on the energy output of different ratios of ethanol in gasoline, which required collecting temperature output data during numerous trials. Another student researched the buffer capacity of a commercial ice tea/lemonade product in which he used a pH electrode to collect pH data from samples. In both, albeit varying, projects students were able to lead an investigation of their choosing, come up with data-driven conclusions and truly engage in the scientific discovery process.

Whether in the classroom or in the field, student engagement is so important. The three strategies above have really helped me create a mix of hands-on, student-led and technology-enabled learning opportunities that engage students as they experience and apply science and make real-world connections.  

Anne Marie Lavelle is a science teacher at St. Edward High School in Lakewood, Ohio. Lavelle, a recipient of the 2019 Vernier/NSTA Technology Award, teaches IB Chemistry, AP Chemistry, Environmental Science and Chemistry.

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