The STEM team at Huntingdon Area Middle School uses a rotational model to engage students in multifaceted, multimedia projects with real-world implications.
The dictionary defines “STEM” simply as an abbreviation for science, technology, engineering, and math. To four teachers at Huntingdon Area Middle School in Huntingdon, Pa., though, STEM is a holistic approach to applying knowledge from various subjects and encouraging students to think critically and solve problems. Staying true to their definition, the four teachers from four different disciplines are using their individual strengths in a rotational, project-based model to teach middle-school students how to use their knowledge not just for a test, but in real-world situations.
In the summer of 2015, the district asked technology teacher Matt Rakar, library media specialist Sally Steward, math teacher Ben Young, and science teacher Samantha DeMatteo to create a STEM course that would be part of the students’ daily class schedule. The course, which would be required in addition to core courses, would employ four teachers in four classrooms to deliver STEM education to 100 students per class period.
Known as the STEM team, the teachers decided to split the students into four classes and rotate them every three days. Over time, students would use knowledge from all four teachers to finish multifaceted, cross-curricular projects that would take approximately nine weeks to complete.
From Small Doses to the ‘Big Picture’
By undertaking a large project over a long period of time, students are exposed to content in smaller doses, so they can digest what they have learned and decipher how it can be applied. Splitting up content also plays to each teacher’s strengths in a specific area of study, allowing lessons to be specialized and focused, as opposed to broad and possibly overwhelming for students.
“If I were to keep the same 25 kids for a semester, they’d have a great experience with aspects of science,” said DeMatteo, “but as the students move through our classrooms, they are able to spend a few days focusing on other subjects in reference to the same project. Each day they can build on what they’ve already learned, which brings them one step closer to their goal: completing the project.”
Recently, the teachers and students completed their second project of the school year, “Artificial Island Real Estate Agent.” As an introduction to the unit, where they would create their own artificial island using STEM and ELA skills, they watched a video on the Palm Islands in Dubai.
“I can’t tell you how many students asked if the islands were real,” laughed DeMatteo. “It got them excited to know there are people right now working on a project similar to theirs, and someday this could be their job. It brings relevance to their learning and legitimizes the lesson, which in turn, gets students interested to learn and engage in the project.”
Students created a 3D model of their island along with a comprehensive, calculated plan. Teachers pushed students to think critically and use cross-curricular knowledge to make choices including: the volume of material needed to make an island, marketing and advertising strategies for selling properties on the island, and the environmental impact of putting an artificial island in the middle of the ocean. Rather than taking a test, students created models, brochures, drawings, and videos to guide a group presentation that they gave to an audience of 100 students.
“Students have to be great researchers to be great problem-solvers,” said Steward, the STEM library media specialist, but they also have to be articulate communicators. “During the artificial island project, students were asked to create an advertisement and marketing plan to sell the homes on their island. We went in-depth on persuasive writing, copyright laws, plagiarism, and how to analyze media when differentiating credible and non-credible sources.”
Although Steward doesn’t teach one of the traditional STEM subjects, the Huntingdon team sees research and writing as a major aspect in problem-solving, thinking critically, and understanding the “big picture” when applying knowledge.
Helping Students and Teachers Focus
When it comes to content and grading rubrics, the team uses Defined STEM, an online curriculum supplement with hundreds of lessons that put student prompts, videos, and articles at their fingertips. Technology teacher Rakar has used the platform to facilitate project-based learning for years, adapting lessons to fit the needs of his classes. The Huntingdon STEM team decided that dissecting and adapting existing content is more effective than creating it from scratch. They choose four performance tasks to complete during the school year and use the standards-aligned, project-focused curriculum as the foundation of the STEM course.
“I like that I am not ‘pretending’ to be the expert on certain topics or spending hours outside of class each week teaching myself about environmental impacts and muscular systems to teach my lessons,” explained math teacher Young. “Having a team of teachers helps fill the gaps where more expertise may be required. We use each other as references and to bounce ideas off of. But even better, the students use us in the same way and can easily see how our disciplines aren’t that different after all.”
Defined STEM provides much of the teaching material and is flexible enough for the team to adjust lessons to fit their needs. Rakar noted that teaching the same content to four different groups of students every three days is much different than teaching a new lesson every day. The format forces the teachers and the students to use their time wisely, because they know it’s limited. Rakar said that students are rarely bored or distracted because of the increased rigor and activity happening in the classrooms.
“I think it’s easier for me to reach the students that are not fond of math for three to five days, rather than each and every day, knowing it is a subject some of them strongly dislike,” explained Young. “Additionally, the students know what math concept they will be studying while they’re with me, and how that applies to the overall project, which keeps the engagement level high.”
Dividing long-term projects into attainable tasks helps students grasp concepts at a rate they can keep up, and also challenges them in a variety of subject areas. The multifaceted projects and the rotational model create an environment where students can relate their knowledge and skills to the real world, which makes the STEM course not only educational but fun.
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