Ian Fogarty teaches Chemistry, Physics, and Science 12 at Riverview High School in New Brunswick, Canada. He is the two-time recipient of Minister’s Awards for Innovation in Education, the Prime Minister’s Award for Excellence in Education, and the Canadian Association of Physicists’ High School Teacher Award. Follow him on Twitter @ifoggs.
The following is the second of two guest blog entries from Mr. Fogarty regarding his time at the 2013 STEM Educator Symposium. Read Part 1 right here.
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The real meat of the 2013 STEM Educator Symposium was: Give kids real problems to solve, and make those problems hard!
It is important to make the problems difficult to solve. Kids know when something is fake, superficial and dumbed down. When we do this, we send a message loud and clear: “We, the adults in your life who know you better than anyone else, do not believe that you are capable, despite the fact that we use cheesy slogans that say you can do anything you set your mind to.”
And the students believe us when we speak with our actions. A clear example of this was recounted at the symposium. A grade 6 partnership with a university let students study the difference between guppies in the wild and guppies in a pet store. Unfortunately, the expectation was set that children could not do real science, and the project was dumbed down. The students watched the researchers and followed a worksheet, instead of being researchers themselves. There was some student interest in seeing the guppies, but the real-world connection was lost, and the students quickly became disengaged. There were no external consequences to motivate them to ponder the meaning of their data. Who cares about what happens to the guppies? Why is it important for them to focus on guppy data instead of games?
Compare the guppy problem to that of the wildlife water Guzzler problem at Sylvan Dale Ranch.
Water scarcity is a serious issue in Colorado, with wide-ranging, often negative impacts on wildlife. The Preston students decided to build a watering Guzzler for the animals, but where to put it? Kids, teachers, and parents gave school time and off-hours time to survey the ranch, collect data and come up with a solution.
The students were very engaged in analyzing this data, because if they did not get it right, the placement of the guzzler would be wrong, their time and energy would be wasted, and more importantly, the animals still would be thirsty. Consequences based on the actions of kids are much more compelling intrinsic motivation to learn stats, graphing, geology, history, and language.
A roadblock for many teachers starting this type of project is that they don’t have experience in such a wide variety of subjects, and feel uncomfortable leading a project in which they themselves don’t know the material. Heidi Olinger, the founder of Pretty Brainy, challenged us to make bold requests of our community members, experts in various subjects, and to invite them into our classrooms.
But how do you get community members into the school? They have busy lives of their own. David Niels of the International Telementor Program says that members of the community not only have an outreach and corporate citizen mandate, but individuals in those organizations report a stronger connection to the corporate responsibility arm of their companies than they do to the business side. They have a strong sense of self-worth and pride when they give back to the community. In other words, you might be surprised how eager they are to help you. The catch is: you have to ask them. They can help shape the kids now and build a workforce that is ready for the future, and they usually enjoy doing it. Everybody wins.
However, when you ask community members to come in and work with your class, don’t ask them to help make a simple thing, such as a potato circuit. Instead, find out what really jazzes them and keeps them up at night. A kid showing interest in the same things is going to be a magnet for all kinds of participation, volunteerism, excitement and, most importantly, growing kids.
But certainly not all students can participate in these sorts of things? What about the kid who struggles and needs interventions? Surely only the gifted student can handle the enrichment activities?
Although we should certainly work on our deficiencies, our greatest area of growth and success is in our strengths. Can you imagine telling Wayne Gretzky that he could not experiment and innovate on the front line because his goal tending skills were weak? All of our kids are intelligent and talented. Perhaps our schools are not giving them a chance to show it. Many of my students consider themselves stupid because they struggle with writing tests, but bloom when I ask them to solve nebulous puzzles. If the enrichment is exciting, pertinent, has purpose and involves the deficiency somehow, I suspect it will be much more palatable for a struggling student to engage. Perhaps it is EXACTLY the struggling kid who most needs, and can best execute, these enrichment opportunities.
Preston Middle school has decided to wrap this philosophy of learning into a wonderful graphic that embodies their unique version of STEM education. Their team of educators adopted a philosophy that young kids are currently underestimated, underutilized, and have the ability to solve real and challenging problems. Although there can be debate about names, and buzz words, it’s really just about good learning designed by good teachers. Their students don’t know that they are not supposed to be able to solve these hard problems, nor have they been contaminated by years in the field. It is fertile ground for problem solving, innovation, communication, and a source of pride for students of every ability and talent. It is a great way to grow kids and their brains.
School administrator and STEM Institutes director John Howe started the week talking about the need to create “agents of change,” and he used the strong face to face relationships built at the symposium to build a strong core of advocates. So now it is our collective turn to be agents of change. Like a mother wood duck leaving its nest and beckoning her ducklings to be bold and take a scary but vital survival step, we the participants call on ALL the stake holders of education to carefully consider what is best for the future of our kids, rather than what is easy, or convenient, or traditional, or financially beneficial or politically popular.
Some things are more important than grades, and nothing is more important than growing kids.
See you next year at #PreSES14.
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