Students’ Voice on STEM

If you have already heard or read about the mini (I call it “mini” because it only involved one of my biology classes) STEM fair you are probably wondering why all this emphasis. I get it. If you have not heard yet, you are getting more intrigued. Hopefully. Here is an answer to both hoping either way you won’t get bored.

This year honors chemistry and biology students were required to complete a STEM fair. In this post, I will tell you about the small group of honors biology students (sophomores) who engaged in this project. Using their comments (I will quote them!), I will provide you with a true picture of their experience.

It all started with a strong desire to expose students to STEM in a way that would excite them and encourage them to pursue a career in this field. I wanted students to live and experience what engineers and scientists go through in their every day life. I wanted students to feel excited, passionate, curious, and proud of themselves. But I also wanted them to experience the little frustration that a challenging task might generate so they would have an opportunity to elaborate healthy ways to deal with it and move forward. It was important for me to make students realize failure is an important part of this process and feeling comfortable with it is even more important. In the end, we all learn from our mistakes.

Students were asked to select a problem/need they were interested in and engineer a device that would directly or indirectly help solve that issue. To emphasize the interdependencies among the scientific disciplines students were allowed to pick anything related science (anything related to physics, chemistry, biology or any other scientific field). They worked in pairs and were asked to each submit a scientific paper (written in APA style) that embedded an introduction to define the problem, multiple solutions, material and design plan, results, discussion and conclusion. Compared to the scientific method, the engineering design process is quite different: it requires students to define a problem and generate multiple solutions as opposed to the scientific method that helps scientists make testable explanations and predictions about the world. In the real world, the distinction between engineering and science is not always clear. Scientists do some engineering work and engineers often apply scientific principles among which the scientific method.

Here is what my students had to say about this project:

“From the STEM project, I have learned the importance of science on the daily issues in our lives. The project has helped me think differently on certain problems like climate change and pollution.” – Cristian Aguilar

“It was a phenomenal experience because my topic related truly to who I am. In my project I learned a way to improve the safety in football.” – Arturo Ramirez

“This project showed me the steps engineers take to solve their problem using the engineering process.” – Anthony Valentin

“The STEM project forced me to write my first APA format essay, and in the process, though often rigorous, I became better and better at it. As for the physical project, the experience allowed for me to get a taste of the engineering field; I was able to work on an actual, functioning scientific device. This experience gave me a feel of how being a scientist is like, which is a career I would like to pursue in the future.” – Oscar Herrera

“The STEM project looked like it was going to be very tedious and dull. But while doing my research, I realized that the project made me think about the relevant issues in this society and motivate me to find a new solution for them.” – Randy De Paz

“The STEM project has helped me experience what hard work does and how it pays off. It also taught me a lot of new formats and ways that I can incorporate this project into others. If I could do the STEM project again I would.” – Omar Garcia

From a teacher’s perspective, there are many aspects of the project that can be tweaked and improved. However, I was happy to be able to combine so many skills in just one project and see students learn “by doing” and experience first-hand how science is relevant in our daily life.

Students in STEM

Our country’s education is rapidly shifting towards the teaching of STEM. But what is STEM? STEM stands for Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics and integrates these disciplines into a cohesive learning paradigm based on real work applications.

The emphasis on STEM though does not aim at deemphasizing the humanities. Rather, it aims at helping students think critically and develop skills that can be employed across disciplines.

In order to increase the opportunities for students to engage into STEM, this year the math and science departments have been fused into one, the STEM Department. For the first time at Verbum Dei, students are engaging in a STEM fair through which they learn about and apply the Engineering Design Process. Engineering is the creative process of turning abstract ideas into some sorts of products or systems. What distinguishes engineers from poets, painters or sculptors is that engineers use their creativity to meet human needs or solve problems. Upon selecting a topic of interest and becoming experts on it, students generate multiple solutions to that need or problem. For example, in our science classrooms students are building more efficient water filters, safer helmets, faster computers, longer life batteries, etc. and they explain their work both verbally and in a written form. As you can imagine, this is a challenging project that requires students to think, plan, create a product, revise it or even consider a different solution. One of the lessons students learn in this project is to learn from their mistakes (engineers revise their model and products everyday!).

In parallel, the STEM Department continues to pair up with the Theology Department in encouraging students to reflect on important ethical issues. Topics such as prosthetics, stem cells, healthy vs. unhealthy food, and organic food have been object of discussion in biology so students will be equipped with a stronger scientific foundation before exploring these same topics with their theology teacher.

Last, sophomore students are about to engage in a cross-curricular project that was successfully initiated and implemented last year by the History Department. For this project, students are asked to collaborate, investigate a theme and make connections to all disciplines (including STEM!). Results will be presented at the end of the year in front of teachers and parents in a “science fair” set-up.

Our hope is that students will be able to use their knowledge and skills to get a better understanding of the world around them and become well-rounded citizens.

 

The Physics in Sports

   If you are wondering what high school students do in a science class, here is a good example – freshmen students, under the direction of Mr. Traber, are making sense of the world around them by investigating physics phenomena in their everyday life with an emphasis on sports. Sports and Physics? Correct. In fact, physics plays a dominant role in the way athletes perform.  Here is how Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots, describes football in Football Physics: The Science of the Game by Timothy Gay, “While some observers see only carnage and chaos, brilliant athletic performances and bone jarring collisions, the science-minded see the field as a working laboratory”.

   Mr. Traber’s terrific past experience as a professional baseball player allows him to engage students and relate every physics topic to sports! Real data and scenarios from track and field, baseball, basketball, soccer and many other sports are the context in which students develop skills, demonstrate their understanding of physics laws and discuss physics concepts.

   A couple of weeks ago, freshmen students played the role of a football analyst. Their job consisted of providing the team manager with a graphic display of football players’ speeds. By analyzing players’ 40 yard dash time, students were able to apply their knowledge of motion, calculate the speed of each player and represent the data on Microsoft Excel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Freshmen students graph their results on football players’ speed on Microsoft Excel

Timothy, Gay. Football Physics: The Science of the Game. Emmaus: Rodale Press, Inc., 2004.