Last week, 36 middle schools across Boston took part in Boston STEM Week, suspending normal curriculum and transforming into hands-on learning labs offering 20-25 hours of project-based learning. Hosted by i2 Learning, this immersive STEM experience allowed students to work like real scientists and engineers, asking questions, leading investigations, building models, and developing solutions to real problems.
“I was skeptical at first,” said Patricia Lampron, principal at the Henderson K-12 Inclusion School, “but this really lit a fire in our kids. This is how science should be taught all year.”
During STEM week, students participated in a variety of weeklong units developed by i2, MIT, New York Hall of Science, and other leading STEM organizations. With the help of teachers and visiting STEM professionals, students participating in STEM week built kinetic sculptures, designed lunar colonies, practiced surgical techniques, coded video games, explored urban farming, and created interactive friendly monsters. Units were designed to be student led and offered opportunities for collaboration, informal learning from peers, and written and verbal reflection on STEM concepts and the practices of scientists and engineers.
Students participating in the Lunar Colony unit began their week by brainstorming potential challenges of living on the moon like access to food, water and oxygen. Upon identifying challenges, students proceeded to design and test systems that satisfied these needs. “One of the design challenges was to make a water filter,” said a sixth grade student at the Dearborn STEM Academy. “We measured the pH level and how quickly the water was able to go through it.”
At the Timilty Middle School, students experimented with food production methods by growing plants under different conditions including cold temperatures and complete darkness. They recorded plant growth data and drew conclusions about the type of conditions they would want in their lunar greenhouses.
The unit culminated with students designing models of their lunar colonies based on the results of their experiments. Ultimately, students were left to draw their own conclusions and address issues in their own ways.
Students’ lunar colonies revealed a number of different and creative solutions to the problems identified at the beginning of the unit. While some students decided to build a landing site for rockets to send water and oxygen to the colony from earth, others envisioned breathing oxygen produced by plants in their greenhouses and mining for ice within the moon for water. During this unit students were given permission to truly own their ideas and develop and defend their thinking, creating a deep level of engagement in the project.
During the Kinetic Sculptures unit, students learned new concepts related to energy and applied them to moving pieces of art. “Kinetic energy is energy in motion and potential energy is the gravitational pull on an object where it has the potential to go down,” explained one seventh grade student at the Henderson School as she dropped a marble down a tube and around a loop to demonstrate the transfer of energy from potential to kinetic.
While this student chose to focus her project on potential and kinetic energy, her classmate focused his project on magnetism, powering a car with the repulsive force created by the interaction of the same poles of two magnets. This project provided students with an opportunity to apply scientific concepts to their own design ideas, allowing them to incorporate creativity and make scientific concepts personal and meaningful.
In the Surgical Techniques unit, students created visual representations of different body systems on clear plastic sheets that were laid on top of each other to form a composite representation of the human anatomy. Students also explored careers in medicine, participating in activities that illuminated the work of doctors, nurses, and surgeons like sheep heart and brain dissections and suturing. During one portion of this unit, students grew cultures of bacteria from swabs of washed and unwashed hands in petri dishes in order to understand why doctors wash their hands so meticulously.
Exposure to STEM careers was not limited to the Surgical Techniques unit. Throughout the week, STEM professionals visited all STEM Week classrooms and presented their work to students. These visits helped to expose students to the range of careers in STEM and cemented the connection between the students’ STEM Week projects and the wider world.
“I will be an astrobiologist finding life on other planets,” exclaimed a confident Dearborn sixth grader upon completing the Lunar Colony unit.
Overall, teachers and administrators across the 36 participating schools reported a high level of student engagement and enjoyment during STEM Week. “I’ve never seen the kids’ eyes light up so much in my entire career,” said Marjorie Soto, principal at the Hurley K-8 School. At the Henderson School, teachers noticed improved attendance during STEM Week. “We have some attendance problems, but this week we had 98% attendance. Kids told me they were coming for STEM Week. Now we’re talking about starting all these clubs, dissection club, this club, that club,” remarked one elated science teacher.
As studies show waning interest and achievement in STEM among Boston middle school students, student reactions to STEM Week programming offer hope that this issue can be addressed through a creative and hand on approach to teaching math and science. By connecting students with STEM professionals, allowing them to direct their own learning and allowing them to practice science authentically, STEM Week helped students begin to develop a desire to pursue STEM outside of school.
“The students did most of the work this week,” said Henderson Principal Lampron in an address to students before their STEM Week presentation.
“You are learning how you learn when you are in charge, working together in teams, doing really difficult thinking, and learning really important things about what things you can do with your lives.”