“Teaching is a calling. It’s waking up at 5 am to go to Walmart to get supplies needed to inspire a child.”
Warren Wise captivated the crowd at last month’s STEM Day at the Capitol, accepting the first ever STEM Teacher of the Year award. Wise, inspired by the 1980’s television show MacGyver, acknowledged, “my principal gave me the ‘green light’ to do some wacky, somewhat unorthodox things.” Administrative support along with Wise’s participation in the Science Fellowship Program for the Center for Disease Control pushed his instructional practices to a new level, resulting in accelerated student learning.
Part of Wise’s success is interdisciplinary design, a hallmark of STEM teaching and learning. This strategy, Wise states, “keeps students engaged thus reducing disciplinary problems.” Here’s what this type of instruction looks like in Wise’s classroom:
World War I and Trench Foot
Wise describes an example of using interdisciplinary design based on World War I. Students read about soldiers developing trench foot, they learned about how soldiers developed this condition and the impact it had on the human body. Students then developed models of the human foot similar to a medical illustrator by using plastic cloth, paper, duct tape, water, and paint. They created a brochure on how to prevent and treat trench foot as if they were medical professionals during the war. Students developed graphs and informational text to illustrate how this condition impacted the populations of soldiers in the area and communities within nearby towns. Students worked in teams following an engineering design process to develop prototypes for solving this condition. They used only materials and methods available during that time like a new footwear design, a water pump, and tools for cleaning out trenches.
Students employed technical writing from their ELA classes to create a persuasive presentation as if they were talking to a board of military generals about their solution to the crisis of trench foot.
School Health Fair Project
In another example, Wise describes a health project. Students worked in small groups, each with a specific role - research manager, presentation manager, production manager, and technical manager. Each group was assigned a real disease or disorder to research like Guinea Worm Eradication in Africa. This scenario involves students investigating the Guinea Worm crises that plagued countries in Africa for hundreds of years. They studied the water cycle and weather patterns. Students were exposed to the Epi Triangle and the life cycle of a guinea worm, connecting their knowledge of states of matter, the water cycle, and the parasite to pose a solution to help end outbreaks of Guinea Worm in Chad. Students utilized an engineering design process to develop, test, and refine prototypes. They developed a water-filtering device that will prevent the development of the Guinea worm and create clean drinking water. They continuously tested devices and combinations of materials used to clean drinking water. To collect data students had to analyze the relationship between the health of a community and the global environment. Groups completed a brochure, a professional display, a student-created medical illustration, a video, a 3D model, and an interview of a medical professional. Students presented their products to an audience of their peers, teachers, and community members during a school health fair.
Benefits of Interdisciplinary Design
Using this type of interdisciplinary design requires students to demonstrate an understanding of rigorous standards in multiple subjects including math, science, history, and ELA. Students call upon the disciplines as needed to develop solutions to complex problems. Students gain and use the skills of collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking throughout the learning experience.
Lead with Passion and Caring
Wise, is passionate about this work and his students. He preaches to his students, “You should always become better than you were yesterday.” He challenges his colleagues as well through what he calls healthy competition. This friendly rivalry with his fellow teachers he says, “pushes us to inspire students. And when teachers do that, they change the world, they change the world.”
In the words of Warren Wise, South Carolina’s STEM Teacher of the Year, “now…. let’s go out and change the world.”