This has been a challenging year for teachers and students, but recycling these challenges into treasures makes learning more engaging and fun for all students and teachers. In 2016, “STEM for All” highlighted how engaging students in critical thinking and problem-solving enhances the learning for students of all demographics, especially the underrepresented groups, such as girls in STEM. Active learning helps to retain students in STEM education and careers by improving the learning process (Handelsman & Smith, 2016).
Ensuring vertical alignment from elementary, middle, and high school students in STEM education is an intimidating task; however, as educators, it is our responsibility to work together to broaden access, success, and diversity in our STEM programs for all students (Handelsman & Smith, 2016).
After learning how important it is for students to participate in STEM programs several years ago, I began my journey to bring a STEM program to my school and district. I attended sessions on STEM through our local, state, and national science and middle school conferences. As I listened to the positive impact STEM had on students, I talked with my principal about beginning a program; however, the financial portion of creating the program became the most challenging aspect. My principal and I met with business leaders, community leaders, and school officials to discuss implementing a STEM program. Each one stated, “No money!” So, what does a teacher do? Develop a proposal of how to begin a STEM program with little to no funding by recycling trash into treasures.
The Science Inquiry standard (now the Science and Engineering Practices) helped me create my units and lessons for the STEM program. Through this standard, I incorporated the engineering design process which included critical thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration so students are successful in higher education, the workforce, and as productive citizens in the 21st century. As I developed the curriculum, I emailed teachers at my school, talked to people at my church and in the community about the resources I needed to make the implementation successful. People were shocked that I wanted their trash, but their trash was the treasure that made the program successful.
In this lesson, students researched and discussed renewable and nonrenewable energy sources using various websites, games, simulations, and Learning Blade. Learning Blade is a free resource for teachers through our SC State Department of Education that provides student-ready, interactive missions that show STEM careers (automotive engineer, industrial engineer) in the context of solving people and community-centered problems. After students researched wind energy, I challenged them to design a wind-powered vehicle.
Before students planned their designs, I read the book, If I Built a Car by Chris Van Dusen to discuss the engineering design process and we worked together to complete the design brief for the challenge. Students worked in pairs using the Breakout-room function in Google Meet to define the problem and generate concepts for their design. Pairs used Padlet to share and record their design ideas so they could see all group member's ideas to better understand and discuss possible solutions. After the brainstorming session, students returned to the main room in Google Meet for any questions, concerns, or directions needed.
Students used Jamboard to sketch their design solutions for their wind-powered vehicle. The Jamboard tool has pens, shapes, sticky notes to annotate, color pallets, text, and image attachments for students to create an engineering digital notebook.
Students used various recycled materials (trash) to build their wind-powered vehicles, such as old CDs, cardboard boxes, cereal boxes, milk cartons, bottle caps, straws, and various other materials. Students tested their vehicles using an electric box fan for wind power. Students calculated the cost of materials for their prototype and any revisions. During the testing and evaluation phase of the design challenge, students were able to measure the time and distance their wind-powered vehicle traveled in order to calculate the speed of the car. They tested their car three times to calculate speed, having an opportunity to manipulate parts of the equation which deepened students’ understanding of the relationship between distance, time, and speed. Students used Google Sheets to create digital data tables and graphs, giving equity of access for both face to face and virtual students. After each test, they were able to modify their vehicle to show how the engineering design process is iterative.
To share their learning, students used Flipgrid to present a video demonstrating their prototype for their wind-powered vehicle, along with evidence from their observations, data, and the informational text from their research.
This lesson can be adjusted for hybrid or virtual learning environments. Virtual students participated in Google Meet, the Padlet discussion, Google Sheets data gathering, Learning Blade, and the Flipgrid presentations and responses. For virtual students to build the wind-powered vehicle, I suggested using household items or provided a bag supplies, if needed.
Through this STEM lesson, students used multiple strategies to learn the effect of Newton’s Laws of Motion on an object’s position, direction and speed, how the motion of an object is affected by gravity and friction, and how increasing the acceleration of an object with an increase in mass creates the need to increase the amount of force. Students practiced predictions as they manipulated variables and calculated the magnitude of the change in the speed by using the relationship between speed, distance, and time. Students communicated their results, interpreted data, and drew conclusions.
This engineering design challenge integrated computational thinking, science concepts, math concepts, and literacy strategies while preparing students for STEM careers. Using the engineering design process provided students with many opportunities to view the solution from a global perspective, be persistent through the design process, improve their work ethic, and cite evidence to support their data. Students had to reason logically, be flexible, set goals, and manage time to accomplish the goal. They learned to solve real-world problems inside and outside the classroom.
Suggestions for Getting Started:
From my experiences, I have a couple of suggestions as guidelines for planning and implementing the lesson face-to-face or virtual:
Build-in additional time for training students on the appropriate uses of online tools.
Model how to solve technology issues.
Provide time for students to use the tools.
Whether you are teaching face-to-face or virtually, it is imperative to remember that building a relationship with students is the most vital part of making learning successful. This lesson and others that Recycle Trash to Treasures inspire interest and ignite a future in STEM education and careers; students' lives are changed by helping them envision a brighter future even with little to no funding.