My STEM Units

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Leaving Base Camp

Ahhh Fourth Grade.  Never boring, usually loud, mostly funny, sometimes messy and always engaging. 
Fourth grade left base camp today.  They branched out and walked outside.  Gasp!  Children need to be in a classroom; learning! 

Can they not learn outside?  Do they not gain much of their scientific knowledge by making observations and simple experiments with their environment?  I say they do.  And so does the research.  The article on Outdoor Learning is a lengthy one, but so worth the time.  Smith tells us, "Other research presents similar conclusions. A study by the State Education and Environmental Roundtable found that students participating in nature-based learning programs did better than their peers 72 percent of the time in measures of academic achievement, and that their attendance was 77 percent better than the control group." 

Imagine going on a camping trip and never leaving the tent.  Absurd, you might think.  You know that you would miss the splendor of the forest, the excitement of walking through nature, and the awe of finding that one special thing.  Maybe you went there to hike and upon reaching the mountaintop, you gained a whole new perspective on the valley below.  Or maybe you went to see the grandeur of ocean waves, but were awestruck by the minute creatures in the tide pools.  No doubt you learned new things and made new connections

Students scanning QR codes on the school Interpretive Trail
It's the same with the classroom.  All the learning does not occur within those four walls.  There is a whole world out there!  Now, with budgets and time constraints, you can't take field trips to the whole world, but there is so much more than just those four walls. While outside, children are moving their bodies. 
"This body-mind interaction is what stimulates brain cells to grow and connect with each other in complex ways.  This is the structural basis of your brain's memory capacity and thinking ability."
The lessons they are learning will hold longer and go deeper.  In fact, as we were walking out the trailhead, a school employee walked by and told us that he remembered the day this teacher took him on the trail for a fossil hunt.....20 years ago

In all my years of teaching, I have never had a former student come back and say, "remember that time we did page 632 in the blue workbook?!".  Worksheets aren't memorable.  But, stepping outside the box is.  Leaving base camp is. 

QR code on the school composting bin


Saturday, February 15, 2014

STEM After-School Enrichment Clubs

After-school clubs are not new.  Many schools around the nation offer robotics, foreign language (including ASL), cultural, and religious clubs.  Even more offer after-school tutoring.  But what about STEM?

What is a STEM Club?
A STEM Club is a gathering of students that meets regularly in an informal environment to work on inquiry-based Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) related activities. 
 Benefits of a STEM Club
STEM clubs may have the following benefits:
  • Providing opportunity for meaningful STEM learning and for students to engage in science, technology, engineering and math in multiple ways and in a supportive and fun environment.
  • Building their knowledge and application (i.e., behavior change) of STEM content and processes.
  • Honing their ability to collaborate with and learn from other students and from STEM professionals.
  • Building their interest in academic success and higher education.
  • Foster their interest in additional STEM learning opportunities and careers. (


Maybe you have wanted to start a STEM Club, but weren't sure how to do it.  There are many resources available for you.   Science Foundation Arizona has created a STEM Club Guide, with everything you need.  They have professional development in the summer.  Just for attending the PD, you will receive a check for $700 to buy supplies for your club.  They have ongoing panels and forums, where educators from across the state can "meet up" to pose questions and seek answers from others.

Boys and Girls Club

"Time Warner Company will provide $500,000 in cash to help Boys and Girls Clubs (BGCA) engage and inspire youth around the country to become interested in STEM subjects."  Read the entire article here.  BGCA was already leading the pack with it's Club Tech initiative, where local clubs partner with local cell-phone providers to offer technology training.

Our local BGCA facility in Whiteriver already has the laptops and I will begin a Club Tech session soon.  Club Tech is only the beginning.

  Available for all Clubs this summer, the DIY STEM program curriculum will engage Club youth ages 10 to 18 in a different strand of STEM—from robotics to electrodynamic propulsion—each week. Aligning to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, the project-based STEM activities will provide opportunities for critical thinking and peer exchange.

 Research shows that after-school enrichment programs are effective in stimulating interest in STEM-related careers, plus so much more.  But don't take my word for it.  Read these letters from parents of STEM Club students.

I have noticed that my daughter became more brighter and  more patient after she joined STEM Club.  I have also noticed that she began reading more on her own and asking for books.  She also started keeping a journal of her own. She writes in it daily.  She

And these are just a few.

The students are just as excited about STEM Club as the parents.  At our school, STEM Club is an honor and students clamor to get in.  The day that permission slips are distributed is like Oscar Night or the Academy Awards.  When the teacher calls a name, the other students actually clap for that student.  I have seen more than one fist-pump.

If your child's school doesn't offer After-School Enrichment STEM Club, perhaps your local Boys and Girls Club does.  Ask your local BGCA if they have Club Tech and if they will be hosting STEM Clubs this summer.  I would love to hear your success stories here as well.

PARCC Navigation and Accessibility

In a few weeks, PARCC will be field testing the new online assessment with over 1 million students in PARCC states.  About 100 of those students come from our district.

Where can teachers (and parents) see sample test questions?

Teachers, parents, and students have a number of resources available to them.  You can go directly to and see sample tests for English Language Arts (ELA) and Math.  Click here for a tutorial on how to access the sample tests and why it's important to start looking at them now.  Click here for a tutorial on how to find the answers to the above tests and their point values.  Yes, different questions have different point values.  In fact, a student may incorrectly answer a math problem but still score points if they have correctly explained their rationale in the text box.

Just how different is this digital test compared to "fill in the bubble" tests?  

The Arizona Department of Education (ADE) has released sample test items.  ADE has done a great job of embedding the digital tools in the test.  Click here to see the dramatically different digital testing environment.  What did you notice was different?

  • tabs 
  • rubrics
  • typing
  • highlighting text
  • drag and drop
  • sliders
PARCC has released the first (of two) tutorials on navigation and accessibility.
This first release includes navigation and some accessibility features and a second tutorial will be released in mid to late February 2014 with all item interaction types.
 As of just earlier this week, PARCC has also released information on graphing calculators for high school students.  Click here for a free download of Texas Instruments calculator.

What are these "computer tools" and "accessibility tools"?  

I highly encourage all students, parents, and teachers to go through the tutorial designed by PARCC.  There are so many "computer" things students need to know in order to take the test.  For instance, there are some questions which can have more than one correct answer.  Students need to know how to tell if a question allows for "multiple select".  Hint, it's all in the radial buttons.  Do you know what that means?  More importantly, do your students know what that means?  The writing portion will be scored based on a rubric, and PARCC has put the rubric right there..........on a tab.  What if your student doesn't know they can select the rubric to see what the scorers will be looking for?

Click here to go directly to the tutorial.

Which features do you think your students will struggle with the most?  What can you do to support your students over the next few weeks so they don't struggle?

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Read Across America, STEM style

Will you be celebrating Read Across America in your classroom?  Every year, thousands of classrooms (across the WORLD) celebrate reading on or around March 2nd.

In my ten years as an educator, I have seen a multitude of ways to celebrate Dr. Seuss and his contribution to reading.  Schools hold assemblies.  Some show Dr. Seuss videos.  Others have guest speakers come and read their favorite book to students.  Many have parties.  Quite a few of them include "Cat in the Hat" hats.  Cafeterias serve green eggs and ham.  I have seen DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) days with jammies and hot chocolate.  I have even seen STEM.  STEM?  Yes, STEM.

Are you familiar with Dr. Suess's book Bartholomew and the Oobleck?  In the story, oobleck falls from the sky.  "What is oobleck?", your students are bound to ask.  Why not use that book as an opener for a science lesson on states of matter?  Give your students the recipe and have them decide which it is; solid or liquid?  Note: you can have the students make the oobleck in a zippered baggie to keep things clean.  However, they won't get the full effect.

Oobleck is actually a non-Newtonian substance that behaves like a liquid and a solid, but your students will gain great experience in making observations, listing qualities, and debating back and forth while they try to answer that question.

To bring in an element of Math, you can alter the recipe and/or tools.  For instance, I kept the recipe at 1 1/2 cups, but only gave them a 1/4 measuring cup.  They had to figure out how many 1/4 cups go into 1 1/2 cups.  Or you could write the recipe as an improper fraction, 6/4 cups.

  1. Mix 1 part water with 1.5 to 2 parts cornstarch. You may wish to start with one cup of water and one and a half cups of cornstarch, then work in more cornstarch if you want a more 'solid' oobleck. It will take about 10 minutes of mixing to get nice homogeneous oobleck.
  2. Mix in a few drops of food coloring if you want colored oobleck.

Literature is the link between Read Across America and STEM.  In all my years with students, when I have asked, "what was your favorite book this year?", never have I heard someone list the basal.  Mostly, I hear the class novels with which we did Literature Studies and sometimes they listed fiction books they read on their own.

If you aren't quite sure how to link a STEM lesson to literature, there are many books on the market that come with lessons already scripted.  The popular Picture-Perfect Science Lessons series offers just that.  They have books for K-5 and books more narrowed down to grade level bands K-2 and 3-5.  Click here for a link.  The National Science Teachers Association has produced their own book on the subject as well.  Teaching Science Through Trade Books offers lessons for grade bands K-3 and 4-6 with lessons and student engagement strategies.

Perhaps you already know which book you want to use for Read Across America Day and are just looking for a STEM lesson plan.  You can use 's website.  They have compiled lesson plans, searchable by book title.  Click here to go to the page.  When you select a title, you will be directed to a page with details.  After reading the synopsis, if you want to use that book, click "Go to Activity".  You can print the PDF file for use on Read Across America Day.

This year, I have decided to focus on Engineering for Read Across America. Read here to see the books and curriculum that accompany our celebrations this year.
Blog Post

Friday, February 7, 2014

PARCC Sample Test Answers and Rationale

Fourth graders in our district will pilot the PARCC test in a few months.  I know that many of you are looking for digital learning resources to prepare your students for digital testing next year.  A previous post about digital learning everyday was the most viewed post I have ever had. 
If you read that post, you were guided through steps to get to a practice test released by PARCC just a few days ago.  Many of you took the test relevant to your grade level and posted your thoughts and observations on my Facebook page.
The most common comment I received was, "Wow!  That was hard!" followed closely by, "Where do I find the answers to see if I was correct?".
That speaks volumes to me.  These comments came from parents and veteran educators.  Yes, it really is that dramatically different from what we are accustomed to. 
Without further delay, here are the steps to the answers and rationale.  Note: I could just put a link here, but I feel that each webpage is useful and offers more insight than this blog can offer.  I encourage you to spend time reading the websites and viewing tests from your grade level band (one grade below and one grade above). 
Go to and click on "For Educators" tab at the top. 

 Click on "Sample Items and Task Prototypes"
On the left side, click the grade level and subject you are interested in viewing.

I have chosen to highlight 4th grade, as they will be piloting the test this year.  For now, let's look at Math.  By scrolling down, you will see 3 columns and prototype items.  Select one.

On the left side, select the level you wish to view. 

Select a sample item.

By selecting "Part A" at the top, you will be directed to the question page.

Take a minute to read it and find the solution.  Thoughts?  Was it as easy as A, B, C, or D?  In fact, let me ask you this: how many equations did you have to do to find the answer to this one question?  When you click on scoring (at the top right), you will see that it was no less than 3 equations.

This page shows the solution, as well as the rationale.  Another new twist on the PARCC that we are not accustomed to is that students may get partial credit for questions.  For instance, this question is worth 6 points, and students can score anywhere on that spectrum. 

When you are done looking at the prototype questions and getting the answers to your questions, return to the tab on your browser for PARCC online.

This time, click one of the sample questions at the bottom.  For instance, Subtraction Fluency.

This question seems like a typical 4th grade question.  However, entering the answer may confuse some students. We teach our students to always start on the right side.  If they subtract 3-2, they will try to enter 1.  But, as an adult with experience with calculators, you know that the 1 will shift to the left when you enter the next digit. 

I will highlight calculator games in the coming weeks on my series of STEM@home.  Check back in a week, when I walk you through the accommodations for PARCC (another eye-opener!). 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

STEM@home: Engineering

STEM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, is a term used by teachers to encompass lessons and projects which include these subjects. STEM units usually start with a problem.  The teacher guides the students through discovery and experimenting to find solutions.  STEM does not just happen at school. In fact, STEM can be very effective, engaging, and fun at home.  

Over the last few weeks, we have been looking at the various aspects of STEM and how you can encourage your child at home.


When most people think of engineering, they think of professionals designing bridges or skyscrapers.  Although those are great examples of engineering, it can also be defined as designing solutions to common problems.  For instance, how can I collect the water that rains onto my roof and use it in my garden?

Children are natural-born scientists and engineers.  And, they aren't afraid of failure.  Because, to them, it's not failure; it's just a step in the design process.  If their design fails the initial test, they redesign and build again.  Over and over.  If your child fails to engineer an electric circuit on their first try, encourage them to analyze why it didn't work the way they wanted. 

Although there are really cool gadgets on the market that can build robots out of soda cans, you don't have to break the bank to encourage your child to engineer.  Legos are a perfect way to get your child started.  And the possibilities are endless.  K'Nex are also a resource at home that can be used to produce many different designs.  K'Nex has the addition of motorized pieces, which adds a really fun element to engineering.

The drawback of Legos and K'Nex is that they usually appeal to boys.  Girls haven't really had an engineering toy that has appealed to them.  Until now.  One of the most talked about commercials during the Super Bowl was the Goldie Blox commercial.  Goldie Blox is a new company, producing engineering toys for girls.
"By tapping into girls' strong verbal skills, our story + construction set bolsters confidence in spatial skills while giving young inventors the tools they need to build and create amazing things."

Even household items can be used for engineering projects.  Paper towel tubes and duct tape offer endless possibilities.  Plastic spoons and playdough can be used to make water wheels.

Here is an easy recipe to make homemade playdough:

2 c. flour
1 c. salt
1 tbsp. oil
1 c. water
Food coloring
Mix flour and salt, then add oil. Mix the food coloring with the water. Slowly add water until the mixture is soft and pliable. Store in airtight container in refrigerator.

STEM@home is a series focusing on bring STEM activities into your home.  Read on and experience STEM@home today:

STEM@home: Science - Watching Science on TV
STEM@home: Science - Exploring national parks
STEM@home: Technology - Using apps to support your child
STEM@home: Math - Playing math games at home

Digital Learning Day, Everyday

Imagine this scenario: a young boy is turning 16 and wants to get his driver's license.  He enrolls in a course that promises to make him a 21st century driver.  His course begins with a lecture and a textbook.  The book is pretty with full-color pictures of road signs.  His instructor is adept at technology and she puts the textbook under the document camera, to be projected onto the interactive whiteboard.  The teacher allows the boy to move cars on a map on the interactive whiteboard.  She even has manipulatives (toy cars) for him to drive on a rug with roads and intersections.  When he has passed his paper exams, she takes him outside to the real car.  She gets into the driver's seat and he in the passenger seat.  As they drive, she tells him, "good drivers always signal before a turn" and "on the day of the test, don't forget to start braking 30 yards in advance".  The next day is the test.  He walks into the Motor Vehicle Department with his pencil.  He is ready.  

Or, is he?  Is he likely to pass a driving test in a real motor vehicle?  Probably not.  Yet, that is exactly what will happen to thousands of students.  The test is next year.  Ok, technically, there is a test every year, but next year, the test goes digital.  Yes, many classrooms have document cameras and projectors.  That's technology.  That counts, right?  Or, the district had money and purchased interactive whiteboards.  I'm sure that the teacher is wonderful at using technology.  However, the digital test will require that our students use the technology.  Digital testing requires digital learning.  

Watch this video from ISTE 2014 about the digital test:

Whiteriver Unified School District is taking a unique approach to preparing students for the PARCC assessment.  To give purpose and direction to the introduction of mobile technology, STEM units and Project-Based Learning are now driving training and instruction so that students are PARCC ready.  Students will engage with the technology every day in their STEM units.


The activities selected in the STEM units have been created to replicate the released sample PARCC questions.  The sample questions have been released so that teachers and curriculum developers and curriculum mappers will look at them.  They are to help guide a teacher in how to shift their verbiage, writing prompts, or classroom assessments.  They are not meant to be hidden; a surprise.  So, let's explore some of them together.

"To get a true understanding of the range of rigor, item types and functionalities, users should try test items in more than just one grade, as each grade level does not have all item types. "

First, go to .  Click the For Educators tab at the top.


You will see helpful links on the left side, like Model Content Frameworks.  We'll discuss that on another blog post.  For now, look at New! Try out sample test questions:

  Click on Try the Sample Test Items

Click the Sample Items Tab

Select your grade level on the left

As you work your way through the test, list some of the testing vocabulary that you see.  For instance, the phrases "best supports that answer" and "the best evidence to Part A" come up frequently.  As a teacher or parent, you can begin to use that verbiage in your everyday interactions with the students.  In the writing portions, the phrase "cite your source" comes up often.  You can adopt that phrase as your own, by saying it (or writing it) for journal entries and formal writing prompts. 

February 5th is Digital Learning Day.  Hopefully, our students experience digital learning everyday.  Afterall, digital testing requires digital learning.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

STEM@home: Math

STEM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, is a term used by teachers to encompass lessons and projects which include these subjects. STEM units usually start with a problem.  The teacher guides the students through discovery and experimenting to find solutions.  STEM does not just happen at school. In fact, STEM can be very effective, engaging, and fun at home.  

Over the last few weeks, we have been looking at the various aspects of STEM and how you can encourage your child at home.


There are many ways to work on math skills at home.  Playing games is probably my favorite.  Never boring, usually loud, mostly funny, sometimes messy and always engaging. You most likely already have the supplies needed and can get started today!

Card Games:

There are as many card games as there are skill levels.  If your child is young, you may want to play Quick Draw.  Deal out the cards to the two players.  One player calls "draw!" and the two players flip over their top card.  Both players add the numbers shown in their head.  The first player to shout out the correct sum keeps both cards.  Play continues until all cards have been played.  The winner is the player with the most cards.

This game can be changed ever so slightly to work on subtraction.  Or multiplication.  Whatever level your child is on right now, they can do this with cards.  There are many great resources online.  Making Math More Fun is an 89 page "book" online with 41 card games for all levels, plus cards to print out.  (Click here to see the book)

If you don't have a deck of cards, you can print them from the book mentioned above.  Dollar stores usually have decks for $1.  If you live near a casino, you can get used decks for free.  Casinos have to change out their decks periodically to prevent cheating.  The decks just pile up to be thrown away.  If you go in and ask at the cashiers booth, they will more than likely give you a handful.  I have done this every year for my classroom and have received over 100 decks of cards, for free.  

Dice Games:

There are just as many dice games as there are card games.  Do a simple Google or Pinterest search using "dice games for students" and you will find hundreds.

One of my boys' favorite dice games was Two Dice Toss.  You can use a pre-printed graph or make your own.  You will also need something to write with (mine preferred crayons) and two dice.  Player 1 rolls both dice and adds them up.  They color in a box on the graph with the same sum.  For instance, if they rolled a 2 and a 5, they would color in a box on the 7.  Play continues until one sum reaches the top of the graph first.  Or until your food arrives at the restaurant.  (My boys used to love this game so much, I put two dice in my purse and we played at restaurants while waiting for our food)

A great online resource for dice games is  They have games for one dice, two dice, dominoes, and coins.

STEM@home is a series focusing on bring STEM activities into your home.  Read on and experience STEM@home today:

STEM@home: Science - Watching Science on TV
STEM@home: Science - Exploring national parks
STEM@home: Technology - Using apps to support your child