My STEM Units

Sunday, June 29, 2014

A Safer Fourth of July via STEM PBL

If you watch the news this week, you will no doubt see stories about Fourth of July Safety.  There is good reason for this.  Every year, over 9,000 people in the United States are injured from fireworks.  The number of people injured from BBQs and grills is twice that!  Tragically, even parades have accidents and spectators and float-riders are injured.  It's time we make Independence Day a little safer, via STEM PBL.

STEM is the acronym which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.  It is a way of teaching/learning that connects these once-separate pillars of knowledge.  Just think of the last time you went to the grocery store.  You might have compared prices of laundry soap.  You might have compared price per number of loads.  Is this brand cheaper?  Is this container cheaper because it's larger?  You were using Math while reading the labels (functional text).  You might have used coupons on your smartphone at checkout.  Our lives are integrated and STEM allows teachers to use that integration to go deeper and provide a real-world context behind their lessons.

PBL is the acronym which stands for Problem-Based Learning.  Problem-Based Learning is the concept of presenting a problem (or project) to the students and supporting them in solving it.  (Much has been written lately comparing Project-Based Learning, Problem-Based Learning, Challenge-Based Learning, etc.  For the purposes of this post, we will use Problem-Based Learning)  Look at the graphic below.  PBL differs from "doing projects" in that the students have much more control.  They control the direction of their own learning.  Learning then comes from an intrinsic motivation rather than an extrinsic one; a letter grade.  Expect to see more PBL and STEM in classrooms this year as more and more schools adopt the Common Core State Standards.  Common Core is the what.  STEM PBL is the how.

Use Technology to Set the Stage

Why not use Fourth of July Safety as a STEM PBL lesson this week?  You can talk to your children about fireworks safety.  There are myriad videos online that teach firework safety.  A quick YouTube search will yield many, like this one:

Use that as a starting point for your children.  Remember that PBL starts with a question.  "What can we do to make the Fourth of July safer?"  "What seems to be the most important thing to you?"  Let them drive the project.  If your child is new to PBL, they might not know how to proceed.  You can facilitate by showing videos of the science behind fireworks (or whatever they want to work on).

Science of Fireworks

Engineer Your Design

After watching, pose more questions.  "Which would work best; handles or gloves?"  Again, let them lead the way.  As they start to engineer their designs, they will need access to materials.  Don't rush out to the store just yet.  Chances are you might have all the materials already, in the garage, in a storage shed, in the kitchen!  One of the great things about STEM is repurposing old materials into new uses.

Test Your Design

When your child is ready to test their designs, please exercise caution.  I mean, that's what this whole project is about in the first place!  Always have an adult present, abide by local laws (fire restrictions, etc.), and use gloves and eye gear.

Share Out

Finally, share out!  What is the point of inventing a safer firework or BBQ tong if you don't share it with others?!  One way to share out is creating a YouTube tutorial.  If this makes you nervous, don't worry.  They aren't that hard.  You can use a digital camera or even your smartphone.  Record your child talking about why Fourth of July Safety is important to them and what they are doing to keep people safe this Independence Day.  If you plan ahead, you can record the whole process of designing, engineering, and testing their solution.  If you didn't capture those moments before-hand, you can do a recap and record them now.  When the video is done, you can upload to YouTube.  Ask your child, they might already have a channel with Minecraft and Lego tutorials.  Or was that just me?


When all is said and done, reflect on the process.  Did you and your child enjoy tinkering and creating something together?  Did you learn something along the way?  If you enjoyed doing STEM PBL projects together, look into other opportunities to integrate and solve problems.  I have a series on using STEM to avoid the Summer Slide.  Click here to read the posts and be inspired.

Link Back

If you did work on a STEM PBL project, I would love to hear about it.  Send me an email at .  Include your video tutorial or pictures of your project.  Who knows, you might just save a life. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

STEM Summer Reading: Part 3

Summer Break has started and teachers are settling into their "real people" lives.  You know "real people".  They have time to go to the dentist, shop leisurely at the mall, and sleep in late (gasp!).  Yes, teachers are real people too.

By now, some teachers have already finished their first book.  They are looking for the next book to read to help them reach "that one student" and to "make school more meaningful".

Recently, I spoke with some STEM experts about what they are reading for summer.  Below is a list of what we are reading:

Going Places by Peter and Paul Reynolds

Chances are high school students have heard about STEM.  Surely our university students have been exposed to the acronym which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.  But what about Kindergartners?  Is there such a thing as STEM in the primary grades?

As you scroll through my previous blog posts, you will no doubt see that STEM is alive and well in elementary schools!  In fact, they do it very well.  They run into obstacles in their designs daily but never give up nor pout.  They simply return to the engineering process and modify their design.  I am amazed at their creativity and ability to "think outside the box". 

So, how to introduce STEM to elementary students?  In 4th and 5th grades, I like to start with a novel they have read or are going to read.  For instance, our current 4th grade STEM unit branches off The City of Ember book by Jeanne DuPrau to teach renewable forms of energy.  In 2nd and 3rd grades, I like to use their classroom reading book.  For instance, the informational text about students raising butterflies launched our Cycles of Life STEM unit in 3rd grade.  But for Kindergarten and 1st grade, I like to use picture books.

Watch this short video:

The book is just as riveting.  Imagine yourself reading this book aloud to a room full of eager 1st graders.  Now, imagine their faces as you hand them a box.  A box full of what? you ask. Anything!  Legos, K'Nex, blocks, paperclips, tape, you name it!  If you order directly from the author, you also get access to teacher activities.  Later this week, I will have the opportunity to share STEM with teachers from around the state.  I will use this book to show how a book can launch a STEM unit; after all, we can't expect students to do something if we don't do it first.

STEM is not only for high schoolers and beyond.  STEM can be very successful in the early grades.  Start with picture books, give them some supplies, and get out of their way.  They are going places!

Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty

I just finished this book (ok, it was a quick read), and I can't wait to use it for teacher training!  "Rosie may seem quiet during the day, but at night she's a brilliant inventor of gizmos and gadgets who dreams of becoming a great engineer.  When her great-great-aunt Rose (Rosie the Riveter) comes for a visit and mentions her one unfinished goal -to fly- Rosie sets to work building a contraption to make her aunt's dream come true.  In the process, Rosie learns the only real failure for an inventor is giving up."

The moral of the story is quite poignant; one that deserves attention all it's own.  Think of the life applications of this story!  If you order directly from the author's site, you gain access to lesson plans.  Click here to visit her site.  They have done a great job of including lesson ideas for everything from math, art, social studies, and science.

Literacy for Science: Exploring the Intersection of the Next Generation Science Standards and Common Core for ELA Standards: A Workshop Summary by Holly Rhodes and Michael Feder

Well, the title just sort of sums it up, doesn't it?  I'll be honest, I'm not done with this one yet, but I am so excited.  The free pdf explains how Common Core ELA standards weave together with the Next Generation Science Standards.  There is one chapter devoted to exemplars at each grade level.  Coming from a National Board Advanced Candidate in Literacy/English Language Arts who is employed as a STEM Curriculum Developer, this "book" excites me to no end.

Gotta go.  The books are lovely, bright, and deep, but I have promises to keep, and pages to read before I sleep, and pages to read before I sleep.

What are you reading this summer?  Join the conversation at  
Read the whole series:

Saturday, June 21, 2014

STEM-filled Summer Solstice

Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere.  
It's during summer break, 
so that means families have lots of time together today to celebrate learn.

Why not use Summer Solstice to do a fun STEM activity together today?

Read a Book

The Summer Solstice
Start the day with a picture book about the history and science of Summer Solstice.

Make a Sundial
You don't need elaborate materials to make a sundial.  In fact, you can do it with sticks and rocks.  
If you want a more permanent sundial, your kids can paint numbers on pavers.  

Engineer a Solar Lamp

Tap the power of the sun in this easy engineering project.  
You might even have the required materials at home already.  
All you need is a mason jar, landscape solar light, and tape.  
Bonus: this solar lamp is GREAT for taking with you on summer camping trips!  
Watch this video for instructions.

Wrap up your STEM-filled Summer Solstice with some stargazing.  
Don't know the names of constellations?  No worries!  Your phone probably does.  
Click here for a list of great apps for android.

Become a Junior Ranger

Did you know that kids can become a junior ranger, right from their back yard!? Yep, the Night Explorers Junior Ranger unit is designed to be done anywhere. Back yard, camping, you name it!
Click here to download the activity guide.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

STEAMing Ahead to Stop the Summer Slide: Math Part 2

A few weeks back, I posted about using Math at home to help stop the summer slide.  It was by far my most viewed post.  That resonated with me.  Parents and teachers want to help their children over the summer, but might not know exactly how.  I have pulled more games out of my "bag of tricks" and made videos to help you "see" the learning.

Summer slide is the phenomenon where students lose concepts learned the prior year.  Experts have estimated that teachers spend over one month reteaching those concepts when school does resume.  Summer slide has also been targeted as a major cause of achievement gap in students. (click on the infographic to the right)

An article from RIFAccording to the authors of a report from the National Summer Learning Association: "A conservative estimate of lost instructional time is approximately two months or roughly 22 percent of the school year.... It's common for teachers to spend at least a month re-teaching material that students have forgotten over the summer. That month of re-teaching eliminates a month that could have been spent on teaching new information and skills."


There are many ways to work on math skills at home.  Playing games is probably my favorite. You most likely already have the supplies needed and can get started today!

1.  Puzzle Games:  Did you know you can use a puzzle to reinforce math concepts?  Students struggle with converting fractions, decimals, and percents.  Why give them grueling, boring worksheets?  I have adopted a phrase "if they can't do the worksheet independently, it won't help them.  If they can do the worksheet independently, they never needed it in the first place."  I prefer to play games!

This puzzle game is great for little and big kids alike.  The littles can work on fine-motor skills.  They can help count the connected pieces.  Bigger kids can do more math!  My students got to the point that they computed the difference every time the timer chimed.  I started this activity in pairs in the beginning of the year and by November, it became a permanent feature of my Math Rotation Stations.  Dollar stores have an assortment of 100 piece puzzles for $1.  (hint: if you put the tracker sheet in a page protector, you can use a dry-erase marker for repeated use)

2.  Math Talks:  If you thought some of my games on the last post required minimal supplies, this one will surprise you.  No supplies!  One of the newest trends in the common core classroom is Number Talks.  The teacher may pose a problem on the board and the students are asked to think about various strategies to solve it.  Some teachers have the students indicate how many strategies they have used by holding up fingers.  I found writing out the strategies was more helpful.  As I walk around the room, I put a star next to the strategies that I want on the board.  I am careful to choose different strategies.  After the students write their strategy on the board, they talk about how they used that strategy to solve the problem.

This concept still works at home.  Instead of pulling math problems from a book, pull from your everyday lives.  For instance, last night, my 1st grader gasped when I opened a new (big) box of cookies.  "Mommy, how many cookies do you think are in there?!"  As parents, we are tempted to give the answer to our children.  Instead, stop and ask them.  "I don't know.  Let's see how we can find out."  Talk out loud so they can track your strategy.  "If I look at the nutrition information, it says there are 5 cookies in a serving and there are 22 servings in this box."  I was going to say, "That means there are 22 groups of 5" but I didn't need to because before I could think aloud, my 7 year old shouted, "110 cookies!"  Again, we might be tempted to stop the process right there and just accept the correct answer.  Don't.  Ask "how do you know?" or "What was your strategy?"

Again, you can use Math Talks with all kids, big and little.  Use math in the grocery store, kitchen, driving down the road, anywhere!  

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

STEM Summer Reading: Part 2

Ask any teacher what they are reading this summer, and they are bound to give you a list.  Don't get me wrong.  Teachers read during the school year too.  They read Island of the Blue Dolphins for the tenth time or The Very Hungry Caterpillar for the hundredth time.  They still pause for predictions for what will happen to the caterpillar.  They still cry when Rontu dies (P.S. I have a great STEM unit on novels such as Island of the Blue Dolphins). 

But summer....summer is for reading "how to" books.  "How to" implement Math Rotation Stations (Math Work Stations by Debbie Diller), "how to" use picture books to teach Science (Picture Perfect Science Lessons by Karen Ansberry and Emily Morgan), and "how to" design your pathway to the Common Core (Pathways to the Common Core by Lucy Calkins et al.).

Recently, I spoke with some STEM experts about what they are reading for summer.  Below is a list of what we are reading:

The Sketchnote Handbook: the Illustrated Guide to Visual Note Taking by Mike Rohde

I love using very long sheets of light-colored construction paper to sketch out and organize ideas for STEM units.  You know the colored paper rolls teachers have been using for decades to make bulletin boards?  In fact, I really like using large sheets of paper to organize my thoughts for just about anything when I just can’t seem to get started or focus my ideas.  There are rolls of paper squirreled away around my office.  My colleagues take bets about how long it will take before I’ll leave the room to go get a giant piece of paper.

Of course I personally believe that this strategy enhances my focus, concentration and learning.  When I’m standing and moving around- I feel as if I’m sharper and more creative.  Recently, it’s been brought to my attention that sketching itself is also a strategy to enhance learning.

As I was perusing the first chapter of The Sketchnote Handbook: the Illustrated Guide to Visual Note Taking, I realized that if I worked at developing my sketching using the intentional approach and concepts outlined in the book my sketching and organizing could be much more useful to myself and others.  An important point that Mike Rohde makes is that you don’t have to be able to draw to be able to sketch.  Sketching does not necessarily require artistic talent (thankfully).  It’s a strategy to engage the mind and help you focus.

If you’re interested in the book you can pick up the free introductory chapter of his book here and see what you think.

I know these concepts aren’t new, but they are important to remember when designing and creating new and engaging activities for students.  Maybe you’ve heard of or used these concepts or ideas in your classroom:
  • Interactive student notebooks  (If you haven’t here’s a short youtube video (complete with 90′s dance soundtrack.)
  • Field Notebooks for sketches and scientific observations on field trips.  Bruce Goode Co-Founder of STEM-Ready 

STEM education is seen by leaders from across the globe as key to economic success and prosperity. As the body of STEM-learning research grows, this volume provides the unique perspective of nationally recognized STEM educators who have spent, collectively, more than 400,000 hours at the interface between teaching and learning. Each chapter communicates how its author has implemented a specific STEM practice in the classroom and how the practice might be modified for use in other classrooms, schools, and learning environments. Readers will gain powerful insight about what really works when it comes to teaching and learning STEM. (Check back for exciting opportunities for STEM Fellows) Terrie Rust Educational Consultant/Senior Consultant for Global Learning Programs

What are you reading this summer?  Join the conversation at  
Read the whole series:

Friday, June 13, 2014

STEM Summer Reading: Part 1

Ah summer.  You elusive, long-sought-after, short-lived summer.  The thought alone brings a smile to my face.  Teachers get such short summers nowadays.  Don't get me going on the joke about "June, July, and August".  Most teachers I know get two months off from regular teaching, yet, many work summer jobs (summer school, school improvement, etc.).  And many others go back early for pre-service and training.  Since moving into the STEM Curriculum position, I don't even get that anymore.  But, that's not going to stop me from summer reading.  

Recently, I spoke with some STEM experts about what they are reading for summer.  Below is a list of what we are reading:
More Picture-Perfect Science Lessons by Karen Ansberry and Emily Morgan

This is the second book in a series of 3 books for elementary teachers.  Ansberry and Morgan have paired picture books with science lessons.  While not a "STEM" book, the authors definitely give you enough content to start a STEM unit.  The true beauty of this book is that the first 5 chapters are devoted to the pedagogy of using picture books to teach science concepts.  They explain student engagement strategies and literacy components.  Although the lessons are fully-scripted for teachers, don't feel bound to use those specific picture books.  If you don't have the particular book the authors used, feel free to use another book that you do have on hand.

"We used this book as a grade-level studies and would cumulate on our reading during our data dialogue days.  We broke the book down in sections, just as we did the STEM Lesson Essentials book.  The EDI book broke down how to design effective lessons and get 100% student engagement across all disciplines.  Even I, as a seasoned educator, found this book refreshing and use the contents in designing my lessons.  It also used real classroom examples at the end of each section to help you connect with the content." Lynette Charlie, M.Ed. STEM Coordinator Salt River Elementary School

Science and the Bible by Donald De Young

While teachers may be busy catching up on their reading, students might be attending Vacation Bible School in their summer hours.  And some teachers might be writing STEM Vacation Bible School lessons.  The books in this series take Science concepts and link them to Biblical examples.  Again, not "STEM" per se, but it's a start and you can add your own Tech, Engineering, and Math. 

What are you reading this summer?  Join the conversation at 
Read the whole series:

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Arizona STEM Super Bowl Awards

Is it just me, or were there lots of STEM commercials during the Big Game this year? I saw ads for a new show "Cosmos" for Science, Microsoft had ads for Technology, GoldieBlox won a contest for a free commercial for Engineering toys for girls. I even read a blog post about STEM and football.  

Well, if you think that was a big push for STEM, wait until you see the Big Game in 2015!  Arizona is hosting Super Sunday (and the professional game the week before) this coming year.  Arizona has put together a host committee that takes care of all the details that go into hosting the Big Game.  The Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee is fueling Arizona's future with the 2014 STEM Superhero Awards.  

Their mission is to:

  • Leave a lasting legacy in Arizona, far beyond Super Bowl XLIX
  • Develop education as the cornerstone of the community-based initiatives that that Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee have developed
  • Supporting education initiatives through the Super Bowl message to have a ripple effect across our community
The committee has partnered with Freeport-McMoran to highlight excellence and innovation in STEM teaching throughout Arizona (sorry readers outside of Arizona).  Their goal is to increase awareness of STEM teaching and award those who are making a difference in the world of STEM.

  • 2013-2014 AND 2014-2015 school years will be eligible to apply
  • 6 categories 
    • Best STEM school (rural and urban)
    • Most Innovative STEM Club (rural and urban)
    • Most dedicated STEM teacher (rural and urban)
  • 49 awardees will be recognized at the STEM Superhero Awards Ceremony at the Arizona Science Center in November (where they can meet and greet NFL players)
  • Prizes include event tickets, merchandise, and grant funding!

  • Nomination Period: 8/12/2014-9/19/2014
  • Nominees Notified: 10/10/2014
  • 2014 STEM Superhero Awards Ceremony: 11/5/2014

Excited?  Brainstorming ideas as you read this?  Then, you'll want to subscribe to this blog for automatic updates and links to the online application.  Click subscribe on the right sidebar.  

Click here to go directly to the nomination page.  

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Good Luck National Board Candidates!

Today, hundreds of teachers are seeking to further the profession.  It used to be that teachers were looked up to; respected.  In several studies, the public responded that they ranked teachers as some of the most respected and trustworthy of professionals.  Today?  Not so much.  Teachers are under fire in the media, in homes across America, and sadly, even in our schools. 

But teachers are deserving of so much more than that.  I heard someone say that teaching is like having 2700 browsers open on your computer, at the same time, all the time.  And it's true.  Even if you only have 27 students (because, let's face it, some have more), each child is at a different level in Reading, Writing, Math, Science, social skills, etc. 

Teachers lie awake at night thinking about to reach "that one child".  They buy bean bags at yard sales to encourage reading in the classroom.  And they buy yet another box of bandages for their classroom. 

Every year, hundreds of teachers seek National Board Certification.  Not to shine a spotlight on themselves, yet on the profession.  National Board Certification is a rigorous, three year process, of self-directed professional development, reflection, and documentation.  Although all areas of certification are different, most of them require two videos of exceptional teaching, approximately 90 pages of documentation, and 3 hours of assessment.  It seems amazing that three years of explanation, analysis, and reflection can be assessed in merely 3 hours.  And therein lies the pressure.  Teachers have but 30 minutes to respond to a prompt and highlight their ability to help the hypothetical student achieve mastery.  They will do this 6 times, for a total of 3 hours.  Today.

So today, thank a teacher.  Call one up.  Send an email.  Post on their Facebook.  Teachers are pretty amazing people.  I am honored to be one of them.  Lord willing, today I will deemed a National Board Certified Teacher.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Meet-Up in Chicago

Summer is rife with educational conferences.  It only makes sense. Teachers don't have to worry about sub plans.  Districts either have to use up title monies or they have a new batch of title monies to spend.  In all my years in education, I have never had "the summer off".  Instead, my calendar is full of trainings, conferences, and expos.  This summer will be no different.

So, where is Susan jet-setting off to this summer?  Chicago!  I will be presenting at the High Impact Technology Exchange Conference. 


I will be presenting the STEM units that I co-wrote for the Whiteriver Unified School District.  I will be sharing how we took our charge of "Prepare Our Kids for PARCC", the Common Core State Standards, the district-adopted curriculum, and the district initiatives and created comprehensive STEM units.  I will share the process of combining these elements with 21st century skills and embedded professional development to create a complete package.  Finally, through a grant, I will share how we were able to pay our teachers a stipend to take the National Science Foundation ST4STEM course to empower them to write their own STEM units.

While in ChiTown, I would love to do a Meet-Up.  So if you are attending the HI-TEC conference or will be in the Chicago area July 22-24, we should meet up and talk all things STEM.  Send me an email to and I'll set up the Meet-Up location and time.