My STEM Units

Friday, September 19, 2014

Nature as Your Classroom

Imagine that learning is a journey through a landscape. Follow a trail to a rocky outcrop where fossil sea creatures erode out of a hillside. The fossils show that this place was once washed by an ancient ocean. Farther along, cicadas call from the trees, teaching you that sounds are vibrations rippling through the air.  All of nature is your classroom.
               At Cradleboard Elementary School on the Fort Apache Reservation in Whiteriver, Arizona, this kind of outdoor learning is becoming a reality, thanks to the energy and vision of people like STEM Coordinator, Susan Rodriguez and a Heritage Grant provided by Arizona Game and Fish. With this grant teachers, students, and community partners are revitalizing the Cradleboard Interpretive Trail adjacent to the school. The ½ mile trail had fallen into disrepair, but now it is a functioning outdoor classroom.
              The children have written text in English and in Apache for interpretive signs along the trail, and they are using computer technology to create an audio narration in both languages that visitors will be able to access electronically as they walk the trail. Future plans include expanding the trail to ¾ of a mile and opening it to the public.  The project, scheduled for completion this December, interweaves language, culture, science, history, technology, and teamwork.
              It is monsoon season in Arizona’s White Mountains. Thunder rumbles in the distance, cold raindrops splash down and mist rises from the ground, illustrating the water cycle.  “My slogan is ‘no child left inside’,” says Susan Rodriguez. (Liz Blaker)

In a time where teachers are doing all they can to increase test scores, it can be as easy as "taking a hike".  Literally.  "Research shows that spending time outdoors increases attention spans and creative problem-solving skills by as much as 50%", cites Abigail Wise in her article in the Huffington Post.

In my ten years plus in education, I have found that the students who tend to struggle in the classroom, tend to excel outdoors.  Gardner posited that we have multiple intelligences, yet we continue to test only one or two types.  Through the use of our interpretive trail, we have been able to take our students outside for learning opportunities.  Our new trail signs (paid for by a grant from our state lottery funds), will incorporate the new Next Generation Science Standards. But it's not all science on the trail.  Teachers also use the trail for writing, reading, and math.

Interested in setting up your own trail, but don't know where to start?  Stay tuned (by subscribing to this blog on the right sidebar) for a post about how to establish your own interpretive trail.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Grandparents Day, STEM Style

Flickr photo by Saint Francis Academy cc
National Grandparents Day falls each year on the first Sunday after Labor Day. It's not a holiday invented to sell cards and flowers. It was initiated at the grassroots level by West Virginian Marian Lucille Herndon McQuade, with the behind-the-scenes support of her husband Joseph L. McQuade.

There are three purposes for National Grandparents Day:
  1. To honor grandparents.
  2. To give grandparents an opportunity to show love for their children's children.
  3. To help children become aware of the strength, information and guidance older people can offer. (
What a great opportunity to do fun STEAM activities with Nana and Papa!

Science: Visit a Museum

Many museums offer free admission for grandparents on Grandparents Day.  For instance, the Challenger Space Center in the Phoenix area has free admission for grandparents with the purchase of a child's ticket on September 6th.  They will have special presentations and activities throughout the day to help you celebrate the day.  

The Bay Area Discovery Museum has activities all day long!  Free admission for grandparents AND grandchildren!

Not sure if your local museum has activities for Grandparents Day?  Go to their website and click on either "events" or "calendar".

Technology and Engineering: Do a Project

Flickr photo by Angela cc
What have you always wanted to do with your grandchild?  Make a soapbox car?  Make a rocket?  Make your own hand scrubs?  Now's the time to learn.  

Don't know how to do those things?  Don't worry.  Your grandchild probably does.  Or, they at least know how to watch tutorials on YouTube.  Search DIY and whatever you want to make.  Then, set out to do the project together.  

Not sure what to make?  Check out Instructables and find a project together!

Art: Memory Box

Do you have a memory box? It doesn't have to be fancy.  My children's memory boxes are made from old cigar boxes, decorated with shells on top.  This Grandparent's Day, pull out those old trinkets (photos, ticket stubs, old baseball cards, lockets) and share their story with the kids.  Help them make their own Memory Box out of an old box, a mason jar, or even a shoe box.  (click here for a tutorial)

Math: Baking/Cooking

Flickr photo by Peta Hopkins cc
Does your family have an heirloom recipe?  Is there a dish that Grandpa is famous for?  Bake/cook it together this weekend.  To bring in an element of Math, use non-standard measurements.  For instance, instead of saying "I need 1 1/2 cups of sugar", ask "if I only had this quarter cup measuring cup, how many quarter cups would I need to equal 1 1/2 cups of sugar?".

Literacy: Read with Them

Flickr photo by Phil cc
Depending on the age of the grandchildren, this can take different forms.  Pre-readers will enjoy a book being read to them.  Go to your local library and check out a few of your favorite children's books.  Young readers and older readers might enjoy a new book of their own.  Take them to a library and let them pick out any book they want.

Now the fun starts.  Choosing a place to read.  Of course, you can go home and read on the couch, but what about taking some blankets outside and reading under a tree.  Or IN a tree!  What was your favorite place to read as a child?  Under a blanket fortress in the living room?  Share your favorites with them.  Remember, it's your day.

Additional Resources

Arizona Geographic Alliance has great lesson plans that are standards based.

Grandparents Around the World (grade 1)
In this lesson students will learn the names of grandparents around the world and share how they like to spend time with their own grandmother and/or grandfather.

Grandparent Names: What Do You Call Yours?
In this lesson students will learn that grandparents have different names in different cultures. They will discover that grandparents are all unique, but that all grandparents share some common characteristics. Students will also learn where some of the names for grandparents originated.

Looking for more ideas?  This website has great ideas including painting a portrait, quizzing each other, and interviews.  Have a great day.  Make it yours and make many memories!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Game and Fish as a Resource

When one thinks of resources for STEM, resources such as universities, museums, and STEM professionals come to mind.  But what about your Game and Fish Department?  They provide an amazing amount of resources.

Arizona Game and Fish Department
For this article, I will focus on the resources made available by Arizona Game and Fish.  All states are welcome to use the information, however, classroom visits would be a little out of the question if you were in, say, Maine.  I encourage you to go to your state's game and fish (or "fish and game" or "wildlife") website.

Lesson Plans

Arizona's wildlife education program, Focus Wild Arizona, has a searchable website for lesson plans.  You can search by grade level, by tag, or enter your own search term.  The lessons span kindergarten through high school.

Some lessons are intended for formal educational settings (i.e., the classroom) and some are for home use or family outings.

Click here to start searching lesson plans, with full-color images, worksheets, essential questions and teacher directions.

Classroom Programs

Depending on your region, you can request a specialist to visit your school and do a presentation with the students.  In some instances, they bring live animals.  Contact the Information and Education Program Manager in your regional office for a list of available programs.

For instance, in my region, a specialist will come in and talk about the Mexican wolf.  On the other side of the state, specialists talk about venomous critters and big horn sheep.  Our state tests 4th graders on Science knowledge, and the department offers programs on animal adaptations for 4th graders statewide.

Each region has their specialties, but they are open to more programs.  Call them up and tell them what you are interested in.  Chances are they have something that fits or can write a new program tailored to fit your needs.


Az Game and Fish offer various professional development opportunities for educators.

Scheduled Workshops
One example of a scheduled workshop is "Black-Footed Ferrets: Science, Management, and Education"
"In this engaging workshop, educators will learn about the history and management of one of the most endangered mammals in North America. Following a classroom session full of student-ready activities, participants will assist on an actual black-footed ferret spotlighting survey with Department biologists."
Scheduled workshops are VERY popular and have limited space available.  They almost always fill up well in advance.  If you can't make it to a scheduled workshop, you can view professional development on your own time in a webinar.

On-Demand Training
Archived webinars and presentations are available online, 24/7.  You can even earn your Continuing Ed Credits (this is huge!) by completing a short activity and emailing it to the department.  Did someone just say recertification requirements?

The current offerings include:
  • Using the Conservation Education Scope and Sequence - Learn about this powerful new tool that will guide you through sequential learning about fish and wildlife in relation to content standards and performance objectives. (1 hour)
  • America's Wildlife: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow - Learn about a free standards-based curriculum designed for high school science and social studies classrooms. (1 hour)
  • Bald Eagles of the Southwest - Learn about bald eagle biology, status and management as well as some unique ways to bring this content into your classroom. (1.5 hours)
  • Know No Boundaries: Amazing Wildlife Migrations - Learn about some of the amazing migrations that occur in and through Arizona and the struggles these journeys provide for wildlife managers. (1 hour) 
If you can get 10 teachers together, Game and Fish will come to you!

We can come to you! Whether it is a college class for preservice teachers or a district wide inservice, our workshops are hands-on and full of resources that you can take back to your classroom immediately. Workshops are offered in a variety of formats, can last from 1 to 16 hours, and cover single, multiple, or all grade levels. Popular workshops include:
  • On the Right Track - a focus on historical and modern tracking techniques and hands-on ways to bring these into your classroom to guide science instruction and inquiry. UpperElementary, Middle, and High School. Usually 1-8 hours.
  • It's a Bird, It's a Plane - using the Wright Brothers as a theme, we explore the nature of science and the ways in which nature provides models for our own technological development. Upper Elementary and Middle School. Usually 1-4 hours.
  • Wild Connections: Literacy - we explore ways to integrate language arts (reading and writing) with science instruction.Elementary and Middle School. Usually 2-8 hours.
  • W.H.I. Ask Why: Wildlife and Habitat Inquiry - we explore ways to bring inquiry and experimental design into your ecology and environmental science classes. Middle and High School. Usually 4-8 hours.
  • Geocaching in Education - learn how GPS and GIS are revolutionizing science and some basic techniques to introduce these technologies to your students using a very popular outdoor hobby. Upper Elementary, Middle, and High School. Usually 4-8 hours. (


As if all the above weren't enough resources, Game and Fish offers more.  Some resources are online and you can access directly through the website.  Examples of this type of resource include computer programs, digital books, fact sheets, map apps, and pictures (lots and LOTS of pictures).  Our game and fish department even has it's own YouTube channel.

However, some resources involve pelts, skeletons, posters, and books.  These can be picked up at your regional office.

Resource Trunks (aka, Bone Boxes)
These "trunks" (really they are huge plastic tubs) are free to educators in Arizona.  They include tactile items (skulls, molds of tracks, etc.), lesson plans for teachers, and videos/audio recordings.  Disclaimer: please be mindful of cultural taboos before presenting any animal artifacts.

So, what types of Resource Trunks do they have?  In my region, they have the following trunks:
  • General bone box (featuring AZ mammals)
  • Elk
  • Bighorn
  • Bear
  • Bats
  • Wild Felines
What's do you do with a trunk? Let's look at the Wild Felines trunk as an example:
Jaguars once roamed across Arizona but were extirpated nearly one hundred years ago. However, these wild cats have recently been photographed on Arizona soil, starting a flurry of activity and debate. In this unit, your students will get the opportunity to explore the issues surrounding jaguars and their conservation.
Lesson Summaries
Make sure to read through the lesson and determine what knowledge your students are expected to know before carrying it out with the students.
  • Day 1 - Students compare various wild cats and then learn how to identify their tracks
  • Day 2 - After being introduced to the biotic communities of Arizona, students must find areas within the state that would be suitable habitat for the jaguar
  • Day 3 - Students study the stories and myths surrounding the jaguar
  • Day 4 - Using historic and current aerial photos, students compare the changind landscapes and discuss how this would affect migratory corridors and jaguar habitat
  • Day 5 - Students look at the history effectiveness of conservation activities and the Endangered Species Act in the United States
  • Day 6 and 7 - Students do some more research and present their new knowledge in a variety of ways (
Just look at the standards (grades 5-8) that are covered:


How's $10 million per year sound to you?  I knew that would catch your ear eye.  
"The Heritage grants are supported by revenue from Arizona Lottery sales and are available to projects that focus on wildlife, including wildlife education, schoolyard habitats and wildlife conservation efforts. In addition, there is a grant category geared towards helping schools fund field trips that take students outside to learn about wildlife and outdoor recreation. Potential grant recipients must have a project that is either located in Arizona or involves research in which the wildlife or its habitat is located in Arizona."
The interpretive trail at my school was funded by a Heritage Grant.  We have been able to incorporate the trail into outdoor learning experiences for all subjects (Reading, Writing, Math, Social Studies, Technology, and of course Science).  Students take iPads on the trail to take pictures of wildlife.  Students journal and write on the trail.  In fact, our trail will be featured on a radio show later this week.  **Check back later this week for a post about how to establish your own interpretive trail**

If you are interested in the Heritage Grants, you might want to act fast.  The deadline for applications is September 30th.  If you want help, you will need to act even faster.  Arizona Game and Fish Department will host a Google Hangout on September 2nd to help with applications.  You are not required to attend the hangout, but it is suggested as you will have a chance to ask questions and get information in real-time.  To sign up for the Google Hangout, click here.