My STEM Units

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Most Popular of 2014

2014 has been a great year.

At our school alone, we built a garden, went to Science Camp, launched rockets with aeronautical students, held a STEM Festival, went on virtual field trips, had national park rangers visit us, were named Best STEM School in Rural Arizona, and secured funding to keep and expand our STEM program district-wide.

Personally, after two years of very hard work, I earned my National Board Certification.  I was honored with the Arizona Technology in Education Teacher of the Year award.  And, along with the daily STEM Curriculum Developer position, I have started a Tech Club at the local Boys and Girls Club, spoken at conferences around the country, consulted with teachers around the state, and have become a STEM Certified(TM) Trainer for

This blog has had a great year too.  What started out as a place to share some STEM ideas, has become a go-to resource for teachers nationwide.  Here is the top ten most popular posts for 2014 (in case you missed them):

10.  STEM After-School Enrichment Clubs
9.  Grandparents Day, STEM Style
8.  Innovation Nation STEM Festival
7.  Infographics for STEM
6.  Read Across America, STEM Style
5.  Going Places with STEM
4.  Arizona Sample Questions
3.  Finding Common Core Passages Online
2.  STEAMing Ahead to Stop the Summer Slide: Math
1.  How to Support Your Spouse When They Return to School

Looking into 2015, what do you want to read here?

Monday, December 29, 2014

What Do You Want?

In 2006, Time Magazine chose "you" as the Person of the Year.  It was all about how "you" can personalize and customize almost all aspects of your life.  It was a bold move and very apropos. 

In 2015, I would like to dedicate this blog to "you".  I don't need to blog to journal my curriculum.  I have disk space and the cloud to do that.  I blog to share ideas and breakthroughs.

So, my question to you is this: What do you want to read?  STEM units and curriculum?  STEM state of mind?  How to embed other subjects into STEM?  Ed Tech?  Digital Testing?  ???

Leave a comment below or email me at:

Monday, December 22, 2014

Finals Week in a STEM School: Part 1

It was Finals Week all across the country as quarters and semesters finished up.  Students were tested from Kindergarten to college.  Never fun, usually boring, mostly multiple choice, sometimes "constructed response", and always "the end" of the unit.

Unless you are a STEM school.

So, how does a STEM school do finals?

Well, to be perfectly honest, there are still the district mandated assessments.  You know the ones.  The multiple choice assessments that are quickly graded by the computer and give the teachers good data on how well the students learned the standards.  We also have the reading tests where teachers listen to students read to determine their reading level.  But I'm talking about the STEM finals.

Public Display of PowerPoint

Our 4th and 5th grade students have been learning PowerPoint.  Yes, I know.  So very 2005.  However, we feel that we can't progress to Prezi and Weebly until the students have a firm understanding of the basic office programs.  Love them or hate them, office programs are the basics for college and career life.

I have seen PowerPoint final projects titled "All About Me" or "The Year in Review", but who really gets to view those?  The student and the computer lab teacher?  If ISTE's standards have given us anything, it's a "global audience".  What's the point in putting in all that time and effort if no one will ever see your product?  Solution?  Give them an audience.  That's exactly what we did.

Yesterday was our Holiday Musical.  Parents, community members, and fellow students filled the gym, eager to hear our precious kindergartners and first graders sing Christmas songs.  Our theme this year was "Christmas Around the World" and each song was from a different country.  We wanted to share the customs and traditions from each country with the audience.  What better way than a slide show while the students took the stage?

Now, of course, the music teacher or the computer lab teacher could have made the slide shows for each country.  But, it's not about us.  I'm pretty sure the parents in the bleachers came to see the students, not the teachers.  So, as 21st century teachers, we get out of the way.  We let our students "take the stage".

All the slide shows were researched and created by the 4th and 5th grade students.  Our computer lab teacher didn't have to talk about "correct spelling" or "use of transitions" because the authentic nature of the project provided all the motivation they needed.  Who wants to have their name on a project with a spelling error!?  Horror!  You couldn't get those kids to STOP working on their projects.  They worked on them right up to the end.

Presentations and Rubrics

Teachers have long used presentations as a way of finishing up a unit.  However, what usually happens is that students stand in front of the class and talk, while the teacher is the only one grading them from the back of the room.

We took a different approach to our STEM finals.  First, we watched a video of a bad presentation.  By bad, I mean the speakers looked at the whiteboard instead of the audience, they spoke too fast, they spoke off topic, they had spelling errors, and they had weak support for their arguments.  We actually had to watch the video twice, as the students cracked up the first time.

After viewing the video, we had a class discussion about how it could be better.  I pulled out a rubric and we "graded the teacher" in the video.  (I usually have my class create rubrics together, but this was the first time this class had used a rubric so I provided one for them.)

We used the same rubric for their presentations.  And here's the thing, the students had access to the rubric while planning their presentations.  They knew what was expected of them and how to achieve the score they wanted.

After some time of creating PowerPoints and practicing in groups, we had our big Presentation Day.  Every group had a rubric and scored the presenters.  As I walked around, I heard conversations such as, "well, they only gave 2 reasons instead of 3 so I think they deserve a 2 in this category" and "yes, they talked about the engineering process but they missed a few steps".  In the end, the teacher had 5 completed rubrics for each group and interestingly enough, their scores were very similar.

Now, I would like to say that the presentations were great and all groups scored well.  However, that wasn't really the case.  The students were nervous about speaking in front of the class for the first time.  There was some confusion about who was supposed to talk about which slide and "where did my transitions go?!".

When we asked the class how they might improve next time, the class came alive with wonderful suggestions!  They begged to be able to do their presentations again.  This, two days before the end of the semester.  On a day when most classes were holding parties, 5th graders were working on their presentations.  The classroom teacher and I decided that we would use the first rubrics as their PRE scores and their rubrics after the second presentations as the POST scores.  

Speaking of PRE and POST scores, we collected data on this class.  When the class began two months ago, I gave them a multiple choice test.  Yes, sometimes multiple choice is the best way to get quick data.  I then gave them the same multiple choice test this week.  Giving the same test as a PRE and a POST is a great way to evaluate student growth and evaluate weaknesses in the STEM unit.

So, how did the students score?  The class average went from 22.5% to 69%!

I have not looked at the scores for the final, final presentation rubrics, but I am sure the scores increased.  To see more about our 5th grade STEM unit, click here (includes a WAY cool video of our rocket launch!).


Our 3rd graders took their STEM finals this week also.  They used STEM tubs for their engineering project.  What is a STEM tub?  Finals Week in a STEM School: Part 2

******We have a growth mindset at our school and are always looking for ways to improve.  How do you do STEM finals?  Comment below or email me at: 

Friday, December 19, 2014

STEM-tastic Holiday Musical

You have heard of Holiday musicals, but have you heard of a STEM-tastic Holiday Musical?

Next Generation Science Standards says that first grade "students will plan and conduct investigations to provide evidence that vibrating materials can make sound and that sound can make materials vibrate" (1-PS4-1).  

That is exactly what launched our 1st grade STEM unit.  In the unit, students put salt on a paper plate on top of the classroom CD player.  As music played, students observed the rice vibrating.  They quickly diagrammed it in their STEM journals.  Then, they interacted with iPad apps to explore the inner ear and watch sound vibrate.  Students then engineered various instruments, including pan flutes, guitars, and drums.  After decorating their instruments, the students measured them with non-standard units (CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.1.MD.A) to see the relationship between length and pitch.  

So, what does this have to do with Christmas?  When you are a STEM school, STEM is embedded into everything; including the holiday musical.

Our music teacher selected Christmas songs from around the globe.  As the kindergarten and first grade students learned the songs, they also learned how those countries celebrate Christmas.  

Our computer teacher directed the fourth and fifth graders in creating the slide show for the musical.  The students first researched the customs for each country.  They then created a slide show for each country represented at the musical.  The slide shows played while the students were walking on and off the stage.  

Our first grade teachers have been teaching the STEM lessons.  They have allowed their classrooms to become maker spaces as cereal boxes, coffee cans, and paper towel rolls piled up.  The students played the instruments while singing in the musical.  

Where did the students get the paper towel rolls and coffee cans?  Our cafeteria staff supplied us with the necessary cans.  Instead of throwing them away daily, they washed them and saved them for first grade.  Our custodians provided the paper towel rolls.  Again, instead of disposing of them, they saved them.  

Today is the culmination of months of work....and the students couldn't be happier.  

Merry Keshmish (Merry Christmas in Apache)!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Resources for Parents

Chances are, you live in a state that will be taking a digital test this coming spring.  While this news brings a smile to some faces, it strikes terror in others.  Namely parents.

Educational organizations are quick to claim "partnerships with all stakeholders", including parents.  Yet, the reality is, some parents are left in the dark when it comes to the Big Stakes Test.

Let's change that.

First, let's have a conversation.  

Teachers and administrators have access to email newsletters with current information.  Parents don't.  It is the responsibility of the educational institution to share that knowledge with the people who have a large influence on the students; the families.

The Arizona Department of Education has a section of their website dedicated to just this purpose.  Click here to be directed to Arizona's new assessment page: AzMERIT.

Second, let them see the test.  

Let them TAKE the test!  All three major assessments (PARCC, Smarter Balanced, and AzMERIT) have online sample tests.  They might not be an entire test, but the few questions they do have offer students (and parents) a glimpse of what the real test will look like.  For a list of resources for Arizona, click here.
Digital Testing Requires Digital Learning
Digital Learning Day, Every Day
The New Digital Assessment
PARCC Sample Test Answers and Rationale

Third, give them resources.  

Yes, parents can go online to these assessors (PARCC, Smarter Balanced, and AzMERIT) and read a FAQ page.  Some even have a flyer for parents.  But, I'm talking about real resources.  Resources that parents can start using today.  "How do I help my child at home?"  "What should we be doing to prep for this?"

I have prepared a "cheat sheet" for parents at my school.  I didn't want it to get lost in the mountain of paperwork, so I printed it on business cards.  I provided resources for Math on one side and resources for ELA on the other side.  Which resources did I include?


I also provided prompts that parents could use to ask their children about their work.  


  • What was your strategy?
  • Is there another way to solve that?
  • What evidence did you find?
  • How does that compare to ___ (another text)?

I selected these resources because this is what we use at our school.  What do you use at your school?  Use those resources on your "cheat sheet" for parents.  

I would love to hear how you are preparing students for the new digital assessment.  Comment below or contact me via the links on the sidebar.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Novels on Location

You can see the setting as clear as if you were right there.  You can smell their food as if it were cooking in your kitchen.  Your heart races during the climax as if you were the one being chased.  Novels draw you in.

Have you ever read a book and wanted to look up the location online?  Perhaps you used Google Maps or maybe even LitTrips.  What about having your students use Novels on Location?

I recently read about Novels on Location on Free Technology for Teachers.  If you are not receiving his feeds, you need to go there now and subscribe.  I'll wait.  Yes, it's that good.

Novels on location is basically a huge hyperlinked map.  Each feather on the map represents a novel linked to that location.  As of right now, there are approximately 600 books linked; hardly all the novels ever written, right?  So, have your students create a feather and pin it on the map!

It's a very simple process.  First, start by searching if your desired book is linked to the map by using the search bar at the top.  If it zooms into the ocean or a vast desert, then that book is not pinned.  Yet.

Teach your students how to pin a book to a place.  You might want to start by doing a few whole class first.  For instance, I pinned Island of the Blue Dolphins this morning.

Step 1: Enter a location in the first search bar.  For my example, I entered San Nicholas Island.

Step 2: Enter the book title.

Step 3: Add a summary.

That's it!  You now have a feather!  Click on the feather to see the pop-up.

I have long advocated for 21st century classrooms to use Amazon book reviews and Weebly blogs in exchange for the old-fashioned book report.  Now, teachers (and students) have a choice.

I love to hear new ideas.  Please comment if you have used Novels on Location!