My STEM Units

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: 

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