My STEM Units

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Meet Up in Columbus (with Challenge)

February is Black History Month.  What better way to wrap up the month than a STEM Expo, focused on diversity outreach for education.

On February 28, 2015, Desmon Louis Smith (DLS) Education and STEM Services will host the “Education to Innovation STEM Conference and Expo”.  The Education to Innovation STEM Conference and Expo strives to bring awareness and take on President Obama’s initiative for the United States to “move from the middle to the top of the pack” in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). The event was created to bring more awareness of STEM initiatives and programming to underrepresented students, teachers and parents
“Our mission is to develop young men and women with active creative minds to explore the world of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. We seek to help by providing educational tools that will inspire them to succeed,” said LaVonia Smith, DLS Education and STEM Services Founder.

About The STEM Expo and Virtual Career Fair

Saturday, February 28, 2015, educators, and corporate leaders, will gather together for a day of knowledge and information on STEM.

There will be:
  • Hands-on demonstrations
  • Raffles and other prizes
  • Colleges and educational organizations
  • STEM related employers 
  • Special Guest Speakers
I have the distinct honor of being one of the guest speakers and trainers.

Guest Speaker

During the expo, I will speak with parents and students regarding STEM and Literacy.  I will share real-world examples of how to integrate Literacy (Reading and Writing) into a STEM unit.  Attendees will participate in challenges based on popular Young Adult novels.  It is this hands-on approach to STEM that has increased our own library circulation rate by 272%.  


Immediately following the expo, I will have a special session for educators.  Teacher’s Continuing Education Units (CEU) are available based on local school district’s policy.

Want to engage your learners in STEM, but not sure how? This training will give you the resources and confidence to write your own integrated STEM lessons. We will view example STEM lessons from your grade level. With the use of templates and rubrics, you will walk out of this session with a STEM lesson that integrates Common Core Math, Ohio's New Science Standards, and the national technology standards to prepare your students for PARCC. Bring a cohort of teachers and design your STEM lessons together!


wikipedia images
Have you heard of life-hacks?   Urban dictionary defines a life-hack as 
"A tool or technique that makes some aspect of one's life easier or more efficient."
It's quite possible that George Washington Carver was the first life-hacker, with over 300 uses for the common peanut.  

My challenge to you is to hack a paperclip.  How many different uses can you design for the common paperclip?  10?  20?  More?  

I will have a special prize for any attendees who show me their paperclip hacks in my speaking and/or training sessions.  


Saturday, January 17, 2015

Finals Week in a STEM School: Part 2

A few weeks ago, I shared how we do finals at our school.  You can read about it here.

We also made STEM tubs.  STEM tubs?!  What's that?  I'm so glad you asked.

A STEM tub is a tub of any size (we used shoe boxes) filled with spare parts.  Students will use the random parts to engineer something.

For our STEM tubs, we filled them with:
STEM tubs laid out, ready to go
The students also had access to the following materials:
  • scissors
  • glue sticks
  • rulers
  • tissue paper
  • their STEM journal
  • iPads to document the process
  • their rubric
  • construction paper
Since we did the STEM tubs with our 3rd grade STEM class, the students were tasked with making a life cycle of an animal.  The students had been studying life cycles of animals and had diagrammed several in their STEM journals.  

Step 1: Rubric

It all starts with the rubric.  The classroom teacher and myself sat down and planned backwards.  We created the rubric well before this point.  We had a class discussion about rubrics and how they are used to grade projects.

Step 2: Review

I have always been a proponent of open-note assessments.  The act of recording the information helps learners retain it.  Plus, it encourages good note-taking by allowing them to look back during their finals.  The students knew they were going to make 3D models of life cycles, but they didn't know what would be in their STEM tubs.  After they opened the tubs and surveyed the contents, they reviewed their notes to see which life cycle would fit best with the materials they were given.

Step 3: Measure

 Measure twice, cut once.  Teachers can lecture all day long about lining up their objects with the edge of the ruler, but it won't mean a thing until students have a valid reason to make careful measurements.  An unintended consequence of having rulers on hand was that we saw students measuring pipe cleaners and calculating length if they were cut in half.

Step 4: Get Creative!

Some students decided to stick with the basic materials and create their own life cycles.  Construction paper became exoskeletons.  Shredded paper became jointed legs.  Homemade play-dough became eggs and heads and you name it!


I am not a fan of multiple choice assessments, but they have their uses.  One is quick data, especially pre and post data.  A few months ago, I gave a pre-test to this class of 3rd graders.  After the STEM tubs, I gave them a post-test.  I am pleased to announce that they increased from 45.8% to 79.8%!

Innovation Nation 2015

We are at it again.  Innovation Nation.

Innovation Nation is a STEM festival that brings awareness of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math career opportunities to the White Mountain Apache nation communities.

Last year, we held our Innovation Nation STEM Festival at the Chief Alchesay Activity Center.  We had about 1,000 attendees and over 40 organizations.  (read about it here)

This year, we plan to go bigger and better.  We will have access to both levels of the activity center, allowing for more organizations and hands-on demonstrations.  We will also have science demonstrations and presentations in the morning.

The Entire Community is invited!

This event is designed to provide hands-on activities for everyone from small children to elders.  Come out and bring the entire family.
  • Workshops for school children to participate in the morning
  • Prizes awarded to kids who participate by getting their event passport punched
  • Engineering Contests for K-12 age students during the afternoon
  • Free food provided by HEDY for children and adults who participate in the hands-on activities at the booths
  • Cool Science demonstrations for all ages.
  • Demonstrations of winning STEM projects that Whiteriver Students have created

STEM Festival events include:

  • 9:00 AM    Chief Alchesay Activity Center open for Booth Setup 
  • 10:00 AM  Workshop Session A begins at CAAC
  • 10:30 AM  Workshop Session B begins at CAAC
  • 11:00 AM  Workshop Session C begins at CAAC
  • 11:45 AM  Lunch (Apache Cuisine) Provided for Presenters and guests
  • 1:00  PM   Chief Alchesay Activity Center Floor opens to the Public
  • 1:30  PM   Science Demonstration
  • 1:45  PM   Featured Presenters -  Student Participation Prizes
  • 2:00  PM   HEDY Food Station Opens
  • 2:00  PM   Student Engineering Competition: Secondary
  • 2:30  PM   Featured Presenters - Student Participation Prizes
  • 3:00  PM   Science Demonstration
  • 3:30  PM   Featured Presenters - Student Prizes
  • 4:00  PM   Student Engineering Competition: Elementary
  • 4:30  PM   Featured Presenters - Student Prizes
  • 5:00  PM   Doors close

The event is open to the public (free) on Wednesday, May 6th.

If you are interested in having a booth or doing a demonstration, you can visit our website: Innovation Nation.

There, you will find information, directions, a registration form, pictures from last year's event, and much more.

We would like to thank our sponsors: Whiteriver Unified School District, Helping EveryDay Youth, and Arizona SciTech Festival.

Failing in STEM

I get real excited when my students fail in STEM.  Wait!  What?!  Yes, I encourage failure.  Let me explain.

There is a movement in the business world called Fail Forward.  There are books and websites and consulting firms based on this concept.  A common phrase is "fail fast, fail early, fail cheap".  

In the Daily Beast article "Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win", Ryan Babineaux shares the story of a teacher who discovered something interesting about failing in class.  Read the article here.   

"They understand that feeling afraid or underprepared is a sign of being in the space for optimal growth and is all the more reason to press ahead." (Babineaux)

So, how do we help our students get out of their comfort zone and experience real growth?  Let them fail.  

I know.  I know.  It's real hard as a teacher.  Somehow, we feel as teachers that if our students fail, we have failed them.  By "fail", I don't mean the final grade.  I mean the process of learning.  I have blogged about our hot air balloon unit.  The students engineered hot air balloons.  After careful planning and measuring and gluing, they tested their designs.  Guess what.  They failed!  The balloons failed to gain lift and sustain flight.  Did any students stomp their feet or throw their books?  No.  They are comfortable with failure.  Immediately, they hypothesized what what wrong and how they can redesign their balloons so they would fly.  And they did.
The same was true with their presentations.  Fail.  They had access to the rubric but their first presentations lacked polish and depth.  I didn't even have to ask them if they wanted to re-do their presentations.  They BEGGED to have time to work on them and do it again.  They are comfortable with failure.  In fact, they know it's an essential part of the design process.

I was in a fourth grade class, working on our Renewable Resources STEM unit.  The engineering challenge for the day was for the students to create a machine that will use the power of wind to lift a cup (with weights) from the floor to the top of the desk.  I have done this challenge countless times before (with students AND teachers) and had always seen success within 45 minutes.  But, something was different in this class.  After 90 minutes, no group had successfully lifted the cup.  

We had to clean up for the students to go home and I overheard one student say, "I failed".  Teachable moment!  I told them about Thomas Edison and his famous quote “I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  

I always end a STEM lesson with some sort of short informal assessment.  Sometimes it is a diagram, but today I decided to do a quick writing prompt.  Their ticket to leave was to write 5 things they learned today.  

Here are some of the gems. 
·         I learned today that when one thing doesn’t work, try something different.
·         That doing stuff with a team makes stuff easier.
·         When something looks easy, it’s really hard.
·         I learned how to make something out of spare parts.
·         To not give up.
·         I learned that students should never give up on what you are doing.
·         If you try to succeed doing something you will never fail.
·         I learned that when you try to do something successful, sometimes you fail first.
·         I learned that every assignment will not be a success at first.
·         I learned that sometimes people FAIL a lot (emphasis students’).
·         I learned that no one can always win.
·         I learned that I had a ton of failures.
·         I learned that I had a hard time to get to success.
·         What I have learned today is trying to make success may be hard.
·         What I have learned is that the more you try, success will come.
·         I learned that Thomas Edison failed a lot.
·         I’ve learned that we are having a bit of trouble on our experience. (they probably meant experiment, but it’s still applicable)

And that, my friends, is a successful lesson.  How do you use failure in STEM?  Comment below or email me

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Sparkly Science

I recently read an article in USA Today about girls in Science.

Whether they have skinned knees or constantly wear a tutu, we need to meet our future young women scientists where they are.

I agree with the points that the Carnegie Science Center made about offering what appeals most to girls.  And if that is lipstick and nail polish, then so be it.

But I have to admit, I still held off on offering "DIY lipgloss 101" classes.  Until now.

At the end of class sessions, I like to present a STEM Family Challenge to the students.  They work on a project at home with family and then report back to me with what they learned.

Today, I was walking out of class when three girls came running up to me.  They wanted to know if lipstick would count as a STEM Family Challenge.  As is my typical response, I responded with a question of my own.  What do you mean by that?

Well, they were very eager to explain to me that they had created their own line of lip gloss.  Lip gloss!  I asked about the materials and procedure.  They explained that they watched tutorials on YouTube and made them at home with ...............  you'll never guess..........CRAYONS!!!

Did you know crayons are pretty much harmless to eat?  Me neither!  Check out this Instructables about crayon lipstick.  
Picture of Make lipstick with crayons
 I told the girls to come to my office during break to show me their line of lip gloss.  They only have two colors here today, but here they are:

They also had a blue lip gloss but it had a runny consistency.  It provided a great opportunity to talk about oils and water content.  

They can't wait to make me a custom color and to show me their line of nail polish as well. 

Hmmm, I guess sparkly girls really do like sparkly science.  

Monday, January 5, 2015

New Year, New Budgets, New Grants

Ahhh, the new year.  For many states, today will see new governors sworn into office.  Many legislators will return to the office to begin work on the new budget.  In most states, it won't be good news for education PreK-16.  And, even if you are fully funded for STEM, there is always "one more project" or "one more device" you want to purchase.

Enter grants.  Whether they be from non-profits, corporations, or wherever, grants are a wonderful way to supplement your budget.

Recently, I asked "what do you want to read about in 2015?".  Of all the responses, "grants" was tied for first place.

Science Foundation Arizona recently completed a survey of teachers across the state.  The number one response for greatest need is funding for STEM and Science in the classrooms.  Since the release of the Rural and Remote report, SFAz has offered many grant opportunities to seed STEM programs.

Dr. Eric Savage is the STEM Field Rep & AZ Grant Manager for Science Foundation Arizona.  Dr. Savage is Mr. Grant.  He has not only been awarded grants, but has sat on the other side of the table and has reviewed grant applications.  He speaks at conferences around the state.  If you ever have the chance to be in one of his sessions, it will be time well spent.  

Before we go any further, are you familiar with Science Foundation Arizona and their work with the Arizona STEM Network?  If not, I encourage you to go to their sites and sign up for notifications.  Sign up for RSS feeds or like their Facebook page.  Then go to the Arizona STEM Network site.  It is full of resources (STEM immersion guide, STEM Clubs, etc.).  A team of STEM experts created a searchable resource database for STEM Resources, STEM Curriculum, Video Resources, and Competitions/Contests.     

Dr. Savage has compiled a list of grant opportunities for STEM.  You can download it here.  Before you apply for a grant, take a look at the tip sheet and Grant Writing 101 presentation.  Dr. Savage has many more resources available, so again, if you have the chance to see Dr. Savage at a conference, attend his sessions. 

When applying for grants, keep these terms in mind: