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A teacher's tips on how to get kids excited about STEM

Emerging diseases, energy sustainability and severe weather are just some of the global issues today's students will be asked to solve using the skills they learn in the classroom, according to one local teacher.

Kenneth L. Huff, a middle school science teacher in the Williamsville Central School District, was one of 10 teachers nationwide chosen to help promote the science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum as a 2017 STEM Teacher Ambassador. The program aims to train the teachers in communication skills so they can provide input on policies for K-12 STEM education on the local, state and federal level.

"We are increasingly asked to make decisions on issues such as health care, environment, food, and energy where a solid foundation of STEM knowledge is essential," said Huff, a teacher at Mill Middle School. "Unfortunately, we have yet to commit the time and resources to STEM education to ensure all students of New York State acquire these skills."

Huff has three recommendations:

Mill Middle School science teach Kenneth Huff teaches his sixth-grade class a lesson on how to reduce force to prevent a water balloon from breaking on Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. He's with students Alessandra Sciortino and Reagan Sanchack. Behind in pink is Nina Lombardo. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

  1. Engage students in performances: This is more than simply having students do hands-on activities. Engaging students in performances means creating situations where students become curious about science phenomena. Phenomena are the everyday observable events we see around us, such as clouds forming, billowing, and disappearing. Children are compelled by the context to ask questions and seek answers to the causes of phenomena. I began my classes this year by presenting students with the phenomena - Sometimes when a person throws a water balloon at me I can catch it without it breaking and sometimes it breaks when I try to catch it. Students used proportions as evidence to support explanations they constructed for the cause of why water balloons broke. Student’s explanations included how their group engineered design reduced the forces acting on the balloon. They used core ideas including force, mass, and gravity to support their explanations and argued why and/or how the evidence they gathered supported their explanation.
  2. Better harness the power of technology: Students need access to a variety of digital technologies to support their STEM investigations. Examples include scientific probes, wireless sensors, and data collection and analysis software. Each year in my classroom, students go outside and conduct an investigation to measure the amount of propulsion in Newton’s generated by a model rocket engine. Students use a force sensor connected to an iPad via Bluetooth to collect the propulsion data. They create tables, and graphs to make their thinking visible and communicate their reasoning. Through the use of this technology, students deepen understandings of mathematical measures of central tendency as they seek out patterns via analyzing and interpreting data.
  3. Foster real-world, relevant connections: STEM experiences need to be age appropriate and relevant to students’ lives and their community. Addressing problems that have real world application capitalizes on students’ early interest and human inquisitiveness while building on prior formal and informal learning experiences. In my classroom, I invite practicing scientists, including NOAA meteorologists, and engineers to share their work experiences with students. Involving a community or outside expert in the learning can bring a new context via authentic descriptions of practices while cultivating student interest in STEM. If the goal of STEM education is to graduate students who are cognizant of the processes, potentialities, and propensities of STEM, then it is essential our instructional programs and classroom practices expand their scope beyond a compulsion to teach facts and rote details leaving students with the impression that STEM is dull.

Mill Middle School science teach Kenneth Huff and his sixth-grade class. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

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