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Forty Years Of Teaching STEM - And How It Changed My Career

TOPICS | Education Posted Tuesday, September 3, 2013 (2,063 views)

I’ve thought a lot about what I wanted to say in this blog posting or if I even wanted to share my thoughts, but decided to go down memory lane with STEM.First of all, I don’t want anyone reading this to think that I feel that I have all the answers. As a matter of fact, the longer I teach, the fewer answers I have and the more questions. So what I will do is try to share some of my own observations.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet…” We are all familiar with these words and I wonder if the same couldn’t be said about STEM. Of my forty years of teaching elementary school, STEM has probably been a part of it for thirty-nine years. It just wasn’t labeled STEM. My first year of teaching was full of misaligned confidence, a pile of district chosen textbooks, and a lot of mistakes. I just couldn’t believe that my students weren’t fascinated by the chosen textbooks and the facts that I was asking them to regergitate. Needless to say, if it hadn’t been for a caring principal/mentor, year two of my teaching career would not have happened.

A couple of important things happened in my career about this time. I earned a degree in counseling and I attended a one day air and space workshop. The counseling experience taught me to listen and question. A small part of the air and space workshop was to build and launch a small rocket. The rocket taught me the importance of hands-on engagement.

I have been amazed with the math, science, and engineering that can be tied to building and launching small rockets. I found that students took ownership of their learning when it was tied to this rocket-building. The “what if” and the “now I understand this, but what about” discussions have led to higher order thinking skills in my classes and great discussions. If I just listened and questioned and let them question each other the learning jumped far ahead of my expectations.

All good engineers solve problems with the end in mind. This concept of solving the problem with the end in mind is necessary for students as well.   This needs to be the case when student are challenged to build a mousetrap car. When students are challenged to build a working mousetrap car, their minds are locked in on thinking critically throughout the process.  They are even more focused on the end product if challenged to build a mousetrap car that travels the farthest. The learning occuring from the designing, building, trial runs, and alterations have been fascinating for me to observe. Again, allowing time for this learning is so important. I could teach Newton’s laws of motion in an hour or let the students experience them over a three week period of time. Allowing cooperative discussions can produce remarkable results.

Iowa has a great "Invention Convention" sponsored by the Bell and Blank Learning Center in Iowa City. Students start with a problem that can be solved with just the right invention. My students look at solutions for these problems, they design an invention to solve the problem, do patent searches, make sketches of inventions, and finally build a working model or prototype. Keeping a logbook of all that they do is an important part of this project. We present at a “Thomas Edison Day”, inviting peers and family to hear oral presentations and see the inventions. This seems to be real learning tied to STEM.

Science fairs happen every year. Understanding the scientific process is the main objective, but the engagement from choosing a problem all the way to the presentation to peers and family is amazing. These projects are self leveling. Students usually do projects that they understand. Some are quite complicated and some are simple. Sometimes simple is better. A dry cell, wire, and a light bulb can sometimes light up more than just the light bulb. Over the years we have designed and rebuilt a go-kart, used robotics with Lego Mindstorm kits, and dismantled anything we could get our hands on. Always with the “what if” question in mind.

STEM is not new, but it has been a career-saver for me. The engagement can be remarkable. I have never had a former student stop me on the street and tell me that he remembers a worksheet, but I have had past students, now fifty years old, stop me and tell me they still have their rocket and mousetrap car. Wow!

Contributed by
Bruce Hansen
Atlantic Public Schools

Bruce Hansen has been an elementary school teacher in Atlantic Iowa for nearly 40 years. He is a former teacher of the year, and has been honored for his hands-on, DIY/Maker approach to teaching elementary science.

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Content courtesy of Bruce Hansen

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