Transitioning to STEM

Post in News by Michelle Hollander on 12th December 2019


“How can STEM education prepare my students for science and engineering careers?” This question comes in many forms and iterations, but they all have the same premise: “Is what I am teaching realistic?” I recently led a discussion about how to ease the transition of new learning standards into existing curriculum sequences. At the beginning of the meeting, I mentioned that I had done scientific research, and as a result, participants were curious about what I had taken away from my time in “the research world.” Without pause, I replied, “Creativity!”

Many people often think that research is dull or bland, but the reality is that while some work might be more tedious, it is immensely creative. Just as teachers have limited funds or grant money, scientists, too, cannot always buy all the latest and greatest technologies. As a result, they seek inventive ways to solve their problems or seek answers to their questions.

As such, I wanted to share some of the most memorable solutions I found while working on my thesis. These examples show not only the creative side of science, but how we use the scientific process more often than we might think!

Solutions from the Research Lab

In the lab, you sometimes need to spin tiny vials to separate out mixtures, but what happens when the tray you need doesn’t fit in the machine? That’s when a salad spinner comes to the rescue. Using zip ties, the sampling tray can be attached the inner basket, and then you pump the spinner just as if you were making salad.

What if your field sampling methods require you to measure at specific angles from North – how do you know where to line up the transect (measuring) tape? A quick trip to the hardware store for a tall PVC pipe and plunger head will do the trick. All you need to do is flip the plunger upside down, slide it onto the pipe, and label the angles with a compass and a permanent marker. Out in the field, use a compass to locate north, position the pipe in the ground, and you are ready to sample!

The fun didn’t end there though. We were trying to determine how an invasive grass might spread in the local estuary. If a rhizome (horizontal stem) broke off from the rest of the plant, where might it travel? For this, we did some initial testing, then deployed oranges and lemons from various patches during different tidal cycles and stages. Each fruit was labeled with a permanent marker and contained a website to enter information into along with a code number. Believe it or not, many local citizens participated, and we got useful results, and some pictures of moldy oranges… That was the other key, though, we needed something that could biodegrade quickly if left un-found!

While these solutions may sound silly, the scientific process was employed in instituting all of them. We had to make sure they were functional and worked accurately.

So, when you hear that your school is going to use the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) or transition to STEM, don’t worry! NGSS standards were developed in collaboration with both educators and scientists, and as such, they explore science in a realistic way. Classes are no longer meant to live in silos; science requires new ways to communicate information and understanding history and social studies can only benefit our understanding of all disciplines. We identified these principles when I discussed the research solutions above. These were all examples of using the scientific process in an understandable, real-world context. STEM initiatives and the NGSS are simply about teaching science and engineering in the way that they are meant to be used in “the real world”.

Putting it All Together

As you can see, a scientist’s job revolves around the Engineering Design Process. Project-based learning experiences are key because they promote these critical thinking skills, and the results are often far better when a little bit of ingenuity and creativity are involved.

We want students to share in the excitement that goes along with designing and innovating, so we created a PBL solution called iBlocks. iBlocks are learning pathways that teach students engineering design processes through hands-on projects. Coupled with the ability to integrate different educational technologies, iBlocks allow students to explore in new ways. With CAD software and a 3D printer, your students can design a self-watering planter, or they could “turn everyday notions on their head” by making a Rube Goldberg Machine with old rubbish, a Sphero, and even littleBits.

With iBlocks, anything is possible. A students’ wacky results and possibilities might just be a real solution for Better Transportation, Assistive Game Controllers, or even your school store.

With iBlocks, we hope to get students comfortable employing the scientific process as they investigate real-world problems — but also highlight the importance of creativity and outside-of-the-box thinking.

Let’s get started and redesign learning together.

To learn more about iBlocks and the intersection of STEM education, PBL, and creativity, visit:!

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