Understanding by Design in STEM Lesson Planning

Adam Herman
PD Specialist
News on December 18 2019

Over the past few years, many districts have brought in new and exciting technologies with the potential to transform classrooms. Things like 3D printers, VR goggles, and codeable robots all have incredible potential for instruction across a wide range of ages and content areas. However, many schools struggle with getting their staff to a place where there is a sustained use of these technologies in the classroom in a way that is meaningful. Teachers can be very enthusiastic about a resource they want to use but may not know where to begin when crafting lesson plans around technology.

Instead of trying to craft lessons where instruction is built around the devices, teachers should write lessons where the learning goals necessitate the use of the device. To best do this, teachers can employ the Understanding by Design process. 

Understanding By Design in STEM Lesson Planning

Understanding by Design

Understanding by Design (UbD), also known as backwards design, is a framework used by many educators when lesson planning. The process happens in three stages:

First, teachers consider what content knowledge and transferable skills students should have by the end of the lesson. For example, an English teacher who is having students read Lord of the Flies will want students to reflect on symbolism and the historical context as much as analyzing the text itself.

Next, teachers consider how students would demonstrate their knowledge. Perhaps the English teacher has the students track what certain characters represent in the novel and use the character’s symbolic meaning to make predictions about the plot.

Finally, teachers can map out how long it would take for students to acquire new skills and develop benchmarks towards the end goal.

Applying UbD to STEM lesson planning

How can this work with STEM lesson planning, you might ask? When teachers use the Understanding by Design in STEM lesson planning, they consider learning goals and how students will develop and demonstrate their knowledge before outlining the shape of the lesson. When doing this, teachers should consider their STEM resources not as props to hold student attention, but as tools for helping guide students towards their predetermined desired outcome.

To reiterate, technology should only be used to further a learning goal. Unless students are using a certain device for the first time and need training, learning technology should not be the goal of the lesson. 

Exploring what this could look like

I decided to challenge myself and create a sample UbD unit that involves STEM. I imagined myself as a 5th grade science teacher and explored the Next Generation Science Standards. One I found particularly interesting was 5-PS2-1: “Support the argument that the gravitational force exerted by the Earth on objects is directed down.”

My goal for the next few lessons would be for students to understand that gravity is a constant force acting on all objects on Earth, and that everything is being pulled towards the ground. 

Next, I considered what resources might be available that could help my students explore gravity. micro:bit has an accelerometer, a tool used to monitor a device’s acceleration, or more specifically, how gravity is pulling on a device. This is how phones know when to rotate their screen. I was curious if micro:bit had any existing resources related to these ideas, and discovered a ready-made activity for measuring the effect of gravity on a moving object on their website. Students can show their knowledge by tossing their micro:bit up and down while the device monitors how it’s being affected by gravity, analyzes and labels the data as it appears on their computers, and reports their findings using relevant vocabulary and concepts. 

Understanding By Design in STEM Lesson Planning (1)

Finally, I thought about what the lessons would look like to reach this benchmark. I would need lessons about the math and physics behind gravity, and some traditional formative assessments such as quizzes, to measure student content knowledge before they move on to applying what they know. I would need to take a day to teach students about the micro:bits if I was not already familiar with them, or bring in a staff member that is highly proficient with them to train the students. By creating an outline of a lesson this far in advance, I can move days around in the unit to figure out if this resource is needed. 

Again, the highlight of this unit is not centered around the micro:bit, but around what I as a hypothetical science teacher, would already be doing in the classroom. By thinking of my teaching in terms of the desired long-term outcome, I was able to create a meaningful and dynamic summative assessment for my students. This is not just me though — I have seen teachers in a variety of educational contexts use this method to create fantastic units that involve STEM thinking and technologies.

To best use this method, teachers should have a strong understanding of the applications of their STEM products and time to plan, ideally with colleagues. 

Bringing it all together

If you are a teacher that wants to develop a deeper understanding of the technology available in your school, or an administrator that wants to jumpstart or revitalize STEM in their building, I would highly recommend utilizing Teq’s onsite professional development and the OTIS for educators platform. There are dozens of videos and resources on how to best use technology in the classroom. If you would like to have a framework for teachers to work with when integrating STEM technologies, Teq offers iBlocks, which provides a variety of STEM-driven activities that can be customized to fit your school’s unique goals.