Academic journal article Science and Children

Unpacking the STEM Disciplines: A Project on Human Impacts on the Environment Provides Many Opportunity to Explore the Disciplines of STEM

Academic journal article Science and Children

Unpacking the STEM Disciplines: A Project on Human Impacts on the Environment Provides Many Opportunity to Explore the Disciplines of STEM

Article excerpt

STEM is a commonly used acronym in today's education world. Parents hear the term and hope their child's school will be embracing it, teachers plan units encompassing it, even those outside the education realm have heard it and think it is important. But, do students actually understand the four disciplines and can they clearly express what they are learning about: Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math? Through this unit developed for an upper elementary classroom, students are guided through the four STEM disciplines in a personalized learning experience about the general theme of humans' impacts on Earth and a specific place-based project on the use and disposal of plastic water bottles in the school.

My love for teaching and learning, the need to align curriculum with Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States 2013), recently adopted state standards, and my interest in STEM motivated me to combine all of these into a unit using the 5E Model. I realized that the unit would help students gain a deeper understanding of both the STEM disciplines and humans' impact on the environment. This unit was developed as a companion to the guest editorial by Rodger Bybee (p. 8). Teachers can utilize this unit to gain a more in-depth understanding of the STEM disciplines in efforts to use them more naturally within the classroom setting. In addition to the guest editorial, an article titled Plastic Pollution to Solution (Kitagawa, Pombo, and Davis 2018) provided ideas I used in developing this unit.

Engaging the Students

As I began to introduce this unit, student discussions led me to realize that my students were already aware of various ways our Earth is changing. I first posed the following question to my class of 27 students in a diversely populated school in San Diego, "How do we know that humans have an impact on the Earth?" Students eagerly chatted in table groups and came up with many ideas such as: the drought and fires in California, rising ocean temperatures, opening a new dump near their neighborhood, increased trash at the beach, polluted air from cars, the list continued.

Next, I showed them a video of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (see Internet Resources). I thought their discussion was rich prior to this video, but I was blown away by the deliberation after the video! Even the students that had been previously exposed to pictures or videos of The Great Pacific Garbage Patch were very engaged in discussing the amount of trash in our oceans.

I asked them to form small groups to discuss "What are current problems with our Earth today that humans have an impact on?" They discussed the question and researched using their iPads to look for hard evidence of these problems, including statistics, graphs, or numbers that proved that humans are impacting the Earth. The groups' chosen representatives (scribes) presented their groups' initial findings to the class. I concluded the lesson by asking them to share today's discussions with their families, as we would expand upon it in upcoming lessons.

Exploring STEM and Human Impact

The next day, students' energy was high and multiple students approached me first thing asking if they could do a project to help begin a positive change. That was exactly what I was planning for upcoming lessons! However, we needed to investigate their initial ideas about STEM to build a solid foundation before we approached solutions about the human impact in a meaningful context.

I provided each student with a STEM template (Figure 1) and asked them to converse with their table group about what components of studying The Great Pacific Garbage Patch might be under the lens of Science, what might be Technology, what is considered Engineering, and separately what could be Mathematics. Their answers varied to say the least. As I worked with table groups and individual students, I was able to use their first responses as a brief formative assessment to determine their level of understanding of the four disciples. …

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