Magazine article The Elementary STEM Journal

Authentically Engaging Elementary Students in the Designed World

Magazine article The Elementary STEM Journal

Authentically Engaging Elementary Students in the Designed World

Article excerpt

In Standards for Technological Literacy (ITEA/ITEEA, 2000/2002/2007), the designed world is one of three worlds in which humans live. The natural world is one realm, consisting of things that exist without human interaction. The social world is another area that focuses on man-made cultural systems, such as governments, economies, and religions. Standards for Technological Literacy defines the designed world as consisting of "all the modifications that humans have made to the natural world to satisfy their own needs and wants. As its name implies, the designed world is the product of a design process that provides ways to turn resources--materials, tools and machines, people, information, energy, capital, and time--into products and systems" (p. 140). While this provides a broad foundation, looking deeper into the taxonomy used helps narrow the focus to several major areas of technology, such as medical technology, biotechnology, energy and power technology, transportation technologies, and manufacturing technologies, as some examples. But how do we authentically engage elementary students in this complex designed world?

"Authenticity," "real-world connections," "relevant to students' lives," and similar phrases can sometimes be oversimplified. Many of us can probably think of a word problem in math class that provides context but is in no way rent-able to most students' experiences. Truly authentic activities for students have some combination often design characteristics: real-world relevance, ill-defined problem, complex tasks requiring ongoing investigation, multiple perspectives, collaboration, reflection, interdisciplinary connections, integrated assessment, polished products, and multiple interpretations and outcomes (Reeves, Herrington, & Oliver, 2002). While overwhelming at first, this list helps us move beyond a simple, real-world problem as being the entirety of an authentic activity. It also aligns well with the Buck Institute for Education's explanation of problem-based learning. The big idea is that the problem is grounded in the real world but is open for interpretation, complex enough to require sustained work with the help of peers, layered to require reflection, and results in a variety of tangible solutions.

While design can be incorporated into all subjects, it is usually more of an explicit focus in STEM classrooms. In the elementary school, this gets tricky, as many elementary teachers do not have the background or confidence to incorporate these open-ended projects in STEM disciplines (Nadelson, Callahan, Pyke, Hay, Dance, & Pfiester, 2013). Some of that can be attributed to their educational experiences, as teachers often teach the way they were taught as students (Oleson & Hora, 2014). It can also be attributed to the limited amount of time most elementary students traditionally receive in science, technology, and engineering topics. One goal of the Common Core State Standards is to get students to be college-, career-, and life-ready (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010),

However, as education is reformed again and again, how we were taught, traditional school schedules, and strictly mandated scope and sequence (pacing guides) with state standards do not always align with the needs of today's students or the expectations of current reforms. In our work, we encouraged colleagues to revisit beliefs and practices around scheduling traditional instructional blocks and backward design of preidentified standards. Using authentic activities to engage students in the designed world can help meet those mandates and build the skills today's students need,

Designing lessons with authentic activities requires a lot of intentionality in planning. Sometimes current events help provide a springboard for authentic activities. In 2010, the BP oil spill provided the perfect context to introduce students to environmental engineering. …

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