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When you ask most fifth-graders what they want to be when they grow up, you might expect answers like police officer, doctor or teacher. When you ask students at Mount Lebanon Elementary in Pendleton, S.C., you’ll hear answers like biomedical engineer, electrical engineer and civil engineer.

With the national shift to the Common Core State Standards — and for many states the Next Generation Science Standards — hands-on experience and the ability to connect science and engineering to the real world is a major component of what goes on in the classroom. Though our state rejected the new standards, I use them as a resource when following the SC 2014 Science Standards. Loop in a cross-curricular focus, and you’ve got a brand-new teaching style that’s not only opening the minds of students but also engaging them in their learning.

Asking the right questions

Our kindergarten class will graduate from high school in 2028. With that being said, we’re training these young students for jobs that likely don’t exist quite yet, many of them relating to future careers in STEM fields. My students are learning to change their mindset from that of a 10-year-old student to that of an engineer tasked with building a storm-proof house for people recovering after Hurricane Katrina.

Through project-based learning, they’re also exposed to new career opportunities, which many may end up pursuing down the road. It’s my goal to condition students to challenge themselves and others to think critically and analyze the world’s processes, which is a skill that will follow them through their entire lives, not just in school.

My style of teaching involves asking a lot of questions that lead to deeper thinking, such as, “Why do you think Johnny’s car is faster than yours?” or “How can the sun’s rays be converted into energy, and what could we use it for?” I put minimal focus on tests, and more often gauge my students’ learning by seeing how they apply what they’ve learned, collaborate with others and solve problems.

For projects, I use resources and performance/literacy tasks to formulate new lessons and provide my students reliable background information on a project. My students take notes as they watch videos and read short research on their own, so they come to class armed with knowledge.

Doing research wraps in the cross-curricular aspect of NGSS. I have my students practice active reading, and then I use Google apps to create an online questionnaire— — uch more fun and engaging than a traditional worksheet — that they must fill out before moving on. Through this, they also develop the 21st-century skills of critical thinking and questioning the process while gaining comprehension and literacy.

Hands-on discovery

Our region of South Carolina recently went through its biggest rainstorm in 1,000 years, causing major flooding. As it happened, my classes were in the middle of a project where my students were acting as engineers at a water-treatment facility. The lesson became extremely relevant to students’ lives when more than two feet of rain fell in a matter of a few days.

When they started the project, students had essentially no understanding of what water treatment in a suburban or metropolitan setting was. Their idea of “dirty” water was in third-world countries. From their perspective, the water coming out of the faucet at home was always clean. After watching a water reclamation video, I witnessed an entire class of students have the “ah-ha” moment every teacher hopes for. They were able to connect what they were learning in school to their everyday lives, which is what the new standards are all about.

To create an even deeper understanding and give a hands-on aspect to the lesson, I asked students to create their own mini-filtration system, using cups, dirt, rocks, water and a coffee filter to simulate what happens in a water treatment center. The model was highly engaging, educational and virtually free to recreate.

Later this month, students will be taking a field trip to the local water treatment facility to further connect what they’ve learned in the classroom to everyday life — or to future careers. When a field trip isn’t plausible, I often invite speakers into the classroom so students can ask questions and hear first-hand what it takes to be in a specific career field.

Why STEM is like riding a bike

I often like to leave my students with nuggets of information to share with their parents at the end of each class period. I say, “Now your homework is to go home and talk to your parents about what you’ve learned in class today, because it’s something they’d be surprised a first-grader would know.” The next morning I’m often flooded with calls and e-mails from parents who are extremely pleased with what they’re child is learning and how classroom knowledge is carried over into real life.

Today’s science courses have been transformed from textbooks and worksheets on rocks and Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to daily occurrences of connecting science and engineering to the real world. Students are learning science, and it doesn’t only happen in controlled lab settings, but in the construction of homes, when creating green energy resources, and even in the middle of the ocean.

I like to compare STEM applications to riding a bike: I can show my students video upon video and assign articles to read, and they still will not know how to ride a bike until they do it for themselves. Although students can do research, watch videos and have thoughtful conversations about these real-world situations, until they actually experience something, they likely will never fully understand it.

While not deterring them from their dreams of becoming doctors, lawyers or teachers, we’re opening young students’ minds to new career options that are equally as fun and rewarding. We’re putting scientific theories and laws to the test not by making paper airplanes or using Bunsen burners, but by allowing students to truly experience how, in just a few years, those skills and mindsets can be put to the test to create actual airplanes, or even find a cure for cancer.

Beth Harrison is a K-6 science teacher at Mount Lebanon Elementary in Pendleton, S.C. The supplementary resources and performance/literacy tasks Beth uses to formulate new lessons and provide students reliable background information on projects are from Defined STEM.

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