Tuesday 18th of October 2016

Getting Students Active Outside of the Classroom

“I have always had an idea I wanted to test, but am pretty sure a high school student can’t do something like this.” Or, “I want to see what science really is.” Or, “Robots look awesome! I wish I knew something about them.” Or, “I’m into acting (or writing) and don’t have time for sciencey things!” These are some of the countless responses I might get when my students are asked about their long-time curiosities related to science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM).


It is my experience, and likely the experience for any adult who is frequently around children, that young children in particular are natural scientists. Books have been written about this. What child is not a walking question-box on a daily basis, curious about everything and wanting to learn what their older siblings or adults are doing? What child is not constantly experimenting to learn how to do new things, or trying to learn how something works? They do the process of science without knowing what this process is or what it means. It is amazing to watch!


Then they start school. And the daily worksheets begin. And the memorization begins. Before long, too many of our children begin to not enjoy the school version of this process. Many elementary and middle school colleagues mention that the rate at which children ask questions or just wonder about things in the world begin to not be asked. In my mind, if there is a subject that should always be the one a child wants to learn about, it is science - simply because every human has an inherent interest in Nature, and wonders about the big questions like why are we here, what are we made of, why is the sky blue, how can a little single-cell critter make me sick, how does this little contraption that fits into my pocket out-perform computers that took man to the moon, and how does everything I see each day of my life fit into this universe of ours. 


As teachers, perhaps the biggest part of our job is to hook, and in some cases with science, re-hook, students back into a stream of curiosities and inspire them to ask their questions. We want them to find relevancy in what we are teaching, because if any of us see no point in something, chances are it won’t grab our attention in the first place. And it is even alright for students to have some fun along the way.


To attain these essential goals, early in my career I found that getting students engaged and active enough in my classes led them to want to extend their learning and experiences outside of my classes. Once a student finds any hint of excitement, fun, and everyday relevancy to the material, he or she often will jump at chances to do more with it. I am at the point in my teaching where I mention every possible contest, activity, club, team, community event, or research possibility that crosses my path to my students, regardless of their level or grade or background. My goal is to get every student to try something, no matter how big or small it is, related to STEM (and not necessarily physics, which is what I teach), outside of class. I do not offer class points or grades, no extra credit or other incentives - I just want them to try something simply because it is their choice and because it is something of interest to them.


Examples of this are numerous. Writers can write short stories, essays, or poems based on a STEM theme. They can write summaries of more technical articles for the layperson, or analyze the science correctness in a favorite movie or cartoon. A student writer can also pen pal with a student at another school, such as when a number of my junior and senior high school students replied to 1st and 2nd grade students in Australia.


Photographers and artists can develop digital photo collages online and share with the class on cool science related scenes or phenomena, or post videos on YouTube. They can create cool STEM related posters, paintings, or models that the teacher can use in future classes. Actors can develop teaching skits or commercials, while dancers can do interpretive dances (these can be interesting!).


Students can peer tutor each other, or younger students. They can debate science related issues facing the world, such as climate change, cybersecurity, water and food supplies for a 9-billion person world in a couple decades, and so many more. Or they can blog their ideas about such issues. Students can make their own teaching websites about a topic of interest - I currently have two girls who are doing this for string theory, and developing Web skills they can use in the future. Some students try to learn a computer language, such as Python.


There might be competitions for students, such as subject Olympiads, bridge building, robotics, or engineering design. They can build things, from catapults to Rube-Goldberg machines, or bring in things from home they are curious about and take them apart. There are math modeling contests for open-ended problem solutions, which have become popular with my students (nearly 70 students competed in these contests last year). And the ultimate option is independent, original science research. Literally, high school students can make real discoveries, sometimes in professional labs if available, or often in their basements.


And there are certainly more options if one lets their creativity run wild!


The point is, try to have as a goal at the start of the year where every student has a scientist side of their personality, itching for the chance to be given a creative outlet. Help your students find that outlet in the form of something that can be done outside of class - the student chooses what it is, how much time they can commit, and then take it on since it is theirs and something they want to do - simply because it is fun and interesting for them!


By Mark Vondracek

These blogs are the opinions of the individual teachers and not the Varkey Foundation.

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