Using STEM to connect elementary students locally and globally
With a belief in the need for a reform in education that prepares students for life, work, and citizenship in a globalized economy, leaders in our district were determined to connect students across the district, state, country, and globe in global collaborative STEM projects. These projects were aligned to the standards but also afforded students the opportunity to increase the skills necessary to be successful in a global economy. The Partnership for 21st Century Learning, a group of leading business and educational organizations and policy makers, defined these skills as critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity; life and career skills; information, media, and technology skills; and the understanding of key subjects and 21st-century themes—which includes global awareness and the ability to collaborate with others who have diverse perspectives. The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE 2016) has written seven standards for students about the use of technology in education. One of these standards states that students need to use technology to become a global collaborator, which includes using digital tools to collaborate with others both locally and globally. Global collaboration projects can teach not only content but also communication, collaboration, digital citizenship, and research and information fluency (ISTE 2016). To create these global collaborative opportunities that promote 21st-century skills, we started by looking for ways to connect students across the district in science. To do this, we created Google documents where all classes at a certain grade level could take pictures of and upload the results of investigations. This enabled students to examine and use each other’s data to support their own scientific explanations and leave feedback for peers across the district. We also partnered classes on different campuses but in the same grade level on certain learning experiences to provide opportunities for them to connect virtually and work on STEM projects. To further this effort, some of our district coaches worked with volunteer teachers to connect them with classes around the world to collaborate on projects at a global level. This paper describes a global STEM project between a fourth-grade class in Texas and a fourth-grade class in Australia. The big idea of the unit was “Understanding forces help us to predict the world around us.” This project lasted about two weeks and it did not cost anything.
The district coach introduced the two teachers in a Skype call, and because of the time difference between Texas and Australia, it was decided that the students would communicate through a Padlet. The teachers discussed introducing the project to their students and then both classes posted a class picture along with some hints about where they lived. The students would then research the clues and provide their guess as to where the other class lived. During this experience, many of the Texas students figured out that the participating class lived in Townsville, Queensland, Australia. This was very exciting for the Texas class because there was a student from Australia in the class who was able to share stories about Australia.
After the initial introductions, the students were ready and eager to begin the project. They were studying forces, specifically gravity, friction, and magnetism. The goal of the project was for students to design scientific investigations around forces and then exchange investigations, conduct each other’s investigations, and provide feedback. Although this content aligns with our state standards in fourth grade, it is aligned to Next Generation Science Standards core disciplinary idea 3-PS2-1: plan and conduct an investigation to provide evidence of the effects of balanced and unbalanced forces on the motion of an object. Additionally, this learning experience includes the science and engineering practices of asking questions and defining problems; planning and carrying out investigations; constructing explanations; and obtaining, evaluating and communicating information; plus the crosscutting concept cause and effect. Through the virtual handshake, students felt they had an authentic audience for their work, and the interest and enthusiasm in the classroom was palpable. The teachers started the learning, just as they would with any inquiry-based lesson, by providing students with an opportunity to explore the concept. Stations were set up around the room to provide students an opportunity to explore gravity, friction, and magnetism (see Supplemental Resources). Since these terms were not new to the students, the stations were named and students were given an opportunity to play with objects and think of investigable questions related to these forces. Following this, students came together as a class and discussed their thinking. The teacher then formed groups with students of similar interests while also strategically placing some students in groups based on ability and how they would work with others ensuring there were students of various levels within each group.
It was explained to students that they were going to design an investigation on their concept of interest (gravity, friction, or magnetism). Students were told that they were not going to complete the investigation. Once written, the investigations would be sent to their partner class in Australia who would attempt to follow their procedure exactly as it was written. The teacher talked about the importance of scientists documenting their procedures carefully so they could be replicated anywhere in the world. He told the students that a procedure is like a recipe. If you are a chef following a recipe, it should turn out the same. Then he gave them a recipe and asked them what they noticed. Students shared ideas like specific measurements, name brands, and directions on when to stop stirring, etc. These ideas were recorded on an anchor chart and the recipe was taped on it as a visual to remind students of the expectations for writing a procedure.
The teacher then introduced the expectations for the entire project and provided students with a Forces Investigation Checklist (see Supplemental Resources). The checklist included having an investigable question about forces that tests one variable, a materials list that only included common household or classroom materials, and a clearly written procedure that controls variables for fairness and includes considerations for both number of trials and safety. Students were also given a Collaboration Rubric that they would use to evaluate their group’s ability to collaborate and to set goals to improve this skill (see Supplemental Resources). As the groups started exploring the materials and recording ideas for investigable questions, the teacher realized that the task was a bit more difficult for some than he thought it would be, while others just flew right into it. Some of the kids that he thought would just have tons of ideas were kind of sitting there scratching their heads. The teacher facilitated by going from group to group and prompting them with questions like, “What variables could you test?” “Where do you see examples of that force in real life?” “How will you ensure it is a fair test?” etc. Eventually, students started getting into it, and it was really exciting to see their ideas come to life. The students were determined to think of original and creative questions that were highly interesting. Many were actually trying out their ideas on the table with the available materials. At the end of the lesson, student groups evaluated their collaboration using the rubric and set a goal for the next day.
The following day, groups shared their investigations with the class and provided each other feedback using the Forces Investigation Checklist. Groups were allowed to revise their investigations, and the class had to choose one investigation to share with their partner class. They ended up putting together ideas from different groups to design a new investigation. Their research question was, “How does the height of a ramp affect the speed of a marble?” After they finished writing up their design, they went to the Padlet to post it. It was at the end of the day and it just worked out that their partner class was also posting in the Padlet at the same time! The students loved it! They were so excited!
When the students received the investigation from their Australian peers, their question was “How do different materials affect magnetism?” The investigation required students to wrap a bar magnet with certain materials like cotton cloth, paper, and plastic and drag it through paper clips and see how many it picked up. Students were asked to complete the investigation and (1) collect results, (2) write a conclusion using the CER framework, and (3) provide feedback on the investigation. It worked out really well. Groups completed the investigation, and saw that the materials were somewhat different, but overall students got the same type of results. Without any covering, the magnet was always the strongest; while the one covered with the cotton cloth always picked up the least. Students took pictures and videos of the investigations. They put the results in an Excel spreadsheet and graph to share with their Australian scientist friends. The students were all very excited about it. They had so much fun doing science!
Finally, students received their results back with feedback. When they read the feedback, individuals said things like, “Oh yeah, that’s a good idea.” and, “This suggestion, measuring distance, would have been an easier way to do it instead of measuring time. If you measure time you have to worry about human error and the stopwatch and with distance it’s just, you know, gravity takes effect and friction takes effect and you don’t have to worry about a whole lot of human error with that.” At the completion of the project, students learned a lot about writing scientific investigations, magnetism, friction, and gravity. However, after participating in a global collaboration project for the first time, their teacher, Mr. E was easily able to articulate the many advantages he felt it had for his students. His students benefited by using technology to engage them. They learned that students across the world were just like them. They learned to communicate online, including giving and accepting feedback. And they learned to step out of their comfort zone, as did the teacher, in order to make connections with others, which was easily facilitated by technology. These same effects have been mentioned by other teachers engaging in global collaboration projects. Global collaboration projects have been found to provide opportunities for collaboration and developing 21st-century learning through authentic, motivating, and engaging learning experiences (Goldberg 2017). These projects increase global mindedness while integrating STEM content that prepares students for the future job market.
At the beginning of this project, the teachers and students were worried about looking inadequate and a little afraid to put themselves out there. In the end, everyone involved realized that fourth-grade students have very similar ideas whether they live in Australia or right here in Texas, and the world became a little smaller and less scary for them. ●
Download the station descriptions, CER and collaboration rubrics, checklist, and Standards connections at https://bit.ly/3xsWnXq.
Rhoda Goldberg (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an assistant director of STEM at Fort Bend Independent School District in Sugar Land, Texas. Jeremy Effinger is a science instructional specialist at Cypress-Fairbanks ISD in Houston, Texas.
Goldberg, R. 2017. Doctoral Students’ Concerns Implementing Global Collaborative STEM Education. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from https://ttu-ir.tdl.org/bitstream/handle/2346/73481/GOLDBERG-DISSERTATION-2017.pdf?sequence=1
International Society for Technology in Education. 2016. ISTE standards for students. http://www.iste.org/standards/standards/for-students-2016
Partnership for 21st Century Learning. (n.d.). Partnership for 21st Century learning. Washington, DC: http://www.p21.org
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