STEAM Interviews: Engaging with Science

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

This summer we are excited to share a "Learning With" series focused on Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM) education.  Rania Craddock, a teacher with nearly 20 years of experience, shares some of her excellent thoughts and recommendations on how to incorporate science into our daily routines and shares so many wonderful resources.  The opportunities are everywhere!  Taking a few extra moments to stop and help our children identify what they're seeing and asking questions can make an outing an educational field trip. We are always thrilled when educators are willing to share their expertise with us and help us understand how we, as parents, can more successfully engage our children in the process of learning.  A huge thank you to Ms. Craddock for sharing so many wonderful insights with us today!

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What is your professional background?
I have been a teacher for 17 years in school districts across the country.   I have an Med in Middle Grades Education and a variety of certificates that allow me to teach students with special needs from PreK to high school levels.

Why is it so important to engage students with science early?  What are the specific benefits?
It is of paramount importance to engage our children with science at an early age.  Understanding science is understanding how your world works. What is so often overlooked, or misunderstood in science education, is engagement.  To simply teach a list of standards so they can be marked off of that said list, is doing our students a disservice.  Too many of our students dread science, because they equate it to doing a worksheet, or packets, or some other form of busy work. 

As a parent and as a science educator, I asked myself many years ago, “What can I do to change this?”  Engagement was the answer.  Science must be fun, engaging and safe for our youngest learners.  By safe, I am implying our students must feel intellectual safety to ask a question, to take a risk in hypothesizing an answer, and most importantly, to know they can learn just as much from a wrong answer as they can from the “right” answer. 

As a parent, modeling inquiry is key for fostering that burning desire to know why something happens.  It doesn’t have to be another activity for you to plan and to pay a lot of money.  It can happen naturally while you’re doing something with your child, for instance, taking a hike.  While walking and talking, pause by a tree whose roots are exposed.  Ask your child to take a closer look at the tree’s roots with you.  Ask your child why the roots are exposed in some areas more than others.  Then move on to another tree to see if your guesses are true with other trees in the area.  This questioning transcends into a fun detective game.  You are modeling the scientific method for your child.   If you are unable to provide the scientific explanation or reasoning—even better!  Your child observes that it’s okay to not know all of the answers. However, together, you can find those answers at the Library, by reading science books, or looking up information on the computer.   

Modeling question-asking, investigating how our world operates and acquiring information together is science! The benefits abound—you have a child who enjoys investigating their world and how it operates—which evolves into a child who loves science!

What are some of your classroom activities that you’ve found to most successfully interest and engage your students?
As an educator, I know that any new information must be linked to prior knowledge or experiences to make learning meaningful.  Hands-on science activities are key for engagement, but there has to be purposeful thought into the design of the lesson. 

I use a variety of techniques for providing learning opportunities, however, they are contingent on what my students already know.  If I note my students have very little experience with a given topic, I design an opportunity for them to immerse themselves in the content to build an “experience.”  For example, I designed an interactive Jeopardy-like vocabulary game for my students to play one year.   fun, but it was formative piece of data for me to see how much of the content my students already knew.  I quickly realized my students knew very little about the properties of matter and, in response to this, I designed a lesson to immerse them with opportunities to describe matter, giving each student unnamed “matter” and various tools to use in identifying critical properties.  These two lessons—the vocabulary acquisition lesson and introduction to properties of matter-- allowed for fun, non-threatening opportunities to build experiences to later reference for future learning.

In science, instruction is varied and unique to content and student-understanding.  When taking notes, we “read a little, see a little, do a little and write a little.”  We read a small amount of content, we manipulate materials with our hands to observe the content, we see a virtual representation, or a 10-second cartoon demonstrating the content, and we record the information in our journals. 

Each Friday, we have STEAM Friday, where students from the fifth grade classes are randomly assigned to a teacher and in groups of 3-4.  They are presented with a problem and must follow “engineering” steps to solve that problem with the materials presented. Our students love these opportunities to collaborate and solve problems together. 
 
The most successful and engaging activity design I have implemented in my classroom is the STEAM menus we offer our students in math and science.  Each unit in math, I design a menu of options for the students to “show what they know” in a different avenue.  The STEAM menus offer options for building, designing, programming, writing and artistically representing their learning in a meaningful manner.  For example, when learning about decimals, students were provided with a menu list of many opportunities to demonstrate their understanding of operations involving decimals.  Some included: design and build a fun rec room, write a children’s story which shows how a decimal number increased and decreased in its value through the adventures it experienced, design a video game cover which shows how to multiply decimal numbers and code a game of your own which matches the cover’s design, Write a “Reasonable or Not”  book which consists of student-generated word problems, with reasonable and unreasonable answers for the reader to choose.  These menus and options for students to peruse offer them choice and different avenues to demonstrate the depth of their understanding of a concept.  It integrates other subjects and disciplines to show connectivity and importance of all subjects. 

In summation, the most successful activities have a clear purpose when they are designed.  They are linked to prior knowledge, they are varied and change according to students’ needs, they allow for peer collaboration and creativity—but just as important as the activity’s design is the atmosphere in which it is carried out.  The atmosphere is one that encourages questions and concerns from the students and one which allows them to take a chance.  And regardless of the failure or success that follows, each is celebrated because learning has occurred.

As an educator, what do you wish parents would do more of at home?
As a working parent myself, I completely understand the constraints of day-to-day obligations.  We are all striving to be the best we can be to provide the most for our children.  If I were to impart advice from my own successes and failures as a parent and as an educator, I would say this: Make learning together fun and let your children know there are lessons to be learned from failures.  I see so often how much pressure our children put on themselves to be successful and to always have the right answer.  Make learning fun and help them see the value in trying something new and in failing.  Learning from mistakes is life—and it is science!

What books/activities would you recommend for at home activities?
There is a wealth of resources available at bookstores and on-line.  Oftentimes, the availability of resources is overwhelming and can feel defeating when trying to make a selection.  Below, I’ll list some resources that I have personally used with my own children and students:

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