Increasing Hands-On Learning in STEM Classrooms

03/26/2019  |  By Tate Rector
CURRICULUM
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As an engineering teacher, finding ways for my middle school students to effectively use technology, to make important scientific connections as outlined in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and to take ownership of their own learning, is what it’s all about.

Creating a classroom environment that emphasizes hands-on learning not only encourages students to be active participants during the learning process, but it helps instill a passion for science education within them that hopefully lasts well beyond their time in my class. 

The first thing I do when choosing a hands-on learning activity is to think about whether or not a 12- or 13-year-old will find the project interesting. This sometimes means modifying investigations to make them more appealing.

Below are six tips I have found valuable in engaging my students in meaningful hands-on learning.

Modify Activities to Meet Student Interests

The first thing I do when choosing a hands-on learning activity is to think about whether or not a 12- or 13-year-old will find the project interesting. This sometimes means modifying investigations to make them more appealing. For example, a few years ago when fidget spinners were all the rage, we reimagined a computer-aided design software project to one in which students designed their own personal fidget spinner. After ordering bearings and 3D printing their designs, students were able to take home and enjoy something they actually created. 

In a robotics class, students were always snacking because it was right before lunch. The original investigation called for developing an automated assembly line that would pretend to cut packages. Instead, we made an automated assembly line that actually put toppings on cookies.  The students went above and beyond to develop and program the assembly lines. Plus, they got to eat the cookies after.

Collect Data During Projects

While my students used to think it was just fun or cool to see things explode or fly, they didn’t always understand the purpose of some investigations — and the concepts being taught — unless data collection was involved.

For example, in a watermelon explosion activity involving rubber bands, students used the Vernier Go Direct® Acceleration Sensor to measure the actual acceleration of parts of the watermelon when it exploded. In another investigation, students created a solar oven and used the Vernier Go Direct Temperature Probe to monitor and record the increase of the temperature inside the oven to really grasp the intent of the project.

And, in a high-altitude balloon launch, students used a LabQuest® 2 data-collection device to collect altitude data (the balloon went 80,000 feet!) and temperature data (it was –64 degrees Fahrenheit!) When we tied that to the challenges NASA faces sending astronauts to the moon, the project became more than just a fun activity. 

Give Students Freedom to Make Mistakes

Some students are afraid to get actively involved in projects because they are afraid to fail. For decades people have said failing is bad, so to dispel this, my students and I spend a few days at the beginning of every semester talking about “failing” and how it is perfectly fine as long as you learn from it. 

The basis for engineering is designing, redesigning, and then redesigning even more. In my classroom, I have a 3D printed Yoda with the quote “The greatest teacher, failure is”—and Yoda could not be more correct. I encourage students to try things that might not work and often will let them continue on doing a project even if I realize it may end up being problematic. By building it and “failing,” students learn about what aspects should have been modified to work better. 

Give Students Freedom to Design

Every semester, my students and I review the design process. While this review can get very repetitive for students who have been in engineering for multiple years, I try to add some creativity to the exercise with my second year students. Students design and create a positive message cut out of a cardboard template and then use a super hydrophobic product called Rainworks to put the messages around our school’s campus.

This project gives students the ability to come up with whatever message they want, review the design process, and spread a positive message to other students. Having some ownership in the project usually means students are more involved in the hands-on activity.

Change the Classroom Setting

Just like teachers, students can get stir crazy if they have to look at the same four classroom walls every day. So, any time it is a nice, low-wind day, I take my students outside to conduct a hands-on project. This includes testing rockets, drones, gliders, kites, hot air balloons and more.

Any time I tell my students we are going outside, their interest immediately goes up. I also like to use a drone to film and take pictures of the students in action to document our projects. 

Promote Quality Work

I always like to take an opportunity to brag about my students and let them know their good work gets rewarded. I take pictures of some of the best work from each project and share it on all of our school’s engineering social media accounts. Our school also has televisions in our cafeteria that display projects students have completed for their peers to see. There are also many STEM meetings and conferences in which I invite my students to speak about the type of things they are learning.

As with all educators, it is important for science and STEM teachers to engage students in the learning process and support their academic growth. Implementing hands-on learning using strategies and tips such as the ones above helps to do just that while providing students with the opportunity to make meaningful, real-world scientific connections.

Tate Rector is an engineering teacher at Beebe Junior High School in Beebe, Arkansas.

Tate Rector is an engineering teacher at Beebe Junior High School in Beebe, Arkansas.
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