I was fortunate that my boss found out about a STEM (Science + Technology + Engineering + Math) Coaches course taught by Dr. John Tapper and registered me and our district science coach. We spent four whole days at the Hampton Inn, which is a strange venue for a STEM course but it worked fine. I gained about 5 pounds because the hotel served muffins every morning and cookies every afternoon and I ate them.
I already knew John Tapper from afar because of his excellent book on math instruction called Solving for Why. This course wasn’t about math menus and differentiation; instead John got us thinking about teaching STEM and instructional coaching. There was lots of discussion, not lots of lecturing, and plenty of hands-on investigations involving buoyancy, force, and motion. John teaches college level math and education courses, but has experience as an elementary classroom teacher, administrator, instructional coach and researcher. I found his perspective refreshing and some of his ideas about STEM new to me.
I’d been wondering how to best integrate math with other content areas. In the STEM Coaches course, John pushed us to use math in a meaningful way rather than as an add-on. He asked, “What about challenging students to create a mathematical model that they will then use to make a prediction?”
It turns out there are fun, engaging ways to do just that. John gave us Straw Rocket Launchers (go here if you want plans to make your own). Two teams experimented with these, adjusting the launch angle and launch force to see how to get the straw to travel different distances. When each team felt they had enough data, John placed a hotel napkin on the sidewalk. “It must hit this target!” Teams measured the distance to the target, then decided how to set the angle and force of the launcher. No more practice runs - each team had one chance to get it right. See photos below of classmates crunching the numbers, then trying to hit the square.
There were a few different targets. Both teams were able to hit the napkin, but the small soup cup John put out was too tough.
It helped to experience these challenges as a learner. Everyone was engaged in the task and we had to really use the math and rely on it to be successful. A key point: hitting a target at a given (initially unknown) distance is very different than simply sending a rocket as far as it can go. The math ended up being the centerpiece of the activity, and the whole thing was really FUN.
We also tried to determine the minimum surface area for an effective parachute, create our own timer (pendulums, a hole in a water bottle), and decide how to predict if a given object would sink or float.
I have a new sense of how to use all four letters in STEM in a meaningful way, and how to give students greater ownership of their learning.
We should all try to hit the target!