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Critical Mass in the Class

April 12th, 2012 by


Take a look at successful STEM class room and you will see something all too unusual. A controlled cacophony of sounds, movement and gesticulations. Students immersed in discussion and planning, using computers for designing and calculating, and using machines for manufacturing. They are largely unaware of the presence of their instructor, who is close by but not directing their actions and movements. The students know what to do, how to get it done, and when they are expected to finish. This successful STEM class room has reached Critical Mass, and the teacher is facilitating, rather than dictating in their environment.

Recognizing STEM

How does a typical class begin? Walk down your hallway during prep time and take a quick listen.  Hopefully, you don’t see much of this:
“Any questions about last nights homework?” Dead silence. You can hear the crickets outside.  “Okay, so everyone understood yesterday’s lecture. Let’s take out our books and turn to page 227. After you have read sections 1-3, answer the questions on page 232. We’ll go over these in 30 minutes. Please raise your hand if you have any questions.” The teacher then circulates around the room, checking to make sure everyone is awake and on the right page. She stands at the podium for awhile, satisfied that everyone is keeping quiet, and settles down to correcting papers.

A great STEM class room session might begin with. “Welcome back to class. We’ve only got 2 weeks to finish up our robots. Let’s get to work.” Students move in organized groups to get out their materials, fire up the computers, get the tools they need, and start working without much input at all from the teacher.

After finishing the roll, the teacher walks around and listen to her students. It is somewhat noisy, but not loud. She listens to snippets of conversations as she checks in with each group. Here is a quote from a recent class day in STEM class room.  “No, it’s 35.5 millimeters, see it won’t fit here. Take a look at the model (points to compute screen). “Okay, we what if we reshape it so that it will still fit in that space.  The parts all need to be as light as possible, remember?” The student drags a finger across the screen. “ I can just add a fillet, it doesn’t need to have a squared off corner. (clicks and drags the mouse rapidly around the screen). Nope, nope, Okay. 1mm radius. That works.”  “Nice.”

This sort of dialog makes a STEM teacher beam with pride every day as she facilitates rather than dictates. Students take charge of their own learning, driven by the challenge set before them in the project they need to complete. The project may be self contained, or it may be a piece of a much larger long term project that will take months to complete.

It’s easy to spot the STEM in this brief exchange, one that was completely student initiated, with no teacher input at all. Inquiry, experimentation, analyzing results and revision. Using sophisticated software to design and model complex parts in 3 dimensional space. Measurement and calculation, and developing a true understanding of geometric relationships. And perhaps most importantly, there is a purpose and understanding of why they are engaged in these activities. Rarely does a STEM student say those infamous words,
Why do we have to do this? Or, How is this going to help me later in life?

Established STEM classes are self sustaining environments. With some up front time invested in basic skills, class room expectations, management and team building, your class room can reach the point where you begin most class days by saying “ Okay everyone, let’s get to work.” Students know what to do before they get there. They have a long term plan, carefully mapped out as the project requirements unfold. Group members rely on themselves, each other and the technology they have learned to use to reach a common, well-defined goal. They may think they are having fun building robots, trebuchets or rockets, but they are working hard,  immersed in a life enriched with STEM. They don’t think about the fact that they are doing math because they need to, not because someone told them to. Or the fact that they are engineering solutions to problems based on scientific inquiry and experimentation.

Questions and Answers

Critical Mass in the STEM class room means that students have been enabled with, and know how to apply skills that allow them to guide their own learning based on the need to complete a task. This includes time management, project flow and resources allocation as an integral part of STEM subject lessons.

Applying STEM skills means that students have learned to question things differently, and frame them with different expectations from the teacher. One of the introductory discussions in my classes always begins with “ There are 3 words you are going to get tired of me repeating during the first few weeks of this course. Then, you will all be using these words yourself. “Figure it Out.”
Soon students understand that they can not get what they consider to be a straight answer from their teacher. Questions are often answered with carefully worded questions. Or just the Three Words along with some encouragement to keep trying.

In a more traditional setting, students expect teachers at a minimum to point to the right page in the book to guide them to the ‘answer’ to a question they are working on. The students goal is just to complete the assignment rather than truly understand the concept, and the teacher complies by showing where to find it, or even providing the answer outright. Needless to say this is not STEM education, or any sort of education at all.

Students who are used to that sort of response have come to develop this expectation from teachers when they are asking questions, and there is a baseline level of frustration that must be overcome when teaching them the skills to “Figure It Out.”

Most students are accustomed to being able to stealthily (or not) ask their neighbor, “what did you get fo number five” Once the Figure It Out seed has been sown, it spreads throughout the the room, from individuals to groups. Some students learn the concept and embrace it right away, and one sign of success is that occasionally you will hear a bit of good natured mocking when they tell each other to ‘figure it out’.  That means that they learn to trust the skills they have developed, and to use resources they have at their disposal.

Nothing in the STEM class room experience happens in isolation. Figure it Out forces students to apply what they have learned to problem solve, and acquire new skills as quickly as necessary beyond what they have been taught in order to get to where they need to go. When everyone has reached this point, the first step of Critical Mass has been taken. Soon students present ideas to you as their teacher, mentor, and advisor. They want your input on some ideas and solutions they have created of their own volition. And if you ask a question of them, to clarify something you are not quite sure of about their ideas-and they jokingly reply “Figure It Out”?

Then you can relax, sit back for a bit and feel satisfied that your class is well on its way to reaching critical mass.

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  1. […] programs are a continuum, and they have a tendency to take on a life of their own once even small projects reach critical mass. This is hinted at in the early part of the video that describes how the West Philly High got […]

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