Wednesday, October 17, 2012

We did it!

The exciting journey into STEM education continues this school year 2012-13!  Our pre-engineering class of home educated high school students has won a Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams prize for our proposed invention: a turbine for capturing shear wind energy from traffic flow, and novel wind tunnel for testing.

"Engineering the Future" is a group of fifteen students who meet at the ACTS home education co-operative in Charlottesville, VA.  ETF began brainstorming over a year ago and submitted their initial proposal to the LMIT foundation in April of 2012.  Today, October 17, LMIT announced that we were granted $10,000 to bring our invention to life.

ETF is the only home educated group to win the prize this year.  We thank Lemelson-MIT for their vision of supporting youth in their pursuit of STEM and invention.

For press inquiries, sponsorship or general questions, please email

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

MIT and EurekaFest, day 1

I stepped off the plane at Logan Airport in Boston today hoping I had left the scorching heat behind in Virginia. Nope. Just as hot in Boston. It's time for EurekaFest, MIT's annual celebration of all thing inventive. Over the next four days students, teachers and industry partners will converge on Cambridge in the spirit of helping our young students get the know how they need to make ideas into reality.

I'm here through one of the featured programs, InvenTeams. MIT chooses around 15 high school groups per year to receive a $10,000 grant to prototype a student generated invention. That's not us yet but teachers whose teams are vying for the prize over the following school year are brought here to observe and learn. I'm thrilled to say that my small group of homeschoolers is in the running!

 Tonight we ate food from all parts of Massachusetts and watched 30 teams of students try to build the tallest free-standing balloon structure. Very fun. The balloon towers were measured in Smoots, a uniquely MIT unit of length based on a freshman years ago who was laid end to end across a bridge. Looking forward to more design and invention lectures tomorrow.

Monday, May 21, 2012

STEM Curricula: Are online courses good enough?


In my last post, I gave an example of how traditional science classes differ from multi-disciplinary, project based STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) classes.  It's important to consider how to engage your student in STEM programming, with new options popping up all the time. Some homeschooling parents use online curricula for traditional sciences, and these courses have validity and a solid place in education.  Unfortunately, I think online coursework for STEM only hits about half of the target.

It's true that part of what STEM offers could be learned from a textbook.  Its concepts are drawn from any of the physical sciences, technology, or mathematics and are often criss-crossed between two or more of these.  But STEM is much more: it's about learning how to communicate and interact well with peers in brainstorming, design, invention, innovation and collaboration.  These are the "soft" skills needed for the next generation of workers and they may seem obvious but require many hours of practice to master.  These are also the skills that an online course does not address.

I have taught STEM to five separate groups of homeschoolers (about 65 total students) over the past two years.  I have noticed that the skills that my STEM homeschooled students most need practice in are not vertical collaboration (ages above and below) but rather horizontal project collaboration (peer, same aged).  The homeschoolers I teach are wonderful, well-socialized and have good friends.  However, friendships are different from collaboration.  What my experience has shown me (this is not scientific, only observational) is that it takes nearly 30 hours of practice for homeschooled students to become very skilled in brainstorming and completing design projects together under constraints.  Acquiring STEM skills is less like charging through a textbook and more like apprenticing in a trade or growing a garden.  It takes time, mentoring and iteration.

So what is a parent to do?  My next post will have links to real-time (as opposed to virtual, online) STEM resources.  I'd love any and all comments and thoughts.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

STEM for Homeschoolers

Graphic tile by E. Keyser, ACTS Geometry student

What is STEM and how is it different from science or math?

"STEM" or "STEM education" are hot topics right now, but they sound like you're into teaching plants or helping flowers.  The name itself is misleading.  STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math, all lumped together in a handy dandy acronym.  So - not plants, but math and science loosely glued together?  No, that's not quite it either.  With this post I'm going to break down what STEM is and compare one day's science class versus STEM class.

What is STEM?

Although you can find umpteen definitions of STEM around, many agree on the following: STEM education combines multiple subjects together while using student-centered learning techniques.  It is an effort to bridge the gap between what a pure science class teaches (biology) and the skills a biological research scientist uses in a career (knows biology, but also needs to communicate well, design and test, use math to analyze data, and interact with other scientific professionals).  STEM education has a heavy focus on design, student initiative and "soft" skills such as collaboration, innovation and invention.

What's a real example of the difference between a science, math or computer class and a STEM class?

I teach several high school math and science courses at a co-op to homeschoolers, along with STEM classes, so I experience this every week. Here's the rundown of what happened on a recent day.

Physics class: we are studying periodic motion, and begin a unit on spring systems.  Students sit on chairs around a table and listen while I lecture and use the whiteboard.  I have several visuals to illustrate how springs work.  Students seem like they understand, and I prompt them for where they see springs in everyday life.  I do all my usual "teacher-ey" things to keep students engaged.  We do a lab exercise, where students in small groups measure data about springs.  I review what their lab report should look like.  End of class. The next class will continue with periodic motion.

STEM class:  Early in the year student groups brainstormed areas of interest in any STEM field.  One group picked alternative energy, so this day we are studying wind tunnels.  I arrive with a fan, clear containers and lots of tools.  After a brief lecture on how wind tunnels design, student groups spread out on the floor to make their own models. I walk between groups, making sure everyone is collaborating well.  While each group works, we talk about how to make smoke lines, how a mesh can help reduce wind turbulence, and what kind of turbines might work well.  We also brainstorm about where turbines could be placed.  We pack up and groups take their models home to finish. The next class will test our models and smoke lines.

Let's run that back.  Both classes were valuable.  Physics was concept-centered, and I used strategies to engage students including a hands-on lab.  STEM was also concept centered, but those concepts drew from multiple sciences and design work.  Students chose the topic and drove the flow of class, working with their peers the entire class.  Their end product will be a workable wind tunnels to test turbine prototypes, along with enhanced collaboration and design skills.

In coming posts I'll outline some age-specific STEM opportunities and what some barriers to STEM involvement are for homeschoolers.  If you have any experience with STEM and would like to add to the conversation, drop me a line at or on twitter at @marycsaville.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Graphics by ACTS Geometry Students.  Produced in Google SketchUp

It's time for a conversation about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and homeschoolers, both secular and non-.

Traditional subjects like biology or physics might have homeschoolers using a single subject textbook, digital book, online course or co-op.  STEM is something different - it's an opportunity to combine many scientific, mathematical and technological concepts into an amazing soup.

For example, in my STEM class I begin with a outline of what we'll cover, typically a science concept, technology issue, or description of an engineering career. I lecture - briefly, usually no more than 15-20 minutes - then the fun begins. The students, having received information, immediately split into groups to tackle a challenge based in the lecture concepts. Collaboratively they filter water, separate ingredients, study tsunami waves using a model, devise structures out of crazy supplies, launch marshmallows, and many other things. We debrief the exercise as a class and the students complete a reflective journal entry on what they've experienced.

STEM class ends up being student-driven and highly interactive. The students practice the design cycle, brainstorming techniques, innovation skills, and mostly, how to collaborate well on a group project.  I publish their work on my blog, on YouTube or other digital venues.  Some high schools, like our local public Albemarle High School, have academies or programs that promote STEM. Albemarle has MESA - which stands for Math, Engineering and Science Academy. There are wonderful non-profits around, like Charlottesville's Computers 4 Kids, that mentor low-income students in computing skills while providing them computers at program's end.

The nagging question for me is, what are other homeschoolers doing?  Even better, how can we create a community to help them get involved in collaborative STEM work?  Our county has a large and thriving co-op, but what do you do when that's not an option?  Do you know of homeschool co-ops or home groups that offer STEM classes that I can contact? Many areas also have service learning opportunties, which my older STEM students are doing this year. Is  your local homeschool co-op or family group interested?

 I'd looking to hear and collect knowledge about what homeschoolers do for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education.  In the future I hope to blog more on creative ways to engage homeschoolers in STEM, pre-engineering curricula, collaborative work and service learning.

If you are in the field of STEM ed and work with homeschoolers or a parent looking to find resources, comment or find me on twitter @marycsaville.  I've created the twitter hashtag #stemhomeschool to bring resources together.

Every day STEM programs online offer ways for homeschoolers to get involved even if they are living in remote areas.
Some of the links that I've found to be very helpful are:
National Service Learning Clearinghouse
Tells you everything you need to know about service learning and how to begin a project in this excellent, hands on, service based educational model.
PBS Zoom Science
Colorful, engaging site with how-to experiments, engineering challenges, science inquiry and observation.  Geared toward elementary through middle school students.
Discovery Education
With all the quality that Discovery brings to the table, this site has resources for STEM curricular units and lesson plans.  Discovery is also pioneering digital textbooks called "techbooks" for future learning - techbooks would be interactive digital content that updates, educates and inspires.  Plus you'd save the backache from lugging around a huge textbook.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

STEM ED for Homeschoolers

Recently my STEM class (offered at a non-profit homeschooling co-op) finished up an interactive multi-lesson unit on alternative energy technology. Each student picked an energy topic, researched it and presented it to the class: we heard about fission, photovoltaic effect, high-speed train function, wind turbines and more. One week students designed paper turbines to see how they could affect rotational speed - see how speedy the "turbines" were in the video! We used a Thames and Kosmos car kit where the car could be powered by solar energy, battery energy, or hydrogen energy. The kit helped us explore electricity including static and current, concepts of voltage and resistance, solar panels and battery circuits. Students were able to tinker with, observe and sketch a one-wheel drive transmission and map how electrons actually move through a circuit, turn a gear, and propel a car. One session had students measuring voltages of batteries with a multimeter and experimenting with how to orient a solar panel to maximize voltage or current.

My favorite part was getting the fuel cell component working - this took a ton of repair on a kit that unfortunately was fragile. Once it was workable, students observed the electrolysis of water using a current to separate water into its component gases oxygen and hydrogen! This separation required electronic current to complete, and we were able to make it work with currents from both batteries OR our solar panel! After the oxygen and hydrogen were formed and stored in small tanks leading to a fuel cell, the students saw how the gases combined back into water, releasing electrons, which powered the car without any other energy source!

Recently, we've spent time each week debriefing service learning group work - what's been accomplished, what goals are coming up, and how best to accomplish those goals. I'm happy to report that all four groups now have meaningful work. The teams and projects are:

  • Team 1: Partnering with the non-profit homeschool co-op for a parking lot study, scale model creation, study of people movement through the system, and presentation of findings and graphics to the board. Students have already provided feedback on a short-term solution with a graphic showing new car and pedestrian zones.
  • Team 2: Innovation/invention group designing a wind tunnel that models shear forces. Planned use of the tunnel to model a vertical axis wind turbine. Potential for copyright/patent application.
  • Team 3: Partnering with Computers 4 Kids to design and teach a short class on Google SketchUp. C4K helps low-income students become technologically literate through project-based lessons and mentoring. Team Hedges may present their course to C4K staff, volunteers, or students.
  • Team 4: Partnering with the Culpeper Senior Center to increase technology resources available. Students have already done an assessment of the current computer technology available to seniors. Currently there are no networked computers and only 2 of 4 desktops are functioning. Seniors mostly play games like solitaire, if they use the computers at all. Studying ways to provide internet access to the computers and basic computer skills training to either Senior Center staff or seniors themselves. Training may be in hardware or software.
If anyone else is working in the field of STEM service learning in homeschooling, traditional schools or alterative ed, drop me a line! I'm especially eager to hear how and what other homeschooling co-op classes are doing with STEM.
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