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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