The month of March at The New Century School is a big one for STEM subjects. From Math Kangaroo to the STEM Expo, TNCS students are steeped in STEM!
It’s important to note right off that, at TNCS, the STEM Expo is a demonstration of scientific rigor, not a competition. Participation in the Expo is required for all students in grades K through 8. So, on Friday March 10th, TNCS students unveiled the projects they had been working on for several weeks for a packed house of attending families.
Scientific Method vs. Engineering Design Process
But let’s start from the beginning: developing their ideas. “For the younger grades, first we reviewed the differences between the scientific method and the engineering design process in an effort to help students better understand what makes a meaningful project,” explained TNCS science teacher Rob Brosius (“Mr. B.”). “We included in this discussion the nature of testable/measurable questions and the importance of isolating variables. For example, you can’t question which cookie tastes the best because you can’t generate numbers about that—it’s subjective.”
Even though middle schoolers were able to start right away, having learned this part already, a big part of Mr. B.’s job at this stage for all students is moderating expectations. Wanting his students to succeed (and to learn!) and work on a project they are really interested in, he gave the younger students a bunch of testable questions and asked them to choose a handful that attracted their interest. From there, they went on the Science Buddies website to search for a project that matched up with their question. Once a project was identified, Mr. B. helped students adapt it if necessary (e.g., if it was a little too complicated) in such a way that allowed them to work independently.
The next step in the process was listing and assembling materials. The TNCS science inventory is well stocked, and Mr. B. was also able to order needed supplies. “We try to reduce the amount of help given by families in an effort to help students feel more accomplished/confident and develop a better sense of independence,” he said. “This is an exciting time of the year for our students and the science program. We hope to help them explore their passions as they relate to scientific exploration.”
Robots, Drones, and … Kitty Litter?
Student projects ran the gamut, from building robots that moved in a straight line or spun in circles, to drones, to testing which kitty litter was most absorbent. (Surprise, surprise—it’s Target’s Up and Up brand!) “A lot of the younger students gravitated toward nature and chemistry, so we had some plants and animals and moldy bread projects,” said Mr. B. Moldy bread is, of course, a classic.
Older students, he explained, tend to have grander ideas that might not be entirely realistic to complete in the timeframe, so his goal there is to help them gain the knowledge that they would actually need to be successful. One student wanted to build an artificial pancreas, for example, recognizing that it was something that people would want to use. Mr. B. modified it so it was more on her level and has hopes she might return to it next year with increased knowledge and readiness. “That’s something I try to evaluate: ‘are there students who had projects they wanted to do but didn’t get to do?’ Because I can help them get ready to do it for the following year. At the end of the quarter, we put all the projects into a spreadsheet to keep track of what students do every year,” he said.
Science for Good
Although TNCS does not judge the projects, the requirements are similar to those of a standard science fair. Mr. B.’s goal with the STEM Expo for the younger students is to make sure they understand the scientific method and the engineering design process. For the older students, he encourages them to compete in external regional competitions that require increased dedication and attention to detail. And, even though no project was “judged,” a couple stood out for how well they fulfilled the project requirements. “One was from a student in the 2/3 class looking at whether the color of light affected the growth rate of mustard plants. The student put the seeds very carefully in a grid on wet paper towels, put colored cellophane over each, placed them all in plastic bags, and then left them in the sun to see what the germination rate would be and how much the stems would grow. She did all the research herself and to a standard I would consider 4/5 grade level,” he said, ” because it shows that she really understands the process as a whole and realizes that research is what leads you to any great science project.”
Another standout was from a middle schooler who wanted to make more eco-friendly, biodegradable ink. Mr. B. appreciated that project because it can be improved on through repeat testing.
I enjoy seeing students find projects that are practical and can actually solve or try to solve a real-world problem. That’s the epitome of a good science project: it’s something that if you presented this information to people they could replicate it and use it to help others or help themselves. Scientific exploration is very much about solving problems. We hope that by the end of this process students will feel a greater sense of community and a responsibility to help others. The goal is to help students become increasingly rooted in humanity, grounded in their intent, and focused in their dedication.
Feeling nostalgic for STEM? Visit past TNCS expos and science fairs below!
- 2022: March Madness at TNCS: In Like a Tiger, Out in a Blaze of Glory!
- 2021: TNCS March Madness Continues: Mad Scientists!
- 2020: Just kidding.
- 2019: TNCS March Madness: Science Fair 2019!
- 2018: TNCS March Madness 2018!
- 2017: March STEAM Madness Continues: 2017 STEM Fair!
- 2016: TNCS Science Fair 2016: It Al Starts with a Good Question!
- 2015: TNCS STEM Fair 2015 Makes a Huge Splash!
- 2014: TNCS Elementary Science Fair 2014!
- 2013: Elementary Science Fair!