With all the pandemic protocols, teachers might say that this school year has been a real challenge. But some STEM teachers in Ohio are taking on a specific challenge, asking their students to reimagine energy production and/or consumption to improve their community. It’s the Ohio STEM Learning Network’s #STEMpowersOhio Design & Entrepreneurship Challenge and it asks students to explore the topic of energy. Julie Hunter, sixth-grade science instructor at Bio-Med Science Academy STEM School in northeastern Ohio’s Portage County, is tackling the challenge with her students. She shared some information about her school and how her students are working on this project:
Q: Tell us about your school and the curriculum you offer. What makes your school unique among STEM schools, and are you instructing students in-person, virtually, or in a hybrid model this school year?
A: Bio-Med Science Academy is an innovative, progressive, year-round public STEM school that prepares students to succeed in the global economy. The academy opened in Rootstown, Ohio, in August 2012, serving students in grades 9-12, and received formal STEM designation in April 2013.
Currently, Bio-Med Science Academy serves 958 students and is located on three campuses in Portage County. The Rootstown campus, which is at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, is the only public STEM school in the nation housed on an academic health center campus and is one of the few STEM schools in a rural area.
The academy as a whole continues to grow, and, during the past several years, has incorporated additional grade levels and now serves grades 2-12. The Shalersville campus teaches students in grades 2-4, and the Ravenna campus, where I’m on staff, instructs students in grades 5-6.
At all three locations, students gain exposure to various industries through speakers, internships, field experiences, and many hands-on, inquiry-based opportunities that prepare them for living and working in the real world. The result is an inquiry-based, individualized learning experience that positions students to succeed in many career fields.
The academy seeks not only to produce future mathematicians, engineers, doctors, and scientists but also works to incorporate agriculture, art, and humanities to create well-rounded members of society.
The academy’s curriculum follows best practices in problem/project-based learning, integration, mastery performance, restorative practices, and 21st-century skills. These models place the focus on learning, as teachers guide students to collaboratively work, applying knowledge and innovative solutions to problems.
Students develop 21st-century skills and competencies needed to excel in a range of professions – not just those in the sciences and math – and demonstrate academic achievement, curiosity, creativity, critical thinking, inventiveness, a strong sense of community, and readiness for their futures. We started the year with a month of virtual learning and then transitioned to a hybrid model of students attending alternating weeks, which continued until one week and one day before winter break. There are also some students attending only virtually. Upon our return from winter break, we had one virtual week and then resumed the hybrid schedule. The plan is for most students coming back in person beginning Feb. 1, 2021, with some students continuing to attend virtually.
Q: Why did you decide to participate in the OSLN Design Challenge on energy, and how does the topic fit in with your school’s philosophy? Have you/your students participated in previous Design Challenges, and what did you learn from that participation?
A: I decided to have students participate in the OSLN Design Challenge on energy because the overall challenge aligns with our school’s inquiry-based learning philosophy and vision for innovative student learning opportunities. Middle school students are naturally curious and look for ways to help the environment and improve their community and school.
The students have previously participated in small-group design challenges this year and last year, at varying degrees. They have had smaller opportunities to create solutions to problems. We have some new students this year in grades 5 and 6, and it is likely that this is the first time they are participating in a larger-scale design challenge that will possibly directly impact their community/school.
Q: How do you plan to narrow the topic to fit the needs of your students and your specific lesson plans?
A: In small-class-size groups, we have discussed the energy needs of the students in general and then have reviewed all the types of energy. The students have started to generate ideas based on the original OSLN Design Challenge big question. They are now choosing their best idea to begin creating a solution and have the option to work individually or in small groups.
Students will be given multiple opportunities to provide warm and cool feedback to one another to improve their overall solutions, encouraging our school attributes of personal agency, collaboration, sense of community, engaged learning, problem-solving, and innovation.
Q: What ages/grade levels of students will be working on the challenge and what do you hope to produce? How will you find time to work on the challenge?
A: Students in grades 5 and 6, with the approximate age range of 10-13 years old, will be working on the challenge, developing a sustainable energy solution for our school. Students are working on the challenge in science classes, and we plan to use some of our common flex time on Fridays to have the fifth- and sixth-graders provide feedback and share ideas on the project. Students will work on the project several days a week from January through April.
Q: How will you organize the tasks? Will this be assigned for points/grades, and what requirements will you have for prototypes?
A: The assignments are broken into smaller chunks, and we worked through basic energy concepts in small classes, creating a list of need-to-know items and questions we have about energy, and also completed basic brainstorms of ideas together in small classes via in-person groups and Zoom breakout groups, including a mix of both hybrid groups. Students will work either individually or in small groups to develop the ideas they previously brainstormed.
Students will be assessed on their final product, which will include components of the design process, Next Generation Science Standards, and school attributes, and will be assessed using mastery criteria.
Q: Will you have community/industry partners work with your students on this challenge?
A: We hope to have a guest speak about energy with the students and are exploring other possible opportunities for them to interact with experts in the field. We might also include local volunteers to share their experiences and expertise with the students.
Q: How will you display your students’ research, findings, and prototypes?
A: We will be unable to have an in-person showcase this year, so we plan to conduct a virtual showcase and might have short videos with the student presentations families can view at their leisure. As a building, we are working on ideas for the showcase to best fit our student and family needs.
Q: How will participation in the Design Challenge benefit your students?
A: I think participating in the Design Challenge provides students an opportunity to develop ideas using collaboration and constructive feedback, based on real desires they have to better their community/school. This will challenge their thinking and help them to develop their ideas using the design process.
The students will take pride in knowing that their ideas will be viewed by others and taken into consideration for future planning of our school. Many of them have already shared their excitement with me about participating in the Design Challenge.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to share about the Design Challenge?
A: Overall, this challenge is sparking new interest in our students, and we are seeing a renewed excitement about learning after a holiday break and a return to hybrid learning.