By: Amy Hamilton, Technology/Engineering Teacher with the Polk County School Board of Florida
In my classroom, we always look for the next interesting thing to do. When you get stuck in the same routine, the students get frustrated. And when they get frustrated, guess who else gets frustrated? Instead, to keep us all sane, I make them see the world differently and offer them opportunities they won’t have in another class. If they get those opportunities, it keeps pushing them forward. I teach using hands-on STEM projects for middle schoolers that build skills in succession. We layer the skills on top of each other in a progressive program to teach STEM. In this way, we use multiple avenues to ensure every child has a path forward, even if it’s different from the established way.
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The Progressive Method for Teaching STEM Skills
With 6th, 7th, and 8th graders, this time spent on STEM is an investment into their futures, even if not every student becomes an engineer. I’m part of the STEM Academy, a progressive teaching program. Starting in 6th grade, it’s more of a basic “Intro to Technology” class. Students are learning about technology, what the technological world is, how to use proper tools, and tool safety. Sixth grade is a lot of asking, “What is the engineering design process?” and, “How do engineers think?” We work through problem-solving with hands-on projects like the National Egg League, building CO2 dragsters, and constructing bridges and towers.
In the 7th grade, we explore more deeply into engineering. We get into structural engineering. We get into bioengineering. We talk about developing prosthetics. We do green energy; we do solar. And, of course, we build in SolidWorks. SolidWorks is a common theme throughout the program because I prepare the students to move up. By the time they reach the 8th grade, they’re in an applied engineering high school course. Because we start so heavily with the basics, the 8th graders are more capable of solving problems independently.
In 8th grade, we are 100% in SolidWorks starting in August. SolidWorks training is our meat and potatoes leading up to January because that’s when we go for industry certification. They take their certified SolidWorks Associate Exam. On average, I have ten or more kids who pass every year – that means over 150 students have passed the exam since 2012! At the end of the 8th grade, they get their engineering projects. They get engineering problems and have to create solutions in SolidWorks. Then they get to 3D print those prototypes and test them. The best part is that they are developing solutions to their own problems – not the standard problems that may not apply to a student’s life. For example, I have one student who saw a phone stand and charging device he wanted to get for his father, but it was too expensive. So, he developed and designed a similar product for his engineering project. This connects STEM with real-world problems for the students – leading to deeper engagement and skills development.
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Building in Succession: STEM Projects for Middle Schoolers
My goal has always been progression, and the best way to do that is through change. As an educator, I’m always changing. Every year, we might tweak the curriculum or do a different project than the year before. When I first started, it wasn’t that way – we had all three grades in the same class. All had one curriculum, and all grades worked with a very simple STEM kit. But we would have situations where a 6th grader would get the same curriculum in 7th grade if put in the same Intro to Tech class.
So now, every year, it’s different. And the kit has evolved, too. In our STEM education for middle schoolers, we’ve added SolidWorks; we’ve added Infento. We are able to tie in multiple strands of STEM teaching on top of each other. I’ll often have a student come through whose sibling took my class, and the kid will say, “How come you didn’t do it that way with her?” Because I have changed what I am doing – because we are working on progression. It took me a while to get administration and guidance and everybody else to understand that with these kinds of programs, progression is better than just throwing a bunch of kids in a room.
But, of course, it’s always about more than just engineering. I am teaching students a thought process through STEM education. I am teaching hands-on skills. If all a student learns in my class is how to handle tools safely, they’re golden. Because, in reality, they’re learning much more than that. Can students work in a team, or do I have to move or maneuver constantly? Can they come up with solutions to a problem? Those are skills that translate to anything.
I encourage students to find vocational skills that are there for them, whether they are going to college or not. I encourage them to find something that’s not just a job but a career – something they love and are passionate about. You never want to have a job you dread going to. I have had a full range. Some students go into engineering, and some get involved in social media marketing, but they all benefit from the leadership skills and creative thinking they learned in my class through STEM education.
Some students are coming into my class and going from learning how to read a ruler to how to cut with a bandsaw. At first, they are timid and nervous, but once they get done, they’ll look at me and say, “That was cool. That wasn’t so bad.” These simple things that we are teaching are life skills. They give the students confidence and make them feel powerful because of what they can accomplish.
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