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Why is STEM Important to Physics?

Dave Doucette, OAPT Vice-President

Lisa Lim-Cole OAPT Past President

A recent OAPT Newsletter article from John Caranci laments the fact that over the past decade, despite an increase in the total number of Ontario grade 12 physics credits, the percentage of females has remained at around 31%. John insightfully suggests looking at elementary education and we agree. But to better understand the challenge we need to have a good understanding of the shifting landscape in elementary education. The inquiry-based learning approach which anchors the curriculum is now being stressed by a newcomer to the field: STEM education. The good news is that STEM and inquiry are totally complementary — and both require habits of mind exemplified by physics instruction. If we work together to support K-8 educators in successfully marrying inquiry with STEM education, we are likely to see far more students selecting secondary physics course, including more females. A worthy goal!

How are STEM and Inquiry related?
The general intent of inquiry learning is to help students understand how knowledge is acquired, and to construct some (not all) of that knowledge — as opposed to memorizing end results.

In Ontario the Ministry of Education Science & Technology, 2007 document describes scientific inquiry as “students engage in activities that allow them to develop knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas in much the same way as scientists would.” (p12).

One methodology is hypothesis testing, a method of selecting two variables of interest and creating an experimental method to investigate their relationship. An example of this could be planting seeds in soils of varying salt content to see if the amount of salt affects the number of seeds which successfully germinate. This inquiry approach trains habits of mind such as interpreting and arguing based on evidence as well as the skills necessary to identify and isolate variables in a real-life science application. Countless Canadian teachers utilize the extensive Smarter Science resource packages — founded by Mike Newnham — to nurture these habits.

A second methodology is the development of mental models. In this pursuit, scientists utilize a range of skills which are not as easily delineated as hypothesis testing. From direct observations, reading and research, deconstructing existing models (eg. the atom, cell theory, evolution), discussions with peers, and inspired reflection, scientists create ideas to formulate new models and extend — or even refute — current models. In the US these methods crystallized in the Modeling Instruction in High School Physics Project at Arizona State University. Intended for university and high school physics instruction, it is now working its way into middle schools.

Inquiry learning incorporates both hypothesis testing and constructing mental models as complementary processes to acquire knowledge. Knowledge can be for knowledge’s sake and need not be purposed to solving a problem, sometimes referred to as “pure science”. STEM is somewhat more restrictive, seeking knowledge to solve problems or tackle specific challenges. In this sense, inquiry is broader in scope.

STEM, on the other hand, requires a purposeful integration of science, technology and mathematics with the engineering activity or challenge as the ‘glue’ which binds the context to enable learning to occur. In this sense, STEM is further reaching than inquiry in insisting that activities deliberately integrate science, technology and mathematics. This may happen incidentally in inquiry learning, but it is purposeful in STEM. Despite these small differences, STEM and inquiry are mutually supportive. Both seek to move students along the continuum from consumers of knowledge to producers of knowledge.

An Example of STEM and Inquiry
At the recent 2016 STAO conference, Lisa Lim-Cole and I put a collection of teachers through a sample activity, to give them a student’s perspective of the STEM experience. The students need to deliver a small amount of RADIOACTIVE salt from its safe container on a table to a safe container on the floor, using a coffee filter as a parachute-delivery system. The video below will help you visualize the challenge:

An engineering challenge requires constraints, which are chosen as appropriate to the age group and class dynamics. They can also be modified as per IEP requirements. For our ‘class’ of teachers we specified these constraints:

  • Coffee filters may be stacked, but the same stack will be used for successive trials.
  • The cups and coffee filters containing the radioactive* salt may not be handled by hand. [*the salt is not radioactive, but it is a constraint needed to justify the use of tools.]
  • An assortment of materials will be provided to serve as tools to allow for the transfer of sand from cup to filter and back to cup (assortment of coffee filter sizes, strings, elastic bands, tape, stick pins, paper clips, pipe cleaners, wooden sticks, other).
  • Trials resulting in spilled sand will be forfeit and the sands collected in a waste container (You can use your hands for this — for convenience!).
  • If coffee filters become damaged, they can be replaced.
Teachers could simplify these constraints depending on the class. For example the use of tools for transferring salt could be ignored and students could be allowed to pour the sand from cup to filter and back to cup. The constraints are up to the teacher, or even the class, to decide on the level of challenge.

We gave our workshop teachers a scant 10 minutes to conduct trials. Completely insufficient but enough to experience the collaborative procedure of pre-planning, referred to as initiate and plan in both inquiry and engineering processes. They had another 15 minutes to test out their model and see how their expectations matched reality. The intentionally short period did not allow groups to complete all of the salt transfer process but it did result in a lot of high-fives and some very excited whooping. All agreed it was a simple but engaging activity and they were invested in seeing how well their ideas would work. Each of the several groups came up with a unique solution, providing stimulating teaching moments for Lisa and I as we circulated.

How is this an Inquiry Lesson?
The Ontario Science & Technology curriculum inquiry process, in its simplest form, follows 4 stages, each stage identifying sub-skills:

initiate & plan → perform and record → analyze and interpret → communicate

To aid students in developing sub-skills (identified in the Ministry document, p13-18) within the four steps, assign roles to individuals. If they are in groups of four, each one could be responsible for organizing and reporting on one of the four stages. Naturally these roles would rotate with subsequent inquiry activities, allowing for a full range of habits of mind to be nurtured.

In stage 1, initiating & planning, they test out various size coffee filter ‘parachutes’ to determine how their flight characteristics are affected by stacking the filters and by the addition and placement of sand. The faster a parachute falls, the quicker the transfer process but the greater the chance that the salt will spill upon landing. In phase 2, perform and record, they collaborate on a prototype delivery system which can maximize efficiency and minimize spillage. They can also be asked to predict how many trials they will require in the test phase and how much time the salt transfer process will take in total. In stage 3, analyze and interpret, they collect their data and compare with their predictions and/or with groups following the activity. Lastly they are asked to report on their process, success and in stage 4, communicate these results.

These four stages parallel the Engineering Design Process, a series of steps to design a prototype which meets certain criteria and performs a task. To that end, the engineering design process can be seen as the application of the broader inquiry process to solving a specific problem or challenge. That does not give priority to inquiry or engineering design but positions them as complementary tools to foster innovative thinking.

How is this a STEM Lesson?
It is easy to see the E (engineering) in this lesson, but how do you articulate the science, technology and mathematics linkages to ensure it is truly integrated across disciplines? For that, it is helpful to examine the expectations of Science & Technology and Mathematics documents. For example, the grade 7 Mathematics strands include Patterning and Algebra, to wit:

  • Represent linear growing patterns using concrete materials, graphs, and algebraic expressions.
  • Model real-life linear relationships graphically and algebraically, and solve simple algebraic equations using a variety of strategies, including inspection and guess and check.
Below are a series of follow-up questions to illustrate how these expectations could be addressed to fit this specific activity:

You are given a task to transport 500 g of salt via coffee filter parachutes from your desktop to the floor. Your engineering team decides you can transport 25 g of salt in each parachute drop.

  1. If no salt is spilled, how many parachute trips will this take. Explain your reasoning.
  2. If each parachute trip required 30 seconds to load, deliver and unload, how long would it take until the final salt delivery is unloaded? Explain your reasoning.
  3. If 20% of the parachute trips result in spilled salt, how many trips in total would be required to deliver 500 g of unspilled salt? Explain your reasoning.
  4. If each parachute trip required 30 s to load, deliver and unload, but 20% of the parachute trips result in spilled salt, how long would it take until the final 500g of salt is unloaded? Explain your reasoning.
  5. Make a graph where the Y-axis shows the amount of salt delivered while the x-axis shows the number of trials.
  6. On the graph above, show how the graph line would appear if, at the beginning, 200 g of salt had already been delivered, before the parachute drops started. How is the graph shape similar to (v)? How is it different? Does that make sense? Explain.
For a Science & Technology link, this activity connects to grade 5 Conservation of Energy and Resources, grade 6 Flight, grade 7 & 8 Understanding Structures & Mechanisms and grade 8 Understanding Matter and Energy: Fluids. Referencing the expectations will permit robust linkages.

For literacy, expectations for the Language strands of oral communication, reading, writing and media literacy could be tapped to suggest a host of literary or graphic communication tools following the activity — such as a television news report, an article, a social media post, or a virtual poster display.

Lisa and I hope we have made the compatibility of STEM and inquiry clear. STEM builds upon habits of mind developed in inquiry, applying them in steps to solve a problem. In the process mathematics, science and technology are transparently integrated into the learning cycle. This makes for greater coherence for students and should lower perceived subject barriers. As students progress along the kindergarten to post-secondary learning continuum, they can understand the necessity of discreet subject areas to manage the vast amount of material. At the same time they should remain convinced of the necessity for integrative thinking to tackle real-life problems.

What can I do as a physics teacher to help?
Look to your feeder schools to see if they are developing a STEM program, or seeking to expand inquiry for Science & Technology. Offer to provide support. It may be as simple as providing a class set of masses for a STEM activity. If you are comfortable, offer to deliver a small PD session to model the learning program, in much the same way as this article. Of course, first speak to your department head, board consultant or administration team to gain their support. They may be aware of initiatives which would provide materials and/or coverage support, such as Board transition programs.

If seeking resources, let us suggest two websites which offer free resources for the STEM classroom, with a clear engineering design process emphasis:

  • http://wemadeit.ca/teachers/ This Ontario site, sponsored by Hydro One, provides 12 complete lessons based on the Ontario curriculum, for grade 7-9 teachers, with downloadable support materials in handy PDFs. Though the target audience is intermediate-senior, the resources can easily be modified for K-6.
  • http://www.eie.org/ This site, Engineering is Elementary, is sponsored by the Museum of Science, Boston. It has a wealth of resources for educators and the public. In particular, they have a video collection which includes full-class lessons, effective classroom practices, engineering moments, and video snippets. The snippets are highly recommended for a quick peek into a STEM classroom with a clear lens on related habits of mind. For a selection of science topics, check out http://www.eie.org/eie-curriculum.
Solid STEM-based inquiry activities inherently engage the vast majority of students — and teachers! Once their interest is engaged, we can engage their hearts and minds. Empowering a wide swath of K-8 students with solid scientific habits of mind and an interest in solving issues (STSE) can reasonably be expected to direct more students, especially females, to selecting pathways to STEM and engineering. The gateway subject is physics. We can help move this forward, as John Caranci advises, by directing support to the elementary panel. Your support will be reciprocated as our elementary colleagues are expert in subject integration — the roots of STEM. That also may be worth a mention when seeking administrative support. Thanks, John, for your timely suggestion.
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