Posts Tagged ‘1.3’

STEM: Bringing Engineering into the Science Classroom

Wednesday, May 18th, 2016

AUTHOR: Shawna Wiebusch, Secondary Science Education Specialist

Science courses are often grouped into the category of STEM, including in the STEM endorsement for graduation from Texas public schools. Science teachers attest to the value of math in the field of science and many have embraced the accuracy, precision, and increased student engagement that technology brings to the classroom. However, science teachers often hesitate when asked how they incorporate engineering into their classrooms. While our content based TEKS get most of the focus, our process standards are often an afterthought in planning. Through the lens of engineering design, teachers can integrate the teaching of process standards and content standards.

The engineering design process consists of a series of steps that can be thought of as a cycle. Depending on your source, there are approximately 7 steps. From the Teach Engineering website the steps are as follows:

1) Ask – Identify the need and constraints

2) Research the problem

3) Imagine: Develop possible solutions

4) Plan: Select a Promising solution

5) Create: Build a prototype

6) Test and Evaluate prototype

7) Improve: Redesign as needed

In a science classroom, these steps lead students to use the content they are expected to learn to solve a problem. A physics teacher might ask their students to design and model a house that uses series and parallel circuits to light 4 rooms with a specific current and voltage. A biology teacher might ask their students to determine what barriers a cell would have to overcome in order to duplicate itself successfully and come up with potential solutions to those barriers (and in the process, teach the concept of mitosis). An 8th grade teacher might ask students to determine the causes of and potential solutions for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. In each of the examples listed above, students should also communicate their designs to their peers and use feedback in order to improve their initial models.

So now that you’ve seen a few examples, let’s explore exactly how the science process TEKS fit into the engineering design process.

In elementary school, students are expected to propose solutions to problems in Kindergarten through third grade (K.3A, 1.3A, 2.3A, 3.2A). This is the foundation of the engineering process and needs to be emphasized in the younger grades so that those skills are developed and practiced throughout a child’s education.

At every grade level, at least one student expectation touches on the use of models. In 7th grade, students are expected to “use models to represent aspects of the natural world…” (7.3b) and “identify advantages and disadvantages of models such as size, scale, properties, and materials” (7.3c). In the engineering design process, prototypes are the models. Students can use models to test out their ideas and explain them to other students and to the teacher. The important part of this is that the students are making and using the models more than the teachers.

At all grade levels, students are expected to “communicate valid results”. From third grade on, they are expected to “critique scientific explanations”. In Engineering Design, this falls under Test and Evaluate the prototype. Part of the evaluation comes from peer review. Students need the opportunity to bounce their ideas off of each other before being graded on them. The peer review process gives students that chance. Not only will they come away with ideas on how to improve their own models and ideas, but they will have practice in the art of constructive criticism and analyzing the work of others.

These are just a few places where the Science process standards overlap with principles behind Engineering Design. Engineering doesn’t have to be its own unit. It can be easily embedded in the work we already do with students and will give them opportunities to take ownership of their own learning.


Engineering Design Process. (n.d.). Retrieved April 07, 2016, from


Observing Best Practices in a Mathematics Classroom

Wednesday, May 18th, 2016

AUTHOR: Virginia Keasler, Secondary Math Specialist

Walking into a math classroom, an observer of the lesson may view many modes of instruction. The list may include:

  • Teacher shows students step by step problem solving and expects students to do problems in the way they are instructed
  • Students sitting quietly in rows
  • Students rotating around stations exploring challenging problems
  • Students are working on a problem together in groups, some individually, not necessarily doing exactly the same thing
  • Students engaged in critical thinking
  • A few students working at the board while others watch
  • Students who have completed their work and are waiting for the next problem
  • Teacher asking probing questions about the way students are attempting to answer questions

Generally you may see one or both of the two prevalent approaches to mathematics instruction. In the more traditional approach of instruction, skills-based, teachers may focus on how to solve the problem, show that problem solving strategy, and then require the students to quickly repeat that strategy. This method focuses on developing computational skills.

In concepts-based instruction, teachers have students solve a problem in a way that makes sense to them and then explain how they solved their problem. This method helps students be aware that there is more than one way to solve a problem.

You may be trying to decide what is the best way, but most researchers (e.g., Grouws, 2004) agree that both approaches are important, that teachers should strive for procedural fluency that is grounded in conceptual understanding.

There are three critical components to effective mathematics instruction (Shellard & Moyer, 2002):

  • Teaching for conceptual understanding
  • Developing procedural literacy
  • Promoting strategic competence through meaningful problem-solving investigations.

In an effective classroom an observer may see the teacher

  • Accepting students solutions to challenging problem which includes their explanation how they found their solution and the reason they chose to try their method.
  • Posing interesting questions to students to spur their interest in the problem.
  • Encouraging students to see that problems are challenging and that you sometimes have to search more than one method to find the answer.  
  • Instilling the belief that the goal of answering the question is attainable and worthwhile and can even be “cool”.  

In an effective classroom an observer may see the student

  • Solving the problem themselves and not just “mimicking” the procedure shown to them by others.
  • Challenging themselves to investigate a meaningful question.
  • Sharing their ideas with each other and as a group
  • Using various ways to show their work
  • Conducting an experiment by analysing data and coming to a conclusion
  • Are using calculators where appropriate
  • Using manipulatives to engage in problem solving to help form a concrete understanding of the concept where needed.

The National Center for Educational Achievement (NCEA, 2009) examined higher performing schools in five states (California, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Texas) and determined that in terms of instructional strategies, higher performing middle and high schools use mathematical instructional strategies that include classroom activities which:

  • Have a high level of student engagement
  • Demand higher-order thinking
  • Follow an inquiry-based model of instruction – including a combination of cooperative learning, direct instruction, labs or hands-on investigations, and manipulatives
  • Connect to students’ prior knowledge to make meaningful real-world applications
  • Integrate literacy activities into the courses – including content-based reading strategies and academic vocabulary development

Additionally, NCEA researchers found that it was important for teachers to create classrooms that foster an environment where students “feel safe trying to answer questions, make presentations, and do experiments, even if they make a mistake” (p. 24).

In summary, while both methods are important, teachers must reach students where they are and in the method that works best for each of their students.  While procedural learning is important to learn math facts and algorithms, students still need to be challenged, allowed to learn by exploring, and encouraged to keep trying knowing that math is meaningful and a huge part of the environment around us everyday.


The Education Alliance. (2006). Closing the Achievement Gap: Best Practices in Teaching Mathematics. Charleston, WV: The Education Alliance.

Grouws, D. (2004). “Chapter 7: Mathematics.” In Cawelti, G, ed., Handbook of Research on Improving Student Achievement. Arlington, VA: Educational Research Service.

National Center for Educational Achievement. (2009). Core Practices in Math and Science: An Investigation of Consistently Higher Performing Schools in Five States.  Austin, TX: National Center for Educational Achievement.

Shellard, E. & Moyer, P.S. (2002). What Principals Need to Know about Teaching Math. Alexandria, VA: National Association of Elementary School Principals and Education Research Service.

How to Create an Anchor Activity Using a Tic/Tac/Toe Board

Thursday, February 25th, 2016

AUTHOR: Virginia Keasler and Mary Headley, Math Specialists

How do we teach math to the wide range of diverse learners in today’s classroom? It is often difficult to match the readiness levels of every student and knowing where to start can be a challenge. Consider starting simple and celebrating successes along the way. Anchor activities can help you reach the diverse population in your classroom.

What are anchor activities? These activities are used for students to extend learning at their level. Student choice within these activities allows for students to apply and experience the learning in a variety of ways.These ongoing assignments are considered independent work and can be something students are working on for the next two weeks or something due in a few days. While some students are working on anchor activities, the teacher can utilize small group instruction to work with students who need more help.

Tic/Tac/Toe Boards: The content for this anchor activity can be modified to meet the needs of students at varied levels. Teachers may use Tic/Tac/Toe boards for extension, assessment, or as homework choices for the week. On a Tic/Tac/Toe board, the teacher can strategically place activities to enable students to get a Tic/Tac/Toe that demonstrates their learning.

Helpful Hints for creating a Tic/Tac/Toe board:

  1. Determine the content/topic for the board.
  2. Brainstorm activities, assignments, and products for the content/unit you have chosen.
  3. Check TEKS alignment.
  4. Write ideas on post-it notes.
  5. Sort activities based on learning styles (verbal, auditory, kinesthetic, etc…)
  6. Place post-it notes on the Tic/Tac/Toe grid.
  7. Check the configuration for variety to achieve a Tic/Tac/Toe. Move as needed.
  8. Type idea onto the Tic/Tac/Toe grid.

The following table gives an example of a Tic/Tac/Toe board for reviewing a math unit:

Explain the math steps that you would use to solve a problem from this unit Solve two of the problems in the “extensions” station Using the “beat” of a popular song create your own math song. See the choice board station for rules
Create two word problems that go with the concepts in this unit Student Choice Activity (with teacher approval) Define the unit’s vocabulary words with your own form of graffiti
Complete one mini-project from the project board Develop a game using skills you have learned in this unit Research and write how these concepts might be used in the real world


  • Allow student to complete any three tasks–even if it does not make a Tic/Tac/Toe
  • Assigns students task based on readiness
  • Create different choice boards based on readiness (Struggling students work with options on one choice board while more advanced students have different options.)
  • Create choice board options based on learning styles or learning preferences. For example a choice board could include three kinesthetic tasks, three auditory tasks, three visual tasks.

Author Rick Wormeli offers the following Tic/Tac/Toe board based on Gardner’s (1991) multiple intelligences.

Interpersonal Task Kinesthetic Task Naturalist Task
Logical Task Student Choice Intrapersonal Task
Interpersonal Verbal Task Musical Task Verbal Task

To access a blank choice board to use in your classroom click on the following link: Blank Choice Board


Wormeli, Rick. Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessing & Grading in the Differentiated Classroom. Portland, ME: Stenhourse 2006, pages 65-66