Posts Tagged ‘critical thinking’

Making STEM-Centered Makerspaces Work

Monday, April 20th, 2015

Authors: Patrick Waters, M.Ed., Professional Educator, Mentor for The Monarch School, Texas

Grant Kessler, Ph.D., Education Specialist: STEM, Transformation Central Texas STEM Center

For much of our country’s history, innovation has driven our economic prosperity. Innovations in science and technology, such as the mastery of flight, the refinement of the assembly line, the disruptive forces of computers and software platforms, have been an economic growth engine. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education has been the fuel that drives this engine and will continue to drive our nation forward. Recently, the Texas Legislature has passed House Bill 5 (HB 5), which revamped graduation requirements and brought a greater focus and opportunity for students to engage with STEM education; HB 5 established a credit-based graduation plan which allows students to earn endorsements in STEM, Business and Industry, Public Service, Arts and Humanities, or Multidisciplinary studies. Local school districts have flexibility to provide students with innovative academic electives that are aligned with each endorsement area.


These changes pave the way for greater student access and exposure to STEM topics. The potential of STEM education cannot be overstated, as its impact on students extends from developing collaboration skills, promoting analytical and critical thinking, and fostering creativity to providing pathways to economic prosperity. STEM education can benefit all students, of all learning abilities, at all levels, from all socioeconomic backgrounds, in a substantial way. Our students need access and exposure to STEM curricula and topics in order to reap those benefits.


A number of models for STEM education exist today, from stand-alone courses (e.g., Biology and Algebra) to more integrated approaches such as applied engineering in high school. A new perspective has emerged in the last few years aimed at expanded access to meaningful STEM curriculum to include all grade levels and student readiness groups.


Maker Education is an education approach that positions the student as an innovator with the responsibility to find solutions to relevant problems. The approach integrates the breadth of STEM fields and emphasizes student agency through exploration, communication and collaboration. The Maker student learns content within an authentic context that requires communication, collaboration, research, design, modeling, tinkering, and prototyping. The Maker teacher designs the learning context and facilitates the process so that students acquire specific content-area skills throughout the learning experience. For example, a student might learn geometric angles through building craft objects from wood. Maker Education combines elements of Problem Based Learning (PBL) and STEM education with an emphasis on the creative elements inherent in science, mathematics and engineering.


Maker Education places a premium on the balance between exploration and execution. Small projects lend themselves to indefinite tinkering and fiddling, while larger projects need complex, coordinated planning. Often, small projects can organically grow into larger and larger projects. This deliberate process strengthens and enriches a learner’s executive functioning skills. Additionally, communication and collaboration are two of Maker Ed’s fundamental values, enabled through Makerspaces.


Makerspaces allow learners to practice their social communication skills in a variety of groupings, whether affinity-based or role-specified and teacher-assigned. Lastly, Makerspaces present unique opportunities to generate flow learning and allow the teacher to leverage high-interest projects and activities into learning objectives. Makerspaces allow an educator to differentiate based on affinity, ability, and process because of the flexibility of the model.


There are currently three main models of Makerspaces (and Maker Education) in the educational sphere. Classroom-integrated models are small spaces inside a typical school classroom dedicated to making, much like a block-center in a kindergarten classroom. This type of Makerspace models making as an integrated part of life and allows the classroom teacher to deliberately choose the materials, projects, and time commitment which work best for his or her room. The Resource model works in much the opposite way. The Makerspace is housed in a central location, often a library but sometimes its own room, and the classroom teacher can use it as an educational resource for collaboration, curriculum enrichment and high-interest activities. Alternatively, some schools create Makerspaces with specifically designed Maker Education courses. This approach can offer the benefits of the previous models as well as deliver a Maker-centered, STEM-focused curriculum.


In all cases, Makerspaces are site-specific, deliberately designed, flexible environments for student Makers to practice their skills. For younger students, one might take the form of an activity center with interesting materials and a selection of safe tools. For older students, a school might invest in an entire classroom setting. Teachers can use Maker projects to incorporate certain TEKS standards or individualize Making for a student to achieve the student’s personal education goals. Makerspaces can be oriented towards:

  • Design: CAD (computer-aided design) and the graphic arts
  • Rapid Prototyping: CNC (computer numerical control) machines, 3D Printing, Laser Cutting, Vinyl Cutting
  • Testing: Motion Capture, Video, Measurement, Mathematical Modeling
  • Communication: Blogging, Assistive Technology, Video Editing, Photography/Video
  • Computer Programming
  • Physical Computing: Robotics , Microcontrollers, Electronics
  • Craft: Woodworking, Cardboard, Textiles, Metalworking, Leather craft, Jewelry


A Makerspace can focus on certain aspects of making – for example, rapid prototyping – and then can look into a range of tool options. In rapid prototyping, a 3D printer might be an appropriate measure for older elementary and middle school students, whereas a CNC router would be appropriate for older students. Laser cutters and vinyl cutters operate in a 2D world, whereas a 3D printer creates objects in three dimensions. Educators can scale their tools to fit the needs and educational journeys of their learners.


An educator must always be aware of safety considerations when working with tools and materials. While Makerspaces allow for great opportunities, they also present safety challenges. Students should be “checked out” on individual tools, from basic devices like glue guns to the potentially hazardous like powered saws.


Making STEM1


In the STEAMworks, a Houston, Texas Makerspace designed for students with neurological differences, tool use builds on itself, and a student can’t move up the ladder to more powerful tools until he or she masters the simpler tools. Having multiple tools allows for multiple avenues of success, all based on a student’s developmental readiness. For example, a hand-held coping saw, a powered scroll saw, and a laser cutter can all cut designs into thin plywood. Using a coping saw might be appropriate for a younger student, while an older student may use the scroll saw or a student with physical challenges might use the laser cutter.


Hands-on tools, such as the coping saw, are the best for students thinking in concrete terms, while technology-driven tools, such as laser cutters or 3D printers, promote abstract thinking. Choose your Makerspace’s tools and capabilities to promote appropriate learning objectives. A Makerspace provides a wide continuum of capabilities and projects to engage the variety of students it serves.


Engineering your room design to take into account all students can be the difference between a welcoming class space and a scary class space. For example, students with neurological differences prefer limited visual distractions. Busy visuals and bulletin boards distract and confuse: stick to safety posters with both text and visuals. Visual cues — such as labels for classroom supplies, stuff storage, etc. — will help to ground students. Break zones — quiet, comfortable spaces — give students a place to calm and center themselves until they’re ready to re-enter the busy academic world. Noise and odor pollution can quickly turn a vibrant workshop into an uncomfortable space. Hearing protection must be offered, and fumes from paints, solvents, and plastics should be minimized.


While the term Maker Education might be new, Making has a long pedagogical history. Educators like John Dewey and Maria Montessori recognized the importance of student choice; interesting, concrete materials; and engaging projects. In modern terms, constructivism and project-based learning provide evidence-based research that Maker Education makes a positive impact on our learners.


Maker Education is positioned to drive student learning, ownership and engagement through the integration of new technological innovations and intentional development of 21st century skills. Not only does Maker Education artfully support essential learning objectives, it also aligns student experiences with the community’s economic interests in preparing them for technology oriented employment, further education, and workplace innovation.


If you wish to learn more about Maker Education in action, Patrick Waters can be found Making online at and @woodshopcowboy on Twitter.

For resources, strategic planning and implementation support, contact Grant Kessler ( at Region 13 Transformation Central Texas STEM Center.


Resources:, The Makerspace Playbook, High School Makerspace Tools & Materials

NYSCI, A Blueprint: Maker Programs for Youth

ALA, Making in the Library Toolkit, Maker Club Playbook

JISC, Designing spaces for effective learning

Invent to Learn by Sylvia Libow Martinez & Gary Stager

The Art of Tinkering by Karen Wilkinson & Mike Petrich

Tinkering by Curt Gabrielson

The Makerspace Workbench by Adam Kemp &

#makered & #STEM on Twitter

Three Easy Steps to Teaching Your Students Through the CER Writing Process

Friday, September 26th, 2014

Author: Shawna Wiebusch, Education Specialist, Secondary Science

What can you learn from a ShamWow commercial? As it turns out, a lot!

Image from

The ShamWow Commercial is the perfect “hook” to introduce your students to evidence based argumentation using the C-E-R Method: Claims – Evidence – Reasoning.

Many of our students, especially in middle school, come to us with a mindset that “Science is hard.”  Using a fun, lighthearted, science-lite infomercial to introduce a systematic way of scientific writing eases students into the process.

How does it work? (Not the ShamWow – CER!)  Here’s how I introduced it to my students:

1.  Show this infomercial to your students and have them answer the question “What does Vince want to convince you is true?”

After the infomercial, solicit and record your students’ answers.  Then introduce the term “Claim.” Make the connection that what the announcer wants us to believe about the ShamWow is his claim.

2.  Ask students: “What data does the announcer give to convince you that the ShamWow is as cool as he claims?”

For Example:

  • “Sham wow holds 20 times its weight in liquid”
  • Lasts 10 years and will be cheaper than paper towels over time
  • Will soak up 50%  of wine, coffee, cola out of carpet without pressure

Introduce the term “Evidence” – the facts that are used to convince you that the claim is true.

3.  The final part is to connect the Evidence back to the Claim.

Ask your students “WHY does the Sham wow hold up to 20 times its weight in liquid?”  Tell them about microfibers and ask why something made with microfibers would absorb liquids better.

Ask your students WHY the ShamWow would be a better deal than paper towels over time.

Introduce the term “Reasoning” – the principle behind the evidence.  HOW does the evidence support the claim?   In our science classes, the students need to be able to explain the scientific principle behind the labs and activities they are doing.  This is the reasoning!

These are the basic steps to writing a C-E-R.  Go ahead and try it with your students!  Teach them to argue effectively and with science!  Want to know more and find other good ideas?  Check out our Science Blog and the Region 13 Science page for updates!

Project-Based Learning Will Rock Your Classroom

Friday, September 20th, 2013

Author:  Jennifer Woollven, Instructional Technology Specialist

If your ultimate goal is to help students become critical thinkers, problem-solvers, excellent communicators and collaborators, project-based learning (PBL) can deliver. After spending four years in a full-time PBL environment, I can’t imagine teaching or learning any other way. Witnessing students take ownership of their learning experience, ask good questions, and take on problem-solving outside of the school walls transformed my idea about what the classroom should look like and what my role should be.

The PBL framework is an authentic learning model. Let me explain: when I want to learn something, like how to quilt or cook a brisket, my learning is driven by a need or desire and by the questions that must be answered in order for me to act on my desire. My research will be driven by the questions: What tools will I need? What materials? What steps should I take? What experts can I turn to for help? I may interview people I know who have experience with these things and I will definitely do Internet searches for sites, images, and videos to help me through the process. In the end I will have created a product and I will have learned a great deal through the process. This is PBL – authentic, inquiry-driven by a need-to-know, and the learner doing and creating.

While it is a natural and intuitive process, preparing to implement and manage PBL takes time, energy and support. Building strong projects that are aligned to standards and engaging for students is an intense process. Teachers need the support of each other, administration, and experts to integrate the framework in a meaningful and sustaining way. Whether you are ready to dive in or just dip a toe, the resources below can help you get started.


Transformation Central Texas STEM Center

Buck Institute

Edutopia resources

The Social Studies Critical Thinking Lab

Friday, September 20th, 2013

Author: Rachel Hernandez-Eckert

We all get ideas from time to time, but not all ideas are equal.  Some ideas are just fleeting thoughts, while other ideas actually turn into something substantial.  My hope for one particular idea is to have a lasting and meaningful impact.  In the spirit of full disclosure I must admit that this idea wasn’t exactly mine (my apologies if I led you on).  In October of 2012, I attended a session at the Western History Association Conference that was co-led by a professor from Northern Arizona University.  The professor, Linda Sargent Wood, spoke of “History Labs” that she incorporated into her methods class for pre-service history teachers.   I thought this was a pretty interesting idea, so I took to finding her published article, Hooked on Inquiry: History Labs in the Methods Course.  As I read it, I was captivated by the idea of presenting students with an assemblage of primary and secondary sources and posing a historical problem that requires students to interpret through historical investigation.   Dr. Wood intended for her students to “…wrestle with historical narratives and accounts rather than simply memorizing facts and concepts.”


After reading Dr. Wood’s article, I thought this idea needed to be incorporated somehow into my work as a Social Studies Education Specialist at Region 13,  so we applied for a Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources Grant using the historical lab as the cornerstone idea.  The goal of the grant, The Social Studies Critical Thinking Lab, is to use the Library of Congress digital primary source materials to produce teacher-created historical labs.   Region 13 was funded for the grant in August 2013 and within a few short weeks we quickly moved to forming a cohort of elementary, middle, and high school social studies teachers that will spend time in deeper scholarship around the development of historical labs.


To assist in the process of learning, we will be engaging in a group study of Bruce Lesh’s book, “Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?”: Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12.  Written by an experienced history teacher, this book chronicles Lesh’s approach to developing and incorporating historical study investigations with his students at the center of the process.  It is a remarkable read for anyone searching for a practicable method of engaging students in historical analysis.  The teacher cohort formed for this grant will dedicate time to creating labs of their own to guide students in effective reasoning, decision making, and historical interpretation.  I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to cultivate a professional learning community among my peers that will ultimately impact students.  I think this idea is getting at the heart of what it means to think critically.



Lesh, Bruce. A. “Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?”: Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12 (Portland: Stenhouse, 2011).

Wood, Linda Sargent, “Hooked on Inquiry: History Labs in the Methods Course,” The History Teacher 45 (2012), 549-567, accessed January 2013.

Strategic Note-Taking in Secondary Content Classrooms

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Author: Tonia Miller,  Education Specialist, ESL Instructional Coach

Perhaps when many of us were in high school, or even college, we learned to take notes out of sheer necessity. We were lucky if the teacher paused for a moment to write a word or two on the chalk board. However, this is not the case for students in today’s classrooms. Luckily for them, 21st century learners have grown up in more student-centered environments, where oftentimes technology is used as an interactive tool for discovery learning. Given this, many students in secondary schools do not perceive note-taking skills as fundamental to their success in content area classes.


Why Should I Take Notes?

Contrary to student perception, research shows that note-taking skills are still necessary both to survive and excel in today’s classroom. Note-taking serves two very important functions for learners: 1) external storage of information, and 2) cognitive encoding of information (Boyle, 2011). While it is obvious to most students that note-taking is a way to keep record of important information they might forget, few students realize the power the act of writing notes has to jump-start the cognitive processing of information in their brains. While note-taking, students begin to learn and memorize content. Additionally, students will retain and recall more when notes are self-generated. Ultimately, the combination of both functions makes note-taking a critical component of successful learning. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on one researched-based strategy intended to be used during lectures: strategic note-taking (SN).


Strategic Note-Taking

The intention of strategic note-taking is to help students filter and organize incoming information during lectures so that it is converted into notes that can be comprehended and reviewed at a later time. The strategy also focuses on inciting students to mentally process and record information while listening. Strategic note-taking paper accompanies the strategy to prompt students to make notes through five main metacognitive cues: link prior knowledge, cluster main ideas, summarize like ideas, recognize key vocabulary, and review main lecture points (Boyle, 2011).

To help students remember all of the skills necessary for SN, the first letter mnemonic device CUES is used. See an abbreviated version of the SN paper and for a description of what students are doing at each step of CUES below:





Some of the findings of a study of SN show that, in contrast to students using traditional note-taking, students using strategic note-taking recorded more total lecture points as well as twice as many words, had greater long-term recall, and performed better on tests (Boyle, 2012, Boyle, 2010).


How Do I Implement Strategic Note-Taking?

Students will need to be explicitly taught SN, just as they would any other new content-related skill.  Providing the student with a description of the strategy, in addition to why they are being asked to develop this skill, is a good place to start. See the following list for some teacher tips for implementation of strategic note-taking:

  • Prior to the lecture, make your own set of strategic notes as “model notes”.
  • Use your “model notes” during the lecture to stay on topic.
  • Stress important lecture content by repeating or restating.
  • Slow down the pace of the lesson.
  • Use purposeful pause procedures (e.g., a long pause should indicate students need to record what was just said).
  • Categorize or provide a title for an upcoming list of items.
  • Monitor students’ usage of the strategy.
  • Teach students to abbreviate.
  • Teach students to identify main points & summarize big ideas.
  • Provide emphasis cues (e.g., “It is important to remember that . . .).
  • Provide organization cues (e.g., “the four main types of a cloud are . . .).
  • Use nonverbal cues such as gestures to provide emphasis.
  • Write important notes & vocabulary on the board.
  • Provide students time at the end of class to review notes.
  • Allow students to compare their notes to the “model notes”.
  • Encourage students to share notes with a partner and fill in any missing information.
  • Evaluate students’ notes (self-assessment, peer assessment and teacher assessment).
  • Gradually increase the pace of lecture as students become more competent.

(Boyle, 2012, Boyle, 2011, & Boyle, 2010)


How do I Assess Students’ Note-Taking Skills?

Ongoing assessment of students’ note-taking skills is an important part of both skill development and learner accountability. Just as with academic skills, it is important to find individual student gaps in note-taking skills. The figure below depicts a form that has been used as a formative assessment of students’ note-taking skills as compared to teachers’  “model notes.”





The key to ongoing assessment of note-taking is to show students that it is a cyclical, reflective process intended to help develop metacognitive study skills so that they may effectively monitor their own learning.


How Do I Justify the Time Required to Teach Note-Taking?

Note-taking falls under the larger umbrella of study skills necessary for students to be successful learners, and techniques, like strategic note-taking, can be incorporated into content-area curriculum. Although teachers may feel pressed to primarily lecture in order to cover all necessary content, it is important to include other activities (i.e., hands-on activities, peer conversations and various other student demonstrations of understanding) to reinforce concepts from lectures. However, note-taking is a valuable skill that becomes essential for students as they take on greater responsibility for their own learning. Consequently, the time invested by teachers initially in teaching students note-taking skills pays off by propelling students towards the ultimate goal:  to be both college and career-ready citizens.

References (APA)

Boyle, J. R. (2012). Note-Taking and Secondary Students with Learning Disabilities: Challenges and Solutions. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 27(2), 90-101.

BOYLE, J. R. (2011). THINKING STRATEGICALLY TO RECORD NOTES IN CONTENT CLASSES. American Secondary Education, 40(1), 51-66.

Boyle, J. R. (2010). Strategic Note-Taking for Middle-School Students with Learning Disabilities in Science Classes. Learning Disability Quarterly, 33(2), 93-109.

Making Connections: Points of Instructional Integration and Skill Building

Monday, December 12th, 2011

Our goal as educators is that our students grow into productive citizens with a wealth of skills to draw from. We want to foster learning so that students are critical thinkers and problem solvers who are able to make connections and apply their learning in new and novel situations. The TEKS call for critical thinking, problem solving, and making connections. STAAR calls for critical thinking, problem solving, and making connections. Life calls for critical thinking, problem solving, and making connections.  This necessitates that our instruction include and build critical thinking, problem solving, and making opportunities for students to make connections.

In modern education, we are under more and more time constraints with fewer resources. We often feel we are trying to do it all and it seems there just is not enough time. It is easy at times  to become focused on the pure content within our grade level or subject matter, and forget that the skills we wish to build are transferrable skills that apply to all content and simply may look slightly different based upon the context.

As a result, we sometimes find ourselves and our lessons looking somewhat like a solved Rubik’s cube. Although within this particular game, getting all colors onto one side and isolated from the rest of the colors indicates you have “solved” the puzzle; in education this represents ideas, skills, and learning in isolation.

We want students to be able to operate within all of the colors and, in fact, NEED students to be able to operate in a more integrated fashion for STAAR and beyond.

Consider the term interdependence for a moment. What does it mean?

A dictionary definition would be “a relation between its members such that each is mutually dependent on the others.”  For students understanding content and their world, such a definition means nothing and holds little relevance. We learn about interdependence within Science. In fact, this is a key concept in science.  For example, the entire understanding of food chains relates to this idea among many others. Students may build an understanding of this vocabulary word within the Science context and examples, but can they apply it outside of these specifics?

  •  What might “interdependence” look like within Language Arts?

Characters are often interdependent. 

  • What might “interdependence” look like within Social Studies?

Countries in time of war and peace are interdependent upon each other. Economic systems, global economics, are interdependent upon one another.         

  • What might “interdependence” look like within Math?

Concepts such as part/part/whole and balanced equations include ideas of dependence and interdependence.

Would it be better to build on the idea in its entirety with multiple examples in order to assure students can transfer and apply knowledge or would it be best to know this term simply through a dictionary definition, a specific example such as a food chain, or within a specific content? Even if the word is introduced as a new vocabulary term in science, we want and need students to have word study skills that might enable them to determine what this unfamiliar word means, especially within multiple contexts.

That is one specific example with the intention of planting the seed for making connections and continuing learning throughout the day rather than in isolated periods of time or content.

Aligning TEKS to TEKS, side by side can be a daunting process when one considers the number of standards Texas has and how little time there is within a given day.  However, there are a few manageable ideas to begin to take the first small step(s) toward integrated learning throughout the day.  By doing so educators are able to “shave” time off of discreet stand-alone lessons and students are able to see connections and apply their learning across content and contexts.  These processes have the potential to increase efficiency and effectiveness by capitalizing what already exists within the TEKS and conceptual connections.

Within lesson design, we must look for opportunities to make connections and build skills across content.

1. Look across content units within the same time period: big ideas/concepts.

Are there opportunities for direct and explicit support or purposeful awareness or both?  For example, in 3rd grade Science your landforms unit may be within the same time frame as the Social Studies unit on landforms.  This is direct explicit support.  Or perhaps you teach English in 7th grade and the Texas History class covers political change in Texas as a result of the Civil War.  Through resource choice, instruction can support purposeful awareness and support the overall connections and learning associated with the Texas political climate without actually directly teaching the Social Studies TEKS within the English classroom.

2. Focus on transferrable skills across content and context:  TEKS skills strands

Every content has a skills strand, or skills-based student expectations, embedded within the course TEKS.  These are the very skills needed to approach and access content in order to make connections and increase comprehension.  Focusing on the skills across the course of the day rather than “period to period,” regardless of the content, builds practice and repetition and therefore increases skill levels.  For example, if we consider the 3rd grade TEKS and the skills embedded, we can identify basic skill categories, including data collection, analysis, inferring, forming conclusions, and problem-solving.   Similar skills found within these and other categories can be found in Language Arts, Math, Science, Social Studies, Health, and Technology Applications.  Learning effective data collection across content areas allows the students to see the skill applied within different contexts and in new and novel situations, resulting in deeper and broader understanding.

In the end it is the student who ultimately benefits from this direct explicit support and purposeful awareness.  We know the brain is wired for making connections.  By asking where there are opportunities to make connections and build skills during the lesson design process, we make more efficient use of our time while increasing the overall effectiveness of our instruction.