(im)possible

I was talking to one of my daughters today and remembered two experiences from my life as a young student:

1) In sixth grade the math teacher asked the class  for a show of hands indicating who was interested in math field day.  I raised my hand.  He looked square at me and said something like “You’ll never make it very far in the competition.  Don’t try.”  I didn’t, until much later.  During my junior or senior year in high school I finally participated and advanced to the regional competition.  I bombed there in spectacular fashion, but I went on to earn two math degrees and work for 17 years as a college math instructor.

2) In high school I wanted to skip a particular introductory class.  I had owned a computer for  few years and could already do everything we were doing in the introductory class.  The teacher would not allow it so I decided not to take her classes.  She commented in a not-so-nice tone that unless I had her classes, I would never pass college.  I did pass college (3 times) and earned a minor in Computer Science with one degree.  Now I am an Associate Professor.

I do not recall either incident inspiring some deep rooted resolve to prove these teachers wrong, but I am glad I did in the end. I am sure they have no idea and probably don’t even remember these incidents, but I get some self-satisfaction out of the path I have taken.  Something curious to me is that not only did I go on to have life experiences that proved these two instances wrong, my main line of research has focused on learner motivation issues and some on feedback to students.  Is that a total coincidence, or was something planted in me as early as the 6th grade?

What about other students?  I was lucky to take a path that lead me past these comments. I’ll bet many other students didn’t have my luck.  Teachers, choose your words carefully.

I told my daughter that in life you need to do this sometimes, and that as a girl/woman, she’ll need to do it even more often — prove “them”, whoever “them” might be, wrong.

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Georgia STEM Day 2013: My morning run

I am a STEM guy.  I have two math degrees (and some extra coursework on top of that); the research for my Ph.D. was connected to math learning, and most of my research is connected to it as well.  I am a member of the Advisory Board for, and an Affiliate Faculty Member of, the Georgia Southern University Institute of Interdisciplinary STEM Education.  I have had projects funded to work on STEM with local school systems, and I am a team member on RealSTEM.  So, most days are STEM days for me, but I am happy to see STEM getting its own day in Georgia.  Governor Nathan Deal of Georgia declared today, May 3, 2013, Georgia’s first STEM day.

runner's shoe on fog line of roadway mid-strideAs I was on my morning run today, which takes me through farms in my little corner of south Georgia, I was thinking about STEM day.  What about my run was related to STEM?  What questions from something as simple as a morning run could be used to inspire STEM thinking in schools? I started keeping track of my observations.  Here’s a list:

  • My pace on the deep, sandy, dirt road was a full 90 seconds per mile slower than when I was on the black top.  Why?  What forces were slowing me down?
  • What is wind?
  • The farmers seem to be planting later this year than in other years.  Why?  It has been colder and wetter than normal.  Is there a connection?  Has it really been colder and wetter?
  • There’s trash in the ditch beside the road.  What type of trash is worse for the water quality in the ditch?  Aluminum cans? Plastic bottles? A mixture?
  • What’s my body doing on this run? Sweating, heart rate, blood pressure, getting fatigued? Why? How?
  • There’s a car approaching.  Will I beat it to that intersection?
  • GPS is mapping my run and telling me how fast I’m going.  What is GPS? How does it do these things?  My GPS signal is “strong”.  What might impede the signal?
  • What’s in asphalt and why?
  • How do the fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides from the local farms impact water quality? Maybe they don’t.
  • How much water will the new golf course need for irrigation?
  • How much oxygen with the grass on the golf course produce?  How much CO2 will that grass consume?
  • Do the local farmers use GMOs?
  • I took these notes using Siri on my phone.  How might that work?!

I know the answers to some of these questions.  I was pretty pleased with how many questions I could construct while I made my way along. STEM is all around us!  I am sure there are many more.  By just looking at this list and asking “how?” or “why?”, there is a lot of room for exploration and inquiry on STEM concepts for Problem/Project-Based Learning.

If you are not a STEM teacher, you can still make use of STEM day.  For example:

How does public policy interact with STEM?  Are herbicides, pesticides, GMOs all bad?  After all, we have to eat.

Feel free to use my questions to stimulate discussion or projects in your classes. You can adapt the questions for different grade-levels.  Better yet, generate your own list for your local environment.  Have your students generate the list! I think those pesky, mandated, standardized exams are mostly over for the year.  Now’s your chance to give some problem-based, project-based, inquiry learning a try.  Ask questions. Think STEM!

If this blog post inspires you to have a STEM discussion or to do a problem-based STEM lesson, let me know about it.  Comment back to this page and tell what you did and how it worked!