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STEM and Edmentum’s Science Curriculum

Wednesday, December 2, 2015 -- Thomas Boe

STEM education strives to provide a more integrated learning experience for students, connecting four traditionally segregated disciplines: science, technology, engineering, and math. A STEM approach can help students relate their learning experiences to the multidisciplinary reality of real-world problems and careers. It can also add relevance to the curriculum and new opportunities for student engagement. State math standards over the past decade or so have focused on trying to cut across these traditional disciplines—making real-world modeling and real-world data a central part of the math curriculum.  At the same time, science standards, traditionally tied to mathematics, have expanded intentionally into technology and engineering design as well.

Unfortunately, an effective STEM approach to learning can be complex to design and carry out, especially when enclosed in a traditional curriculum “box” like science. Educators need all the help they can get to pull it off. Individual state standards, as well as the Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), offer a lot of guidance, but curriculum design and classroom implementation can still be a confusing multidimensional problem for teachers.

Beyond well-designed standards, it’s key to have a base curriculum that recognizes STEM goals and methods and integrates them thoughtfully into lessons, learning activities, and assessments. Edmentum is committed to providing those STEM-friendly resources for our partners.

Plato Courseware

Edmentum is currently in the process of developing a brand-new set of middle school science courses, which can be offered either in a traditional discipline-based structure (earth and space science, life science, and physical science) or in an integrated science structure (grades 6, 7, and 8). STEM is a central organizing principle of this new curriculum. Each lesson contains one or more lesson activities focused on student investigation or design. Each unit concludes with an extended project-style activity, and each unit typically contains two hands-on course activities that students may carry out in parallel with their lesson work throughout the unit. In addition to providing extensive support for inquiry science, these activities are carefully designed to support STEM. For an activity to qualify as a STEM activity in this curriculum, it must:

  • Focus on integration, tying two or more of the four STEM disciplines together
  • Establish relevance—why should students care?
  • Include problem- and project-based approaches
  • Challenge but not frustrate students
  • Emphasize 21st century skills, including critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, communication of ideas, and collaboration

For example, in one earth and space science course activity, students design stable marshmallow-and-toothpick structures to see how well they can withstand an “earthquake” (shaking the table). Then, they examine a real-world design for earthquake reinforcements and compare those designs to their own models. In another course activity, students relate the diameters of planets to real-world objects using proportions. They draw the planets to scale, describe the differences in scale needed to represent both the inner planets and the outer planets, and identify the problems that arise with such a model. In a number of lesson activities, students use online simulations and models to analyze and draw conclusions about scientific relationships. Online and hands-on activities like these clearly link STEM disciplines together and help students understand their need to gain proficiency across disciplines to solve real-world problems. About half of a student’s learning time in these science courses is devoted to inquiry and design activities like these within each lesson and unit.

Beyond student activities, lesson “storylines” also support a STEM approach. One of seven young professional mentors introduces each lesson. Each of these mentors is engaged in a real-world career that crosses STEM disciplines, including a patent lawyer, an agricultural engineer, and an occupational health and safety specialist. These characters model the real-world integration of disciplines and the multiple competencies needed to excel in a wide range of modern professional careers. Supporting this storyline and focus on real-world problems, lessons also contain two regular features that tie concept learning to STEM and the real world: Careers in Science and Science in the News.

In brief, Plato Courseware lesson content and learning activities provide a strong framework for nurturing STEM awareness and STEM-oriented learning for students.

Study Island

Study Island supports STEM-based learning through rigorous, award-winning content that allows students to exercise critical-thinking skills across a range of simulated real-world situations.

As an example, our Study Island products, aligned to the NGSS, highlight the engineering, critical-thinking, and problem-solving aspects of STEM education. These NGSS-aligned solutions (including grade-level standards mastery products and upcoming benchmarks) help students move beyond memorization of content to learn and engage in the practice of science. Each standards mastery product includes lessons and items aligned to the content standards of the NGSS, as well as sections on engineering design that connect grade-level appropriate content with the skills needed to define problems, develop solutions, and optimize designs.

Our Study Island standards mastery products also give students access to virtual labs and dynamic simulations that model real-world systems. These tools embody STEM-based learning by allowing students to make informed decisions as they investigate the world around them. In one virtual lab, students can manipulate the angle of a ramp, the mass of a car that will roll down the ramp, and the amount of friction in the system in order to explore the impact these factors have on energy, velocity, and acceleration. This allows students to freely change the variables in the experimental setup to draw their own conclusions regarding force, motion, and energy. In a simulation for another standard, students are able to explore how the masses of stars and planets impact the orbits of celestial bodies due to gravity. Students can begin by viewing how the Sun impacts the Earth, and then change the mass of the Sun and Earth separately to see how even small changes can greatly affect orbital patterns.

Beyond virtual labs and simulations, our Study Island NGSS-aligned solutions offer dynamic technology-enhanced items that allow students to interact with content in ways that are not possible with traditional multiple-choice items. For example, students can use graphic gap match items to complete models and sort multiple components into appropriate categories. Sequencing and matched pairs items allow students to interpret information and use critical thinking to determine how data or objects should be ranked or paired in terms of specific attributes. Hot spot and hot text items allow students to click on images, graphs, or tables to interact directly with the content provided.

The virtual labs and simulations, as well as the robust item types offered in our Study Island NGSS products, allow students to connect with real-world concepts in a way that supports STEM learning and provides students with the skills and tools they need to think critically about science and engineering.

Edmentum is committed to helping schools promote and improve student learning. Providing modern tools, curriculum, and assessments to support STEM learning is one way that we can meet that commitment to our customers. Interested in learning more? Find out how you can strengthen STEM education with Edmentum!