Keeping learning real: STEM retention and engagement

Issue: Volume 94, Number 4

Posted: 9 March 2015
Reference #: 1H9cq_

Sutapa (Su) Mukund, a science and biology teacher at Papatoetoe High School, was awarded a prestigious Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching, a scholarship supported by the US Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The Award funds successful applicants from across the educational world to conduct inquiry-based study, and to get ideas from outside the environment they’re used to; all with a view to fostering the sharing of best practice ideas across borders. Su reports that it seems educators in the US are leaning in the same direction as those back here, in recognising that engagement is key to retention. More global collaboration can only improve our understanding of the associated challenges, she says.

Administered by the Institute of International Education (IIE) on behalf of the US Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching programme was open to New Zealand applicants in 2014 for the first time. Successful applicants undergo a rigorous selection process, and must be approved for funding by both a review panel and by their respective US embassy. Su Mukund and Fiona Jeffries of Paraparaumu College (Wellington region) are the first two recipients from New Zealand.

Among other things, successful applicants during the three to six-month programmes are required to:

  • Enrol in advanced or graduate-level classes at a host university; in 2014 Su was hosted by Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana.
  • Design and complete a ‘capstone’ inquiry project (a culminating project similar to a thesis).
  • Observe classes, team-teach and/or conduct seminars or workshops in local schools for US teachers and students.

For her capstone project, Su designed an inquiry entitled: Making learning real: retaining and engaging all learners in secondary science classrooms. Su reports on the outcomes and process she followed, and the conclusions she came to.

My intention with this project was to understand and analyse best practice teaching in high school classrooms in the USA. The project examined qualitative data from learning conversations – with both educators and learners – to understand how innovative curriculum and methods practised there are used to motivate students to follow careers in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics], by connecting the subject to the real world.

At the beginning of my Fulbright journey into the world of American education, August 2014, I tried to keep in mind the oft-repeated motivational phrase by Chinese philosopher Laozi “the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”

The application process and interviews for the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching, which I completed in 2013, were strenuous and time consuming. The euphoria I felt after receiving the award from Arne Duncan, United States Secretary of Education, and the New Zealand Education Minister, Hon Hekia Parata, at Parliament House in Wellington, was short lived as I launched into a busy time in the classroom. Before I knew it I was on a plane bound for Indiana.

I have 26 years of teaching in three countries behind me, and I think that my Fulbright experience came at a time in my life where I was able to use all this accumulated insight as a lens to help me understand my inquiry topic. In the end, I found the whole thing to be really invigorating, and I was motivated to look into how I might adjust my idea of best practice according to the different concepts I have been exposed to.

The programme included many varied and valuable experiences. This report will look at some of them in detail, especially those that have inspired me professionally and personally, and that have contributed to my understanding of American educational culture.

The various schools I visited, the educators I met, classes at Indiana University, seminars on campus and professional reading material have provided for a wealth of academic experience. But I’ve also absorbed much cultural wisdom from the vibrant community of Bloomington and their schools of music and theatre at the Indiana University campus, as well as during my visits to other cities in the US including Columbus, Indianapolis, Chicago, and Buffalo. I was lucky enough to attend conferences like the NSTA (National Science Teachers Association) in Florida, and Project Lead The Way in Indianapolis has provided yet another dimension to the professional development I was exposed to.

When I arrived in the US, the first order of business was a Fulbright Award orientation over four days in August. Events included socialising with more than 50 fellow Fulbright Teacher Award recipients from the US, who had study placements in different parts of the world. I also had the chance to meet my fellow award recipients from outside America, including those from Finland, Singapore, India and Morocco.

I thoroughly enjoyed a number of the workshops the group participated in, including The Art of Crossing Cultures by speaker Craig Storti. Presentations on global competencies by Brandon Wiley, the virtual collaboration forum, and Meeting the Needs of Underserved Students by Jennifer Klein were also really valuable.

Several round table conferences allowed for an energetic exchange of knowledge, as we met teachers from different subjects, teachers from within our own disciplines, and teachers from various American states.

My inquiry project: making learning real

The inquiry project that I designed centred on a study of professional development in the US, and the impact this had on targeting engagement in the science classroom. The intention was to observe practices in US schools that allowed for the enrichment of student learning using ‘real world’ scenarios.

Many countries are experiencing challenges when it comes to engaging students and encouraging them to pursue a STEM-related career. Students often report finding content difficult to comprehend. The Fulbright award is recognition that boosting the number of students heading into science professions is a priority for Government, schools and teachers alike, in order that we have the innovators and experts to take the country forward into the future. There are increasing resources and initiatives available with this in mind.

Part of the onus therefore lies with those of us who teach science, to make learning real and authentic in order to attract more students. My objectives were to look at specific strategies for motivation and engagement in the USA that could be transferred to my classroom in New Zealand. I was also keen to share with my host country the best practices that we carry out in our schools and classrooms in New Zealand.

Study at the University of Indiana

With these objectives in mind, I selected two applicable courses at the University of Indiana: Instructional strategies for thinking, collaboration, and motivation; and Teaching secondary school science. The professors leading these courses were in many cases remarkably inspirational individuals. For example, I was lucky enough to have Professor
Curtis J Bonk, author of several books – including The World is Open – How Web Technology is Revolutionizing Education – as lecturer for the instructional strategies course.

Professor Robert Dan Sherwood was the lecturer for the Teaching secondary school science course. He started each day with a practical experiment. I found myself eagerly anticipating his next authentic demonstration of his ideas in science teaching methods. One of his magical experiments was to get Christmas lights glowing and blinking inside the microwave without blowing up, and checking for germs in the classroom using special UV light flashlights. During the course we had a variety of lessons on flipped classrooms*, new tech schools**, project and problem-based learning and inquiry learning methods.

At school in Indiana

My placement for nearly three months at Bloomington North High School in the science department was overseen by my host teacher, Mr Rick Harter. There I experienced lots of novel and engaging science learning experiments. ‘Halloween chemistry’ was probably the most imaginative and fascinating display; Mrs Fuson and Mrs Adams enthralled the class with pure chemistry magic using exothermic reactions, catalysts, sublimation and a number of other inorganic and organic experiments, all related to the various lessons conducted, which were transformed into a colourful, magical, chemistry extravaganza.

At Bloomington North High School I encountered a very interesting and engaging project called ‘Project Lead the Way’. This is a standalone curriculum drawn from the normal science subjects of biology, physics, chemistry and earth science, and offers similar accreditation. The curriculum is offered over four years and covers the subject courses of ‘Principles of biomedical sciences’, ‘Human body systems’, ‘Medical intervention’ and ‘Biomedical innovations’. Each of these strands offers several units with clear concepts and performance objectives. The course is designed to aim students specifically towards STEM specialisations that they can then pursue in college. The courses also offer college credits to students who pass the end of year examinations, held nationally.

The classes were structured to encourage students to inquire and explore authentic real life scenarios, and utilise hands–on activities.

My observations at Bloomington North High School provided me with a wealth of knowledge and data regarding the interest level of students in these ‘Project Lead the Way’ classes. I was particularly struck by the thematic approach to teaching. An example from a topic in the Principles of Biomedical Science course involved learning genetics via the real-world scenario of a murder case. Students were provided a vast amount of evidence including fingerprints, DNA traces, and blood samples, as well as clues including the relationship of the various suspects to the murdered victim. Learners were then encouraged to critically think through the investigation as though they were forensic experts.

Hands–on activities including blood spatter experiments, understanding the structure of DNA and running DNA gels made the topic real and captivating. Student learning conversations revealed the reasons why they enjoyed this subject; many mentioned the fact that they were actively engaged in learning and almost playing the role of Sherlock Holmes bouncing ideas off Dr Watson. The thematic lesson planning was meticulous and had a great variety of activities, which provided for differentiated learning that reached all students. These units are carefully designed to deliver the content in various ways to suit the individual; be they visual, aural, reader, writer or kinaesthetic learners.

Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL)

POGIL is another engagement tool I studied, where students within a classroom are grouped into ‘learning teams’ with their teacher acting as the guide. Students are encouraged to participate in groups to solve problems and then work individually to complete their work. The teacher can use POGIL activities from books provided to start a lesson, end a lesson or even supplement the content as prescribed in the standard curriculum. The concept of POGIL is to provide learners opportunities to examine and analyse data in response to critical thinking questions. POGIL does not replace the general curriculum; it enhances the curriculum by motivating learner groups to enrich their critical thinking skills. It emphasises the importance of the process of learning, rather than the content. The specific learning skills that are strengthened by POGIL activities include information processing, critical and analytical thinking, problem solving, communication, teamwork, management, and assessment.

Some conclusions

My Fulbright Teaching Award inquiry project in Indiana led me to some conclusions that I believe will be valuable to me and other science teachers:

  • Students who relate well with a teacher who motivates them are more likely to achieve better results.
  • Engagement with authentic activities helps understanding and retention of knowledge and content.
  • Problem solving activities and project-based activities encourage students to participate to a higher degree and improve their critical thinking skills.
  • Students gain confidence when they are able to be part of a team and take part in cooperative and collaborative learning activities.
  • Boredom in the class is eradicated when students are involved in hands–on activities, as compared to didactic teaching methods.
  • 21st century skills can be taught and learned by ALL students if the teacher is innovative and willing to embrace changes.

Having had this wonderful experience in the US I hope to implement some of my ideas and conclusions in my own school in coming years.

* Flipped classroom: blended learning in which students learn content online by watching video lectures, usually at home, and homework is done in class with teachers and students discussing and solving questions.

** New tech schools: schools with a focus on STEM subjects.

BY Su Mukund
Papatoetoe High School,

Posted: 12:53 PM, 9 March 2015

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