Putting the "T" in STEM on a Shoestring Budget

Posted by Marissa Alonzo on Apr 18, 2018 2:05:37 PM
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Putting technology in STEM

The word "technology" usually brings to mind images of smartphones, tablets, and computers. These devices are pretty incredible, giving us access to the entire World Wide Web with the swipe of a fingertip. Yet, thinking of "technology" in these terms is very limiting. A quick search on dictionary.com defines "technology" as the development of knowledge for practical purposes, usually to satisfy a need or solve a problem.

Consider a jar of strawberry preserves. Have you ever pondered the technological advancement of that little jar while you slathered your toast with sweetness? Strawberry preserves were invented to solve a problem. Strawberries didn't grow year-long, nor did they grow in certain climates. The technology to preserve strawberries extended their availability and made them accessible at times and places that wouldn't normally be able to get strawberries. This was a boom for strawberry farmers, the marketplace, and consumers.

We often hear you can't STEM without technology, and the National Institute for STEM Education agrees. Our program allows for reflection on teaching strategies to help develop an emphasis on Next Generation Science Standards and other key areas of STEM instruction, including technology. As a result, we want to broaden the definition of technology through our teaching certification program to provide flexibility in lesson plans and instructional strategies. How do we bring this broader understanding of technology into our STEM classrooms especially when we often time work with limited or nonexistent budgets? Here are two approaches.

Help students understand more about a problem, issue, or content

One of the most common uses of technology in a STEM classroom is research. Typically, students will use computers or tablets to look for additional information about a teacher-assigned topic. But, what if you don't have computers or tablets for student use? At NISE we subscribe to the philosophy of "use what you have" and "find what you need."

  • BYOD (bring your own device): Invite students to bring their own devices to school for use in your classroom. Most students have smartphones, tablets, and laptops are willing to bring them in for classwork. You may need to get special permission from your campus administration and send a letter home explaining the BYOD policy in your classroom, but it is worth it. Plus, you have the added bonus of teaching students how to use their personal devices for a purpose rather than watching Tide pod challenge videos or scrolling Instagram. How's that for 21st Century skill development?
  • Pool resources: Ask another teacher in your building to share resources with funds from a technology budget, it's worth coordinating your lesson plans and sharing technological resources to expand research and knowledge-gathering opportunities for students.
  • Find funding: It's worth it to research what you actually need in your ideal STEM classroom. These guys usually come with a hefty price tag that exceeds many districts' budgets. Your best bet is to be frugal, get only what you absolutely need for science kits and the like, and consider purchasing used or refurbished items to cut costs even more. Don't forget to ask about school or tax-exempt discounts!

Help students solve a problem or fill a need 

A second application of technology deals with the broader definition we discussed earlier. This application involves providing students with opportunities to explore common items and examine their development through the "technological advancement" lens or they can design something that will allow them to solve a problem or address an issue.

  • Everyday items: A good first step is to send your kids on a scavenger hunt around your classroom looking for everyday items that represent advancements in technology. For example, a tissue box — makes for a more sanitary nose-blowing experience, and you can grab the tissue with one hand to prevent the spread of germs. What about hand sanitizer? This also helps with germy hands when soap and water are not available and is a relatively new advancement in sanitary items. Lastly, what about mini-blinds? This technological advancement helps provide shade and privacy but still allows you to raise them for light.
  • Personal items: Another possibility is to ask students to bring in two or three personal items and explain how they solved a problem or fulfilled a need in society. One example could be how face makeup enhances features and conceals imperfections. Another example could be how forks enable people to hold their food while cutting and helps individuals eat more efficiently and cleanly. Shoelaces are another personal item that allows the wearer to adjust the fit for comfort and keep the shoes snug on their feet. What about power strips? This item allows people to plug multiple electronic devices into one outlet without overwhelming the circuits. Lastly, what about a squeeze bottle that makes it much easier for people to get out liquids. Use these examples and follow up with asking how their lives would be affected without these items. What would they do differently and would these changes bother them? Why or why not?
  • Building solutions: Once students have started seeing the technology surrounding them, it's time to challenge them. Have them use their research and information gathering to identify and address a need in society. Then, they can draw their prototypes or actually construct them in a lab setting using cooperative learning strategies. Requiring students to present their new technology is an ideal time to practice presentation skills. You could even show a few clips from the television show Shark Tank to give them an idea of how to successfully "sell" their items to classmates. Student innovations will be some of the most creative technology you will ever see!
  • Constructing Models: Another option is to get students to repurpose common items to reconstruct technological advancements. Why not have students design bridges from popsicle sticks or towers from spaghetti and then test their structural integrity? It's a good way to examine students' engineering prowess and get them to understand the reasons behind the structural design.

What is the main takeaway? Putting the "T" in STEM does not have to be just a high-tech experience or even break the bank. You can always find ways to use items you already have available to expand students' thinking and empower them to identify problems and find solutions.