STEM X Day 1 -Protostorming and Simple Science Activities

The first real day of our academy dawned overcast and cool – a bit of false weather which would heat up very quickly. Today was the day we got stuck right into our program, with the primary school and secondary school teachers off in different directions to learn new and exciting ways to approach their craft.

First of all I have to thank my fellow STEM X-ers for the photos you’ll see throughout my posts. I was so immersed in the activities that I usually forgot to take some of my own! They’ve kindly allowed me to use their photos here, so thank you all!

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Vic Dobos, the ASTA CEO, gave a welcome speech after breakfast, thanking the sponsors and talking about how this program literally wouldn’t be possible without them. I was happy to see STAQ mentioned, and was interested in how many private companies were donating money and resources. Along with basic information for the week, we were told a bit more about some of the items that were in the backpacks we were given on the first day – plenty of useful resources already! (Including a travel mug from Questacon that many used throughout the week to keep up the caffeine!)

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Jared Wilkins from Questacon talked about their input and what to expect over the next 5 days. He was very blunt about the fact that we will need to put in a lot of effort to get the most out of this trip, making sure we get involved in everything and talk with as many people as we can to make those connections. “Be free of the constraints of the classroom. Try things, make mistakes, and explore STEM” was his key advice, one I tried to remember throughout the week. No point being in a program as amazing as this if you’re not willing to get involved, even when you think it’s not completely relevant to you!

Then it was time to split into our groups and be on our way. For us secondary teachers, we would be spending the day at IPTLC Deakin, Questacon’s learning space.

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Makerspace

We entered to find a bit of a unique area – one room had some tables and stools, and the adjoining room had big wooden benches in the middle and around the sides, covered with all sorts of crafty materials.

We were soon to find out we were standing around in a Makerspace. The idea behind a makerspace is to have an area for people to create, learn, craft, explore, use tools, and engage in participatory learning. It can be as big as a whole room, or as small as a trolley. You stock the makerspace with any craft materials you can (recycled materials from home are perfect!), and open the space to all who wish to use it. You don’t need to have specific materials, just whatever is available. The challenge is to use what is available to create with, not make something to a plan per se.

There was discussion that within a school this might create some controversy over ‘ownership’, but it is not designed to be exclusive. If you have all of your students bringing in things from home, and perhaps a small budget from the school, there is no reason you should run out of materials (many schools who have this in place have a rewards system to reward classes who bring in the most materials to share). You can use this space for any form of learning where creating something physical would be beneficial – perfect for STEM projects!

If you are going to have a dedicated room, make sure your benches and storage facilities are movable so that you can use the space flexibly. And make sure you have a LOT of storage – if you’re getting students to continually bring in things through the year, you probably won’t use it up as fast as it comes in, even if many classes are using it! If you don’t have a room, just start with whatever space is available and go from there.

Here are some pictures of the main Questacon Makerspace:

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Anyway, back to our day.

In the Questacon makerspace each table had a set of a single material, a piece of paper, and a pen. We did an activity I did last time I was there and have done in class – not too sure of the actual name, but I call it a Never Ending List. The idea is have small groups examine an object/material, then write down 10 properties of it. Give them maybe 30 or 60 seconds to do this in – they need to think fast! Once the time is up, the groups rotate to the next object and repeat, but they are not allowed to write down a property that is already on the list. You rotate around until everyone has examined every object, then have a look at the lists of properties. It’s amazing how creative and observable people get once all the obvious things are written down!

Protostorming

What a fun word for a fun activity! This really emphasises science as a process rather than a product. The idea is to rapidly build rough, unfinished prototypes or models of things. This can be as guided or as free as you like, and really gets the creative juices flowing.

We were given about 5 or 6 minutes to see how many things we could make, and between the 40 of us we had over 150 objects. They ranged from a tree, to a water molecule, to a squirrel trap, to a fan. All sorts of things! Some people were making objects, others were crafting inventions, and no one was in the least bit concerned if their model looked ‘proper’ or ‘finished’.

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You could easily do this with students in your makerspace to get them modelling things they had learnt about during the term (you could put a list of topics or processes on the board), or allow them to work on their own ideas. I could see how easy it would be for students to feel silly or self conscious, so you would need to monitor carefully that no one was teasing others for their creations, and really emphasis the point of it being very rough and unfinished.

It was so much fun to be creative and a bit silly – it’s not an opportunity us secondary teachers get very often!

After this activity it was morning tea time, or should I say cake time? It was the same each day, a couple of trays of cakes, tarts, muffins etc. While I was happy, others weren’t so keen on so much unhealthy eating with no other options.

Egg Bungy Jump

After morning tea was another hands on activity. We were given a challenge to launch an egg via a bungy and get it as close to the floor as possible without cracking. We had to include a two-step mechanism and a stretchy bungy component, but the rest was completely up to us. We could use any of the materials around the room, and we all made good use of that!

Our group created a simple ramp with a toy car that would push the egg off the edge. It took a whole lot of adjusting, testing, measuring, weighing, and recreation to get it just right – we pretty much used up the entire 45mins, and ours was a simple construction compared to some others! Each group had approached the task differently and come up with unique solutions. It seems like no matter how many times you do this, it would be different each time depending on the group and the available materials.

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After our time was up we all tested our contraptions, with varying degrees of success. Thankfully ours worked perfectly! The good vibes of the morning were carried into this activity, and we all had a lot of fun. Afterwards we discussed how to use this in class with things like physics apps, stop motion stories, and mathematics.

News Brainstorming

This next activity was my favourite of the week, and one I want to use right away in class!

The idea is relatively simple, and even though it was presented to us as a way for teachers to come up with new activity ideas for their classes, I think you could give it to the students in exactly the same context.

All you need to do is find a science news story. Have a good read of it, then think of a way you can present the research; replicate the experiments (within your means), demonstrate the experiment or outcomes, model it, any way you can think of to showcase what the article is talking about. You can do further research as necessary to better understand the experiments, context, etc, or keep it as simple as possible by only looking at the article itself.

There are so many tie in activities for this – literacy activities when reading the article, building internet research skills, and particularly practising an enquiry cycle while working out the best way to represent the content.

Our group looked at an article that talked about how scientist are using the polymers that make up fishing line to create artificial muscles by coiling them. We did a bit of internet research to find out more, and ended up using a drill, a hook as the drill bit, some metal nuts at weights, and some ordinary fishing wire. We were able to replicate the coil product, getting better each time we tried it.

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There were so many ideas we though of from this simple activity – competitions where students had to create the longest coil, testing different fishing line thicknesses, testing different weights to find the optimum tension for creating the coil, even extending it to creating a ‘muscle’ like they did in the research.

We had a break for lunch at this point. It was a nice lunch of sandwich and wrap varieties that was repeated most other days during the week. There never seemed to be quite enough though, but I don’t think anyone actually went hungry.

After the break, we all shared our news brainstorming and activities. Again I was impressed by the quality and variety of what everyone produced. There were so many activity ideas, and no one was in the least bit worried that most would need more fine tuning before they could be taken into the classroom. We were all still in the mindset from the morning that we don’t have to produce complete, perfect activities. Rather, we’d all kind of stuck with the idea of protostorming, coming up with myriad approaches and suggestions. We ended up running over time by half an hour, but no one minded because it was so interesting! Most people seemed to think like I did and want to use this activity in the classroom as it was presented to us, and see what the students themselves could come up with!

Science Circus

After a break for afternoon tea (lovely fruit platters), we were given the afternoon to rotate at our own pace through a ‘science circus’. On each table in the makerspace was two or three different simple science activities to try out. Things like making oobleck and lava lamps, exploring properties of light, levitating ping pong balls with a hair dryer, making tea bag hot air balloons. It was such a fun afternoon of play, I’m sure we all felt like kids again! There weren’t many new activity ideas there for me, but I know others found great ideas for their classrooms.

Once we were done playing, people in the group were given the opportunity to share their own activity ideas. Only a couple of people volunteered though, and I think doing that on the first day was perhaps not the best option – people were still a bit unsure of the audience and exactly what was expected.

Dinner and Science Show

At the end of the afternoon, we were taken back to the ANU where we had a dinner of roast meats and salads. For some reason we almost ran out of baked potatoes, so by the time my table got there we were explicitly told to take only one each, while others on previous tables had taken many. Oh well, it seemed like a learning experience for the caterers too!

After dinner we were in for a real treat – a science show from Science ShowOffs! The evening was filled with explosions and hilarity, and quite a few tips for engagement too. It reminded me of the importance of ‘shock science’ experiments, ones that excite and amaze the audience in order to increase engagement. I admit I haven’t done many of them before, but I think I should opt to do more of it this year. There’s nothing quite like watching a cannon of teddy bears explode, or a giant pillar of steam come out of a giant bin of dry ice when it combines with boiling water. If you get the opportunity, I would highly recommend Dr Graham Walker’s show, he includes a lot of science (and even some maths and engineering), and so many jokes that it really was a fantastic way to end our first day of STEM X.

We all went to bed in high spirits, looking forward to the remainder of the week, even if our brains were already feeling a bit full after a few weeks of Christmas holidays!

 


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About the Author:

Emily is a secondary science teacher. She enjoys blogging about her experiences, creating hilarious teaching memes, and drinking tea and wine. You can see more posts from Emily here!

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