I am writing this blog right now from a lounging area at the Ottawa Convention Center, where a group of us (Laura Good, Michelle Mileham, Jen Wyld, Shawn Rowe and myself) are participating at the North American Association for Environmental Education – NAAEE 2014 Conference. This morning, we tag teamed in the presentation of a workshop to help a diverse array of environmental educators to think about EE and STEM integration at their institutions, what STEM means to them and what would be some STEM integration goals in their workplaces. One of our activities included a “thought swap” exercise with prompted questions to draw on people’s perceptions and understanding about STEM.

As an exercise for ourselves as presenters, we decided to also answer the questions so that we knew where everyone of us was coming from as we all represent different backgrounds and perspectives. It was a good reflective exercise that drew me back to my past and really made me think about identity building within STEM fields. So, I thought I should share my thoughts in this blog and invite you to comment and respond as a further reflective exercise. What is a STEM activity to you? If you have the opportunity, how do you engage learners in STEM activities? Where do you want to see STEM in the future?

NAAEE 2014 - Sharing STEM definitions
NAAEE 2014 – Sharing STEM definitions


NAAEE 2014 - thinking and talking about STEM and STEM goals
NAAEE 2014 – thinking and talking about STEM and STEM goals



When I was  prompted to think about STEM opportunities during my childhood, the first thing that came to mind were my years growing up with the ocean as my backyard. Not having much money, my playtime and built experiences involved a lot of exploration, observation and use of creative tools for play at a natural environment, the ocean. A lot of inquiry, a lot of repurposing, and engineering went on while me and my brothers tried to build floating devices from found natural objects, or just simply got curious about understanding why and how the sea cucumber squirted when handled by us. Those years were full with STEM opportunities, sometimes taken and sometimes ignored, but they consist of the basis of my critical thinking about the state of our oceans and what its challenges represent to me, as well as my career choices.

Past jobs I had almost always involved some sort of science-based activity involving live animal interactions. The insect zoo programs I did while working at Iowa State University are a great example of it, where there was a lot of science inquiry through hands-on, minds-on activities and tasks that related the science concepts in programing with the audience’s daily lives and activities, addressing misconceptions in practical and fun ways. (i.e. Why are people scared of bugs, why do people think hissing cockroaches are big and nasty? Well …lets look at them closely and think about what we know, discuss with ours peers and figure out why we think that).

Perhaps at that point, I did not have a full understanding of STEM, but that was nevertheless part of my work routine. Today, STEM fields are defined and specialized fields receiving much attention in modern society as an important literacy component, especially when we want to address modern world issues. They become important because, although generally seen as complex fields, they are nevertheless part of daily life and routine activities for people. There are many opportunities for STEM thinking from the time one wakes up to the time ones goes to bed. From thinking to actual activity, STEM occurs when those real world applications are materialized in a STEM goal, which one works toward with real specialized tools to further develop understanding.

With that in mind, an important goal I see for this new and ongoing discussion of what STEM is and how we do and promote STEM, is not only the development of the field in its needed scenarios, but also the recognition of the very social aspect of incorporating this new field of “STEM” as a symbolic and cultural tool that societies appropriate. Engaging in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math should go along with clearly understanding why, how and for whom to engage in a particular STEM practice, as a way to truly assign meaning to the activity beyond doing STEM for the sake of STEM.

What do erupting volcanoes, learning to code, building bridges, creating art, and cooking have in common? They are all STEAM activities! This past year I started working as an external evaluator on Lincoln County School District’s (LCSD) 21st Century After School Program. There are seven sites throughout the county that are funded as 21st Century Community Learning Centers. The goal of the federal program is to “provide academic enrichment opportunities during non-school hours for children…offer students a broad array of enrichment activities that can complement their regular academic programs, and offer literacy and other educational services to the families of participating children.” LCSD’s program aligns with these goals, focusing specifically on providing students and their families STEAM-based activities.

Being a new project in the 2013-2014 school year, the 21st Century After School Program kept me on my toes as an external evaluator. All documents for data collection had to be written very quickly so they could be distributed as close to the start of the school year as possible. While the tools for collecting data did not fail they certainly could have been better. As the program moves into the second of it’s five years, I thought it best not only to redesigned some of the tools but also to communicate to the site coordinators why collecting this data is important. Site coordinators, one for each of the seven sites, are responsible for distributing, collecting, and turning in all of the instruments I use to collect data. The only part of data collection they are not responsible for are the standardized test scores, which are handled by the school district. Collecting data is no small task for the site coordinators because they already have a lot on their plate. Therefore, the program coordinator and I agreed that sharing results from the first year would showcase the importance of data collection.

Early in September I presented preliminary findings at the first site coordinator meeting of the second year of the program. You can view and listen to my presentation here.  The presentation ends with me addressing the four main instruments for data collection: a monthly recording sheet to document the STEAM activities and resources, the student STEM interest survey, a family literacy and STEAM night reporting document, and the parent survey.

Working as an external evaluator on these types of projects is always exciting for me. They push me to think in new ways and certainly make me a better researcher and evaluator. If you have any questions about the 21st Century After School Program or the documents I’ve produced, please feel free to be in touch.

As the school year comes to an end so too do the school-based projects I evaluate. What this means, first and foremost, is a mad rush to collect data. It’s also a time for those involved in the project to come together and share what they’ve been doing for the past 8 months. As an evaluator, I have been focused on the mad rush of data collection – writing surveys, distributing surveys, leading focus groups, and conducting site observations. All of this data is needed to prove these projects are doing great things; however, what I truly love is hearing about the activities educators are using to engage their students in STE(A)M.

As an evaluator I have to ask: how do you capture the amazing ideas these educators are coming up with and how do you evaluate the impact they’re having? And by impact I mean both the impact on students and the impact on other educators who are hearing what’s been done in other educational settings. What I’m actually asking is how do you evaluate jaw-dropping moments?

To put these questions into some context I need to clarify that I am, from here on, talking about my experience as one of the evaluators with the Oregon Coast Regional STEM Education Center . The STEM Center is a collaboration between Lincoln County School District, Tillamook County School District, and countless institutions and organizations up and down the Oregon Coast. A U.S. Department of Education Math Science Partnership grant funds the STEM Center, which offers professional development to teachers in both school districts. Over the course of the school year the teachers put Project-Based Learning (PBL) into practice.

Now to turn back to the questions I asked above. How do you capture the amazing ideas these educators are coming up with? We do collect and archive as much as we can, specifically PBL overviews, PowerPoints, assessments, and other resources teachers and students use during PBL and include them all on the website for others to use. 2013-2014 school year PBLs should be up this summer but you can peruse 2012-2013 PBLs here.


Sean Bedell shows his colleagues a core sample he and his students took while looking for evidence of Oregon’s 1700 tsunami (project further discussed below).

How do you evaluate the impact these projects have? This question is more difficult to answer. For students, we distribute a STEM interest survey at the beginning and end of the school year and we use student test scores, but to me that can’t tell the whole story. The hard pill to swallow as an evaluator is that in order to capture what I would call the true impact on students and the whole story, this project would require longitudinal study (think 5 or 10+ years of collecting data and interviewing students). We also have teachers complete pre- and post-project surveys and have them write a reflection and those sources have proven to be useful in past projects to understand impact. We talked about running a focus group with the 2013-2014 STEM Center teachers to gauge how they incorporate all of the information delivered through professional development to plan and implement their PBLs. Anecdotal evidence shows that teachers are no longer taking a kit or pre-written lessons and using it as is in the classroom; instead, they are taking ideas from multiple sources and piecing together large scale projects. Essentially, their self-efficacy to do PBL and STE(A)M in the classroom is rising.

Most of the teachers presented their 2013-2014 PBL to their colleagues last Saturday. I was in the audience with my jaw on the floor for most of the day. I really appreciated the variety of presentations, which included posters, ignite presentations (i.e. short, sweet, and fast), and student voice-over presentations. In the afternoon some students came and presented PBLs from their perspective.  I can’t cover all of the projects here and encourage any readers to keep checking the website as we add the 2013-2014 PBLs. Here’s a selection of projects that caught my attention:

– Students at Newport Prep Academy studied marbled murrelets and corvids, specifically how the latter prey on the former’s eggs. Human interference (i.e. leaving trash at picnic sites) brings corvids closer to marbled murrelets. Check out the Public Service Announcements produced by the students using iPads and iMovie. QR codes the students created will soon be at picnic areas of state and national parks.

– Students at Eddyville Charter School focused on tsunamis. They designed, built, and tested their own tsunami structure at Hinsdale Wave Research Lab. Students also researched the earthquake and tsunami that hit Oregon in 1700 by taking core samples at five different locations to look for tsunami evidence. Check out their website, which contains videos and student wikis about the project.

– At another school, students had to engineer a closed forest ecosystem to gain an understanding on how we could sustain life on another planet. This was definitely a test-retest project as students had to monitor pH and water levels to keep plants alive. Many students had to re-engineer their plans and use different materials to meet the challenge.

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Examples of student-designed forest ecosystems.

– In Tillamook, elementary students were given a challenge by the local utility company, which was really a fake letter written by the teacher with the company’s approval. Students had to evaluate different sources of renewable energy and where such sources could be placed within the landscape to be most efficient. At the end of the PBL, students presented their findings to an expert panel.

See? Jaw on the ground! And this is just a sample of what these amazing teachers in Lincoln and Tillamook County School Districts are working on with their students!


As the lab considers how to encourage STEM reflection around the tsunami tank, this recent post from Nina Simon at Museum 2.0 reminds us what a difference the choice of a single word can make in visitor reflection:

“While the lists look the same on the surface (and bear in mind that the one on the left has been on display for 3 weeks longer than the one on the right), the content is subtly different. Both these lists are interesting, but the “we” list invites spectators into the experience a bit more than the “I” list.”

So as we go forward, the choice not only of the physical booth set up (i.e. allowing privacy or open to spectators), but also the specific wording can influence how our visitors choose to focus or not on the task we’re trying to investigate, and how broad or specific/personal their reflections might be. Hopefully, we’ll be able to do some testing of several supposedly equivalent prompts as Simon suggests in an earlier post as well as more “traditional” iterative prototyping.