Creating the Future

As ESE Specialist, I am responsible for students in kindergarten through 8th grade who have a variety of special needs. I teach students with dyslexia, autism, attention deficit disorder, intellectual disabilities, among others. On a normal day, I look out at my students and see learning challenges in reading, writing, math, science and social studies. Traditional classrooms can pose a challenge to them, so I am always on the lookout for ways to help them learn more effectively.

In August 2015, I decided to start an engineering and robotics club. I had applied for a $1000 grant from Google (and won!) that was used to buy our first robotics kit and I don’t know who was more thrilled—me or the students! I learned how to program it and later taught the students and something amazing happened…. I started seeing them take more of an interest in reading, writing and particularly math. They started to be more interested in their classes and their grades began to improve. Some of the students were regular education students and some were my ESE students. For the students that were more interested in building and researching, I created projects for them to engage in and work on.

These projects led to creating lessons that would incorporate all of the different subjects and create the ultimate STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) lessons. Student achievement and motivation soared as first of the lessons was implemented into my middle school classes. I have since expanded it to included 4th and 5th grade. Our system of education needs to continue to grow and change as our society becomes more technologically advanced. We need to keep pace with the other countries in science and math. I have included in this article exactly how I implemented this program and how it was expanded to include upper elementary grades. I have ideas for expanding it through Kindergarten, but due to the recent pandemic had been unable to fully implement it.

The first step is to explain the project to the students. I tend to use guided notetaking through a PowerPoint slide to explain the process, since the guided notes force them to stay focus and listen. Once I explain enough of it, it intrigues them and that keeps their motivation high. They are given some kind of general and broad problem or situation (for example: environmental issues or re-engineering a current invention).

The students will research their issue or invention or creation to see what is currently being used. They need to look at the advantages and disadvantages of the current process or invention and develop something that will work even better. The project challenges them to think outside the box and imagine what future technologies may be available. These students are the future generation and they are ones who will be creating new ways of doing things. Their ideas as middle and high school students may well be available as they grow up.

They needed to write a essay discussing the following aspects: problem statement, background and current process or invention information, advantages and disadvantages, description of the new invention or idea, and how it will be more effective and efficient. Students are required to have at least two sources and to use MLA citations. They are also required to present their material in front of the class and be prepared to answer questions from the audience.

In order to bring in math, science and engineering, students were required to design a prototype for their invention or issue and draw a blueprint or design. The prototype and design would need to include an accurate scale and measurements so that the real object or idea could be created and developed. This would all be included in their presentation.

One student group of two girls (both 8th graders) designed a city that used bioengineering to be modeled after a turtle. It had a clear outer dome that was as hard as a turtle shell and could move underwater, on water or on land. There were outer docks, farms and areas for the people to gather resources (the flippers) and the head was the main control center to move the city (the head). When threatened, the head and flippers could be retracted into the “shell” for protection until the threat ended. The girls created the model and even used a motor to demonstrate the retraction of the head and flippers.

This program was so successful with my middle school students that I decided to expand it to 4th and 5th grade. These students were given written assignments that had a lower word count requirement and they did not have to use MLA style (simply listing the source and the author were sufficient.

I have been thinking of expanding it further to Kindergarten through 3rd grade. Second and third grade students would work in groups of 3 or 4 to create one project. The writing requirement would be reduced to a paragraph or two with the creation of the model. They would not be required to create scale models, but would explain how it would be used. In Kindergarten and 1st grade, students would work in groups to draw a picture and/or build a model and discuss their invention with the class. The idea at this young age is to get the students to be imaginative and to think critically about problems and possible solutions.

In this age of technology, students rarely have the opportunity to be creative and imaginative. They are given toys as toddlers and kids that talk and move. Lego models come with instruction manuals. They need to have the chance to come up with their own ideas and creations. They also need to be aware of what is currently out in the world and make decisions about how to improve upon it.

At the end of this project, the children were extremely motivated to learn and apply themselves. The teachers were able to incorporate this hands-on activity into their instruction as well as their normal teaching activities. First, everyone had about 15 minutes of whole-group instruction. Any more than that and the teacher will rapidly start losing their students. They break off into different learning stations: independent work, small groups, and hands-on activities research. The higher students are given the independent work or hands-on activities right away. This allows the teacher to immediately pull their lower students to give them more individualized attention so that they can complete the independent activities. The hands-on activities and research are where the students will work on their project. Each group needs to have a cubby or box or area where they can neatly keep their project for the next day. It should not be brought to and from home.

We saw improvements in the achievement of all students with these teaching practices. Students gained self-esteem and confidence in their abilities. They performed better on tests and classroom assignments. The students were able to think more critically and creatively, applying it to afterschool clubs and activities both in school and in the community.

As teachers, we teach our students to master academic material…

we teach our students how to learn more effectively…

we teach our students how to work together in groups…

we teach our students to think and problem solve…

In order to develop the leaders and experts of the future!

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