Northwest Tri-County IU 5: Tying STEM learning to academic standards

When students at Northwest Tri-County IU 5’s STEM summer camp launched space balloons, they weren’t just competing to see whose balloon could reach a stratospheric 60,000 feet. They were actually conducting STEM exercises deliberately aligned with the educational content that schools must deliver.

“The students are actually measuring the sphere of the balloon,” says IU 5 Assistat Director Nick Paolini. “They’re calculating circumference. How many pounds of helium do I need to put in this balloon to raise a payload that weighs 1,200 grams, in order to reach 60,000 feet? There’s a whole science calculation behind that.”

While schools focus on teaching the STEM skills vital to the economy of today and tomorrow, IU 5 is helping assure that STEM activities aren’t just fun exercises but actually reinforce Pennsylvania Department of Education standards – the “eligible content” that students must master in every subject. Through its Applied Curriculum service, the IU develops standards-based classroom activities that teachers can use.

“We bring the curriculum to life,” says Paolini. “We focus on the standards in science, math, and English language arts to figure out the hands-on projects that can support the eligible content that’s being tested in the spring.”

The STEM summer camp, called ConstrX, is part of the initiative. The space-balloon exercises addressed a long list of academic standards in English language arts for science and technology, including determining the central ideas of a text, carrying out multistep experiments, and writing conclusions using facts to support claims.

In one ConstrX exercise, students were given little direction in a challenge to build controllable blimps with balloons and remote-control cars. Few actually succeeded, but in ConstrX and the Applied Curriculum service, “we celebrate failure, because you learn from that,” says Paolini. “One of the things that’s a culture shock is when we show up on the first day and say, ‘We want you to fail.’”

It’s all part of making STEM learning relevant to the educational experience.

“There are a lot of great STEM things happening, but we find they’re just that,” says Paolini. “They’re fun things without direct connection to eligible content. We provide the scaffold that allows students to put their academics into real-life practice.”

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