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Best free elementary STEM resources (new and lesser-known)
Mustering all the contrition I could, I spoke up during the disciplinary meeting.
“I’m immensely sorry and don’t know what came over me. It won’t happen again.”
The principal of my first school stared incredulously at me across the desk of his office.
“You don’t know what came over you…as you expertly wired the lights to shake along with sound effects during your classroom simulations?” he prodded. “What did you say last time you were here? It was after you cut a hole in your wall so you could deliver ‘new information’ during simulations in a more exciting way?”
Maintaining a perfect and practiced level of remorse, I responded, “I’m immensely sorry and don’t know what came over me. It won’t happen again.”
I’m what experts would call “obsessed.” I love creating collaborative hands-on learning activities. I’ve spent more than a decade building everything from paper-based simulations and a mobile spaceship simulator trailer to a specialty after-school camp and field trip center serving over 300,000 kids.
Obsessed. But personally, I prefer the more scientific term: overeager nerd.
In general, education tends to overly focus on developing and measuring a student's ability to remember information. Unfortunately, this once highly sought-after skill, capable of leaving Victorian-era party-goers aghast by your wealth of easily retrieved factoids just doesn’t carry the same punch it used to.
We literally carry a little glass box capable of accessing the sum of all human knowledge in our pockets.
The World Economic Forum recently published its 2023 Future of Jobs Report. They demonstrate how far we’ve come from the sole focus of building a foundational skill set of reading, writing, and arithmetic.
This is why it is critical to help students move beyond information, and learn more about how to use information. Hands-on, collaborative simulations and activities are one of the best ways I’ve found to do exactly that. Most of my career has been focused on STEM specialty courses, which allows us to easily focus on what we create and the problems we solve.
For a typical teacher to bring this type of learning into their classroom, which isn’t quite as awash with robots, Legos, and Keva planks – is a bit more of a challenge. Speaking from experience, it typically takes four hours to create an activity that is finished in 40 minutes. Not exactly what we would call sustainable or scalable.
This is why I get excited when I find new resources that help make the collaborative and engaged learning process easier. Each of these tools has generous free options and focuses on active, critical thinking. It is also by no means a comprehensive list but is focused on the resources I get the most surprising reactions about when I'm out training teachers.
What it is: A really cool library of activities, games, and resources that are all free to the public.
How I like to use it: The lessons come pretty well-documented, so I like to follow their outline for the activity and add my own high-stakes scenario to ensure we have the right epic-scale. This typically takes the form of taking the engineering task and giving it context to solve some world-ending dilemma.
What it is: A new platform backed by NSF that lets students collaboratively find solutions to high-stakes problems in outer space, the human body, etc. Like a magic school bus on steroids. Full disclosure - I was involved in building this one, so that either makes it the best or the most sketchy depending on how close of friends we are by this point in the blog.
How I like to use it: I like to pick a mission tied to standards we are focusing on in class, and have the lesson build up to this experience. This typically takes the form of, "we need to know this or you probably won't survive your mission." Then the plug-and-play mission is the perfect capstone experience for students to put that learning to the test.
3 - DataFly
What it is: A unique way to generate data based on real-time student responses (great for humanizing data and helping students understand charts and graphs)
How I like to use it: I like to come up with a list of questions and go through a cycle of response/discussion about each one with the entire class. Some questions are basic questions (what is your favorite place to eat), and others can be more complex (shoe size vs. weight).
4 - PhET
What it is: The best library I’ve found of free simulations for pretty much anything you can think of. The key here is to not just sit kids in front of it. It works best if you pair it with a classroom challenge requiring the exploration of specific simulations to find the solution to some problem.
How I like to use it: I like to create a fake crisis tied to whatever simulation I'm focusing on at that moment. This typically involves using AI to create a visual to set the stage, then giving the students the same basic data to start with. Then, I have the students, who are broken up into teams, come up with the best solution based on their playing with the simulation within a certain amount of time. When times up, I list which teams were correct and which weren't, followed by brief discussion of why.
I know all of these may not be new to everyone, but they are resources I feel are underutilized or new enough that teachers should definitely try them out. If you have any other favorite programs that are new or lesser-known please feel free to share them!
Masterson, V. (2023, May 1). Future of jobs 2023: These are the most in-demand skills now - and beyond. Retrieved September 7, 2023, from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2023/05/future-of-jobs-2023-skills/