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The S in STEM

What are some famous pairings that you can think of? Peanut butter and jelly, Fred and Ginger, shoes and socks, Microsoft and Apple…the list goes on. What about science and mathematics? They are often spoken of as two complementary disciplines, but what education experts will tell you is that their overlap can disguise important distinctions.

T2T-I’s coaching visits to the William M. Botnan school in the highland town of Santa Avelina, Guatemala, typically focus on mathematics. So we were excited that our recent trip included Professor Dan Levin, who teaches students at the University of Maryland about science education strategies and practice. Written by Dr. Levin, here’s a behind-the-scenes look at how he highlighted the S in STEM.


Day 1

The overall goal of this seminar was to help teachers plan lessons to elicit their students’ mathematical and scientific reasoning. The metaphor of a coin was introduced to the teachers, where one side of the coin represents students’ thinking and talking, and the other side emphasizes the teacher listening to the students’ thinking and talking. Students reason, explore, and explain, while the teacher listens and guides them if needed. Both elements are necessary for effective instruction.

The exploration-before-explanation workshop had three main parts. The teachers would:

  1. Participate in a lesson where the local teachers experience the two sides of the coin, doing the thinking and talking while the T2T team listened and responded
  2. Discuss the thinking that the teachers expressed during the lesson
  3. Begin planning lessons to apply this thinking/listening strategy in the teachers’ classrooms



I began by posing a science question to spark discussion among the teachers as they took on the role of students. I like opening this way because it’s fun, and because it reminds us that science is about exploration, discovery, excitement, and understanding. It’s P.E. for the mind. Also, if we expect science teachers to push their students to reason, we must provide them opportunities to push themselves.

I had purchased some basic supplies during our overnight stop in Chichicastenango. I swung a bead on the end of a piece of string and asked, “If I were to swing this bead back-and-forth like this, and cut it when it reaches its highest point, just when it is about to come back down, what will happen to the bead?”

(To have some of your own fun, you might take a moment here to consider what your response might be!)

After briefly talking in pairs, the teachers’ ideas began flowing rapidly. One teacher suggested that the bead would fly back in the direction it came from on an angle. I asked the rest of the group what they thought about that idea, reminding them that science progresses through disagreement and debate. Arguing about scientific explanations creates greater understanding.

A second teacher asserted that since the bead has its own force and momentum, it would fly off in the direction it was heading. The computer teacher then pointed out that when the bead was ready to come back down, it did not have any force acting on it except gravity. Therefore, it would fall straight to the ground.

In debating these different solutions, the teachers readily drew on their experience of being on a swing. They questioned exactly when the string is cut and what ideal conditions are presumed. My next step was to give each pair of teachers a bead on a string to try out different ideas and revise their explanations. Finally, we came back together and discussed our thinking.

At the end of our investigation, someone asked me for the answer. First, I reminded teachers that the finding the “right answer” might not necessarily be our only goal in the classroom. Before explaining more about that, however, I explained what a “physicist would say” in the idealized problem: when the bead is just about to come back down, it has no velocity and no momentum, and the only force acting on it is gravity.

But how to define a right answer in a science lesson? Is it simply what would happen to the bead? Or is the right answer the students’ application of concepts of force, momentum, velocity, and gravity in their pursuit of an explanation?

And when is the right answer important? Do students have to know the right answer at the end of class? Or could they have time to reconsider it, review the arguments, try out new things, and question their own understanding? Instead of revealing the correct answer, if we had been continuing to work on this problem, I might have sent them home to think or write about it.

Finally, we introduced the tools that we thought the teachers might use in planning science lessons. For example, I described the 5E instructional model — engage, explore, explain, elaborate, and evaluate. The Spanish equivalent is emocionar, explorar, explicar, evaluar, and elaborar.



While not a magic lesson plan format, this sequence allows teachers to consider the opportunities for students to reason (the tail side of the coin) before they, or the teacher, explain it. We shouldn’t necessarily expect that students discover all knowledge on their own, when history tells us that scientific knowledge and theory have been developed and refined over centuries. After all, Aristotle knew less about the variety of chemical elements than does today’s eighth grade student in Santa Avelina. Nevertheless, students should be doing the reasoning, and teachers should help them use their reasoning to understand scientific knowledge and practice.

The rest of the day was spent introducing additional teaching tools and planning science lessons. Each teacher had an opportunity to describe her or his lesson plan. We gave feedback and asked them to give each other feedback, using a list of questions for guidance. I was excited to hear that all the teachers planned to use the lesson they had just constructed in their classrooms the following day.

Day 2

I visited the sixth grade class the next day to observe a lesson on the teaching of practices of experimental scientific investigation. In our workshop the day before, the teacher, with the help of a colleague, had designed a lesson to teach students particular elements of scientific practice, such as questioning, hypothesizing, and concluding, by first having them explore a phenomenon.

He began by explaining to the students that we all have questions, and that questions are important in science. He asked the students what kinds of questions they had. It was clear from his attentiveness that he valued his students’ ideas.

The results — an egg floats in salt water

He then told the class that he had a question he wanted them to explore — what would happen if he placed an egg in fresh water and what would happen if he put it in salt water? Students came up with several ideas. Some thought it would float in salt water or fresh water, while some thought the opposite. Some thought other things might happen, such as the egg exploding.

Again the teacher was receptive to all ideas. He had a greater point than whether the students were correct or not. He wanted them to understand that they had been making hypotheses.

The rest of the class continued in a similar way. Students observed the egg under both conditions and confirmed that the egg floated in salt water and sank in fresh water. The teacher identified this as their results. He then asked them to explain why the egg floats in salt water and sinks in fresh water. Collaboratively, the class came to agreement that the egg sinks in fresh water because it is more dense than fresh water, and the opposite is true in salt water. This explanation, he revealed, was their conclusion.

Dr. Levin continued to observe the other grade-level classrooms, meeting with each teacher individually to answer questions and offer impressions. T2T-I would like to thank Dr. Levin enthusiastically for giving his time to the teachers in Santa Avelina. With more effective science instruction, the 167 students at the William M. Botnan school will have opportunities open to them to that were closed off from past generations.


Further Reading

Bybee, R. W., Taylor, J. A., Gardner, A., Van Scotter, P., Powell, J. C., Westbrook, A., & Landes, N. (2006). The BSCS 5E instructional model: Origins and effectiveness. Colorado Springs, Co: BSCS5, 88-98.

Hammer, D., & van Zee, E. (2006). Seeing the science in children’s thinking: Case studies of student inquiry in physical science. Heinemann Educational Books.

Levin, D.M., Hammer, D., Elby, A., and Coffey, J. (2012).  Becoming a responsive science teacher:  Focusing on student thinking in secondary science. Arlington VA: NSTA Press.

National Research Council. (2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Robertson, A.D., Scherr, R.E., and Hammer, D. (Eds) (2016) Responsive Teaching in Science. London:  Rutledge.

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. ASCD.

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