Incorporating STEM challenges- management, grading, and expectations

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Lately I’m very interested in incorporating more hands on learning in my science classroom that is unique of building a science model or completing an experiment/ investigation. Don’t get me wrong; these practices are very important, but I’m been trying to mix things up! It’s the end of the year and I want to keep my students challenged and engaged.

One thing that has really inspired me is a maker space teacher training I attend every Saturday at the IDIYA Makerspace . These classes are giving me the kick in the butt I need to incorporate more STEM in my classroom. Some things I would ask about before these classes were How would I grade the students? How would I keep them from going off in my small, boxy classroom? How would I keep them on track?

Assessment and expectations

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This simple rubric keeps my students on task and I am able to forget about management and circulate while asking probing questions to each group.

I use a rubric that I found online and edited to grade the students’ as a team. Each team has this rubric sitting between them during every STEM challenge. Before each challenge begins, I have the entire class review the rubric. This keeps the expectations fresh in their heads even though they have seen it before. As I circulate the room, I put a dot each time they have to be reminded of something in any of the categories. I also add positive comments and notes so that I can remember small details as I give them feedback afterwards. Towards the end of the challenge, I circle each box for the points they earn. This is a shared grade.

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Screen shot of my presentation. Prove Its are what we call exit tickets.

After the challenge, the students reflect on their experience. This is really important and helps the students candidly participate in a whole group or small group discussion about the challenge. The reflection writing piece  asks students about what worked well, what didn’t work well, and what advice would they give another student about to complete this challenge?  I make it very clear before they start that even if their design is unsuccessful, they will be successful if they collaborate, try their best, and get creative.The reflective piece is done individually at level 0, and students may listen to classical music or jazz on their Chromebooks as they write.


I have great success with management on my STEM challenge Fridays. I think one reason is that students are so engaged and excited by the materials. Going over the expectations each class and having a rubric we review that is visible both on the board as well as on the table of each group also plays a huge role in successful STEM days. Once the students begin their work, I can forget about keeping things in order and actually focus on teaching and asking Socratic style questions (Side note- I accidentally typed “socrative” the first time around… yas #EdTech!).

Ready to start? These links include directions, materials, and procedures:
How does the design of our catapult affect the distance the figurine travels?

How can we save Sam?
How can we save Sam? Packet with questions

STEM on!

Twitter is the New Help Desk

The other day, I had a revelation about Twitter.

I was getting a nearpod presentation ready for my class.  The presentation was all set and ready to go from the week before, I just had to publish it.  About two hours before my class, I pressed “Publish” and waited… and waited… and waited…

It seemed like something was wrong.  After troubleshooting on my own for a bit and ruling out a problem with my computer and connection, I realized I was going to have to reach out for help.

I pressed the dreaded “Contact Us” button on the nearpod homepage and wrote a message to their help desk about my issue.  Then, I had a brainstorm.  I’d heard of companies who monitor their image on Twitter and thought that I would check to see if nearpod had a presence.  It turns out they have a handle @nearpodhelp so I tweeted at them to see if I would get a response.  All of the following exchange took place within an hour.

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During this time, I was still monitoring students as they finished assessments while at the same time solving the problem that would have derailed my afternoon class.  I didn’t have to wait until my 20 minute lunch period right before class to wait on a customer service line.  The response was almost instantaneous, and they were able to solve the problem immediately.

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I get why companies do this – twitter is public, so their customer service is visible and transparent.  It’s a very clear win for them in the arena of public opinion.  And, clearly, was a win for me!  I probably would have had to scrap my lesson and throw something together last minute if they hadn’t been able to step in and help.  Thanks @nearpodhelp and thanks Twitter!  I’m a convert.

Incorporating augmented reality experiences in the classroom using Spacecraft 3D By NASA

3d spacecraft

Hello, all! Better late than never. I’m writing to hype up the awesome app called Spacecraft 3D, an augmented reality app available for free for iPhones and Apple products (and also for Androids, I think) by NASA.

Overview: This app requires you to download and print a PDF of pictures– markers– for the app to interact with. I used the included marker that focuses on Mars rovers. Once you have both the app and at least one copy of the marker sheet, just hover your phone/ tablet over one of the pictures and this happens:
IMG_0783 (1)When you hover your tablet or phone over an image of Mars that a specific rover explored, said rover appears as a 360 degree view 3D image! In the image above, you are viewing the Curiosity.

The image is also interactive. If you click the icon of a mini rover (second from the right), most of the images will move. For instance, the Mars Exploration Rover will unstow and open up. Others have things attachments that unfold when engaged.

If you do not have access to a printer and want to mess around with this app, you can pull the markers up on a different screen and hover the Spacecraft 3D app over the screen.

Once students have explored a rover’s movement and build, they can click the icon all the way on the right that is an italicized I. This will provide a non-fiction text listing the proportions of whichever specific rover you are exploring, as well as launch information, and the history of the vehicle.

Application: I had a worksheet with specific questions about each rover for the students to answer as they explored. This was a station of about 7 students in my classroom on a day that the students explored how technology enhances space exploration. Each student at this station had a marker, and most had a tablet or phone to hover over the images. I also had a station with a telescope and questions, and a station with a reading about “planet 9” on NewsELA.

Reaction: The students were FLOORED!!! Every student was trying to stick their hand through the image, and once they realized that they could interact with the images, they were literally grinning ear to ear. I wish I took pictures, but I needed my phone at the station for the students to use.

“This is a real thing! Ah! This was really on Mars?!!!”- confused and excited student.

Pros: This app really helped the students understand rovers better. They were able to learn that they are smaller than rocket ships, they were able to read about each rover, and they were able to see how versatile each spacecraft is with the interactive component. The students at this station were 100% engaged, and have been asking me to help them download the app and print markers that we did not use in class (yet!).

This app is a perfect match for the following standard:

ES47: Identify and explain advances in technology that have enabled the exploration of space

Cons: You really have to man this at a station or however you first present this to your class. I know that at my school, the students do not normally use technology like this, and I really had to walk them through the features. To help with this, I trained several “experts” from my homeroom, and went through the app ahead of time with them. That way, they were able to help the students throughout class.

Another problem I had is that although I asked all week for students to bring in phones and tablets, only about 5 per class brought them in. This app would be more ideal if I had a class set of tablets already set up with the apps I wanted– which is my goal for 2016-2017.

Last note: If you teach space in your science curriculum, give this app a try! Don’t be afraid of management- the students will be so shocked and fascinated by NASA’s Spacecraft 3D that they will be on their best behavior in order to participate!  I am already trying to figure out how to get iPADS for next year to do more stuff like this. KIDS ARE STILL TALKING ABOUT HOW AWESOME THIS CLASS WAS!

Nearpod for Dummies

In December, SPICYSCIENCETEACHER convinced you of the wonders of Nearpod.  I know that after reading that post, I wanted to use it in my classroom to deliver seamless instruction and whole group CFUs.  And I did –  but only after hitting some snags.  Read on to find out the easiest ways to get started and how to avoid some of the time-sucking pitfalls that I ran into along my journey to 100% engagement.

Creating a Presentation:

Before you can create a presentation, you have to sign in.  You can choose to create a username and password or you can log in with your google sign in.  That’s easy.

Next, Nearpod asks you what you would like to do.  If you’re trying to make a new presentation for class tomorrow, click on “Create.”

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Here’s where these tips come in handy.  I find that creating slides within Nearpod is clunky and awkward.  It requires a lot of maneuvering for not a lot of payoff.  To get around this, I create my presentations in Google Slides first and then add in the CFUs later.

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To upload to Nearpod, you need to download your presentation as a PDF.

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Then, drag your file to Nearpod.

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All of your slides should be added!

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Adding in CFUs:

Now to the fun part, adding your CFU questions!

To add in a question, click on the space in between the slides you want to insert a question.  Click on Add Slide –> Add Activity –> and click on the type of activity you want.

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Multiple choice questions are “Quiz” questions.  I often use “Open End Question” for answers that require typing a sentence.  In science class, we sometimes use “Draw It” and you can draw on a diagram of your choosing.  Many of the other types of questions are reserved for paying subscribers.  In my experience, I’ve found I usually don’t need any more than these three types of CFUs.

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Tips for Presentation:

I teach 3rd and 4th graders so I’ve found that structuring INM a certain way can make my life and their lives a lot easier.  First, I make sure to type the website on their classwork.  I also include a line that they can write the class code on in case they accidentally click out of the tab.

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Elementary students work at all different paces, so I usually keep a completed set of notes on the ELMO and reveal answers as we go along in the presentation.  That way, students are practicing getting information from the computer presentation but can also check to see if their paper is missing anything even if we’ve moved on.

Because the results can be published to the whole class, I also find that answering questions can be time consuming because students REALLY want to get the right answer.  I structure that by having a countdown to when answers need to be submitted.


Hope this helps get you started with powerful and engaging INM!  Feel free to leave any other tips and tricks in the comments.


Weo: Pinterest for Teachers

I’m addicted to Pinterest.  I can get sucked into a black hole of time looking up amazing things for my home and classroom.  When I came across I got really excited for multiple reasons.

  1. I can create digital versions of my favorite worksheets with ease.
  2. I can track any given student’s progress though an assignment
  3. I can pin (yes, I said pin) assignments that other teachers have created and then use those for my own students.

When you first log in, you see your dashboard.  The more teachers you follow, the more diverse your dashboard will be, put you can see what it looks like:

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Here’s where you can choose to look at another teacher’s materials or Create a new activity for use with your students.   Even with the Create Activity, they have pre-made templates that be used to or you can start from scratch.   For this post, I’m going to walk you through creating from scratch.

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I love that I have a variety of options for me to create my activity. After I’ve figured out what I want the Title, Description, and Label to me, I add my directions before getting into the meat of the activity

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Now it’s time to add my questions. Again, you have plenty of options that can be used for this.  Notice that multiple choice and short answer can be auto-graded.

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Once you’ve put in your question, you have the ability to change how much the question is worth.  The default is 10 points.  For multiple choice and short answer, I typically change it to be worth 1 point; for Free Response it’s either 2 or 4 points depending on the amount of information that is required to answer the question.

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With multiple choice questions, you can have the answer choices shuffled if you are worried about students looking at other student’s screens.

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Each time you add in a question, it auto-saves, much like Google Drive, you no need to worry about losing your work.  Once you are finished Click on the green “Save Activity” box . This gives you the options of “Assign to Class,” “Pin to Board,” or “Save to Drafts”

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Once it is assigned to a class, you can then head to that class from your Dashboard to track the students as they complete the assignment.  It will give you a quick glance at the assignment. In the first image can see that since I just assigned this, that it is not completed.  However in the second image, you can see that I had 18 turn it in, and 1 did not

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As the students begin to turn in the assignments, you are able to take a look at individual students, or the class as a whole to determine what should be gone over again.

With each assignment that you create, you will want to make sure you pin it to a board so that other teachers can also find it.  I think half of the fun is finding the gems that other teachers have created and using those within your classroom!

Happy creating and pinning!



Using Google Forms in Early Childhood Classrooms

In early childhood classrooms, a large portion of what is taught and assessed are observable skills.  In Pre-K and Kindergarten students need to learn how to hold a book, where to start reading and the difference between a letter and a word.  Below are a few Common Core Standards for Kindergarten English Language Arts.

Print Concepts:


Demonstrate understanding of the organization and basic features of print.


Follow words from left to right, top to bottom, and page by page.


Recognize that spoken words are represented in written language by specific sequences of letters.


Understand that words are separated by spaces in print.


These skills are immensely important but can be difficult to assess in a classroom of thirty students.  Traditional assessments do not work for students who can’t read or write.  This means teachers have to give one on one assessments and take anecdotal notes, a task that can be both daunting and incredibly time consuming.

Recently, I have started using Google Forms to record how students are doing on certain observable Common Core Standards.  I created a form, based on the ten standards I am most interested in tracking data on at the current time.  Then, anytime throughout the day when I see a student reading, I can open the form and record what I notice.  I mark each skill as Mastery, Approaching or Not Yet.

GR Data (2)

This allows me flexibility to record data on students at various times throughout the day– during reading groups or during independent reading time.  I am able to collect data in a way that does not make the task about data collection.  Instead of pulling each student one at a time, while the other 28 work independently, in order to have them read to me, I am now able to gather the information during small group instruction.

My favorite part of this process, is the data collection.  All of the information is saved into a master spreadsheet that looks like this:

GR Data (1)

It is easy to look at overall trends–  which standards are mostly green for mastery vs which have most students in the yellow approaching or red not yet categories. I can also look at specific students and see who is struggling across the board vs. who is only struggling in one area.  This helps me to adjust small group instruction and plan conferences with specific students during independent reading time.

If I am interested in a specific skill, I make a graph of that standard, as seen below.

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GR Data (4)

The next step for me is to continue to collect the data in the master spreadsheet but also have a spreadsheet for each student.  This will be great to show trends over time for a specific student on specific skills.  I envision making line charts to track their progress on a certain standard and showing this to parents or other teachers and interventionists when we have academic conferences.  

I hope to improve my Google Form so that it includes more skills.  This will allow me to collect data on students who have mastered most of the Kindergarten standards and are working on more advanced skills.

Additionally, I hope to make the Google Form more of a collaborative effort.  My coteacher instructs half of the class during reading groups and our interventionist pulls many of my struggling students to work on these skills in small groups.  I would like them to add data to the form so that we have more information to work with and I have a better idea of how my students are doing in the small groups that I do not teach.

I am excited by how much easier it is to collect data on observable skills.  I plan on tweaking my forms and data collection practices to make the data even more useful.  I would also like to figure out a way to make the data accessible to my students.  It is incredibly powerful when a kindergartener is able to talk about what they are learning and goals for growth.

Documenting student learning with Seesaw

      As a teacher, it is easy for me to see the progress students are making by the work that they produce. What I have found, however, is that students and parents aren’t able to see that same progress because they do not have access to the finished products on a daily basis. I have recently introduced Seesaw, a student driven digital portfolio into my classroom. Seesaw allows students to create notes, upload work, and make videos to document their work. At first, I was skeptical about how this program would engage students and invest them in their learning, but after the first use of Seesaw I have no doubt this program will be a success.


How I am using this:

Students will be given a simple daily assignment on Seesaw as seen below.

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Students can then complete the assignment in a variety of ways.Screenshot 2016-01-29 at 10.13.30 AM

      Once students have completed their work, they submit it for my approval. If approved, their assignment is posted on the their personal Seesaw timeline, and the class timeline which only the teacher is able to access. Other classmates are able to see the work of their peers and like or comment on it (with approval, of course)!


Here are some examples of what we have done in Spelhouse!

Screenshot 2016-01-29 at 10.15.45 AMNa’Shon’s uploaded Dust Bowl narrative

Screenshot 2016-01-29 at 10.17.08 AMClassmates showing Taurus some love with their likes and comments!

Screenshot 2016-01-29 at 10.18.36 AMJay’Quan explaining to classmates how to conduct a proper experiment.

Other features:

      Seesaw allows for parents to follow their child’s timeline and check-in and comment on their work. Seesaw even provides a handout explaining their product and step-by-step instructions of how to access it!  Another feature that I really like is that Seesaw allows for teachers to create a classroom blog, and easily link items from your class timeline on to the blog. I feel that having a class blog where we publish work will introduce a new level of academic ownership in my classroom.

Pros Cons
  • Students are SO invested in the Facebook and Instagram like features of Seesaw
  • Allows students to document learning in a variety of ways
  • I am able to approve all posts, comments, etc
  • Parents are able to follow their students work
  • Extremely user friendly
  • It is easy to link work from the class timeline to the class blog
  • Students like to take pictures and create videos that are not necessarily school-related

        Overall, I am so happy to have introduced this app to my class. I will continue to use it to document student work to show the progress we make as a class.


Two Station Rotation: Frontloading Vocabulary and Differentiating Activities

At the beginning of the year, I asked students to answer the age old question, “What is your favorite subject?”  Most students answered, “science!”

However, when we got down to the nitty-gritty of learning, it was pretty obvious that some students found science easy, while others find the content confusing. That divide was based largely on content knowledge and prior knowledge. 

One Solution:  Two Station Rotation 

Group 1- 30 minutes computer, 30 minutes teacher center
Group 2- 30 minutes teacher center, 30 minutes computer
Closing- 10-20 minutes

Group 1 

Screenshot 2015-12-12 at 10.03.19 AM The playlist includes an INM video, usually through educanon, note taking and vocabulary practice on quizlet.

After 30 minutes, the students in group 1 rotate to the teacher center to receive direct instruction.  The teacher center objective is aligned to what students are practicing in the computer center.  

I start the lesson by discussing the video with the students, or pulling educanon data.  

Students are eager to discuss what they learned independently and are able to engage in the lesson without being held back by vocabulary gaps.  

Group 2

Students first receive direct instruction.  I’ll give the go-head for students to work on group 2 computer activities when they show mastery.  Anyone who needs more practice can either stay in teacher center for a second at bat, or they can access the group 1 computer content on the google classroom. 

Group 2 Activities- Exploration, Extend Your Thinking Questions  

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The Pros-   

  1. Front-loading Vocabulary and Content- The two station rotation allows students to preview the day’s lesson before receiving direct instruction.
  2. Independence- 100% of students can work independently on the computer and articulate their purpose on the computer. Most students taken ownership of their success by rewatching a video if they have a low score.
  3. Teacher to Student Ratio- We all know that a decreased ratio allows teachers to provide feedback quickly and frequently.  
  4. Academic Performance- Students on average meet the exit ticket goal every day.

The Cons-

  1. Boredom- This was an awesome structure at first, but now students are tired of their daily routine.  30 minutes of independent computer work doesn’t sit well with all students.  
  2. Learning Styles-  Some students who were in computer group 1 never got the chance to play the games or do explorations.  A student who has vocabulary gaps, or struggles academically, should not have to miss out on the fun part.  In fact, the fun, is usually what makes it… stickiest!   
  3. Discourse- Some of the students that were in computer group 1 never got to discuss the content with the highest learners in the class.  I tried tacking on a class closing so that all students discussed the lesson together, but it doesn’t compensate for the in the moment student to student feedback. 

In the Think-Tank

Do you use centers in your class? 

I want to keep using centers in my class, but I know It’s time to mix up what goes on every day.  

Are students in heterogenous or homogenous groups?   

I’ve recently switched up the groups in science.  They sit next to their ELA buddy.  Stay tuned… 




Create > Consume

For most teachers starting out in the profession, the desire for control is strong. Management is a primary concern – and understandably so. As the gate-keepers of knowledge, we feel the need to disseminate content as outlined in our scope and sequences. Our students become consumers of knowledge.

But what do we lose when we make all the decisions for kids? What can we gain when we let them take ownership of their own learning?

One way to give students agency over their learning – and in turn, allow students to think more deeply and critically about content, while also increasing engagement – is to allow for students to create.

Here are a few tech tools to help you bring a little creativity back into your classroom – the way you always imagined you would as a teacher.

1. ThingLink

A ThingLink is an interactive image, where students put ‘hotspots’ (buttons) on top of a large background image. Text, video, pictures, and links can all be placed as hotspots.The variety of hotspots allows for students to include additional information about a topic, or for them to input their own thoughts and opinions.

Analyzing a photograph? Try asking students to add their “see, think, wonder” statements on top of the image.

Researching important historical figures? Include links to biographies, videos, and famous photographs on top of their mug shot.

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2. Scratch

Coding is not just about writing <things in brackets> and staring at computer screens all day. The real genius of coding is how it reinforces problem-solving through a creative outlet.

Scratch is an excellent program for students of any age. Use it with any subject to push students to construct new knowledge from their classes. In English, have students create stories with dialogue. In Math, ask students to create concentric circles. In Social Studies, ask students to recreate major historical events. In Science, ask students to demonstrate physical laws. Whatever your task, ask students to share and remix one another’s work.


3. VoiceThread

VoiceThread is an incredible tool that can be used with as much – or as little – complexity as desired. This collaborative platform allows students to create multi-media projects with video, audio, and text, and to share it with the rest of the class. It even allows students to interact with one another through multi-media commenting.

Education-related resources, rubrics, and examples can be found across the web.


4. Pixton

Storytelling is an innately creative activity, and Pixton allows students to create and share their stories as comics. The design studio is easy and intuitive for students to navigate, allowing students to combine text and images into a fluid story.

Arts-integration can be difficult for some subjects. If you’ve wanted to include more creativity in your social studies or science classes, Pixton can be a fantastic way for students to demonstrate their knowledge of any topic.


What other tools are teachers using to bring creativity into the classroom?

STEM Night at Schaumburg!

Our first STEM night was an overwhelming success!  With about 150 people, from 70 Schaumburg families the event was well attended and everyone learned something, including the teachers.

Planning a STEM night was a challenge– we started by thinking about the science fairs we experienced in school, but that seemed too boring, considering the interactive, technologically-based projects that our students are used to.  We decided to showcase STEM work from each grade level, as well as invite community partners to participate.

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STEM Presenters:

STEM is a broad field so we invited outside organizations that have worked with us before.  NASA taught the students to build rockets and launched them by stepping on a water bottle.  The Energy Alliance taught students about electricity and allowed them to ride a bike that powered a light bulb.  The Health Committee had families measure out the sugar in popular drinks and snacks– information that shocked and disgusted many participants.  Sci Tech came and had students navigate a robot through a maze.  Each grade also presented a hands on experiment that explored a STEM topic on the curriculum.  It was great to see how STEM works in pre-k through 8th grade.

My favorite part of STEM night was the computer stations.  We had two first graders man the station and explain to parents, students and teachers about the blended learning programs use everyday– ST Math, MyOn and iReady.  We had papers explaining how to use the programs at home.  I was impressed with the number of parents who said they planned to visit the websites or download the apps.  The students also loved teaching their parents how to play the game.  I hope that this provides students with extra practice and gives parents a way to help their students learn.

We also had a station with free websites and apps that parents can use to help their students learn.  I find that many times parents do now know what to do to help their child.  The act of downloading an app is empowering to parents and will hopefully pay off for our students.  I learned a lot about apps that are available and hope to try to incorporate some of them in my class.

Looking Forward:

While we did have a great turn out, I would love to find a way to pass on some of the information to the families who were not able to attend.  I am hoping to have the information about our blended learning programs and the free apps available to parents at Report Card Conferences.  I am also considering sending home the information in homework folders to try and reach even more parents.

Next time I would like to incorporate more student presentations.  Each grade had a table and the experiments were engaging and educational.  However, I think it would be powerful to have students run the centers.  It also might increase turn out in the presenters’ families.

I would also like to showcase apps and websites for the upper elementary and middle school students.  I would suggest having a teacher that works with older students help in the planning of STEM night, our committee was all early childhood teachers so that was where we naturally focused the content.

In the future we need to figure out how to use social media to promote our event and share the outcome.  I tweeted for the first time at STEM night and Jiji, the super popular ST Math mascot, retweeted me!  This would be a great way to inform the community about the event as well as connect with STEM experts who may want to get involved.

Overall the event was great!  Parents, students and teachers all seemed to have a great time and learn something.  I hope that STEM night becomes an annual event at Schaumburg and that the other schools are able to plan an event with similar outcomes.


(Pictures by Juston Jackson)