For ten days of my summer break, I worked aboard a research vessel as a Teacher at Sea. The Teacher at Sea Program is a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), whose mission focuses on monitoring the conditions of the ocean and the atmosphere. The purpose of my voyage was to research the hydrographic and planktonic components of the Northeast U.S. Continental Shelf. What I found most captivating about the 224-foot ship was its labs—where science comes to life.
NOAA ships are built around their labs. The wet lab is where researchers bring aboard samples of everything from fish to trash to water for analysis. The dry lab is where you will find various electronic equipment including computers that display live data.
I am no scientist; I am a teacher-librarian. Yet, I quickly learned to use the ship’s lab equipment to collect and preserve plankton samples and measure the ocean’s nutrients. Through hands-on tasks, I came to understand the science behind our mission. I believe we were sailing in the Gulf of Maine when I resolved to give my students similar opportunities.
My elementary school is obviously not a research vessel. There is no designated space for a science lab. Luckily, learning can happen anywhere. I decided to bring science to my students by acquiring a mobile lab stocked with supplies and technology for experiments and other engaging activities.
The National Education Association Foundation Student Achievement Grant awarded my library the funds needed to acquire a portable STEM cart. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) is an instructional approach that engages students in experiential learning, problem-solving, and collaboration. Our mobile science lab offers the materials teachers need to implement engaging, hands-on lessons. As a result, students are becoming inquisitive scientists who learn by doing.
Like most states, Kentucky has adopted the Next Generation Science Standards. These education standards focus on more than students’ content knowledge. Now, students are using their understanding of science topics to investigate the natural world through the practice of inquiry. Our STEM cart supports science instruction on a range of topics from forces and motion to Earth science. The mobile science lab stores essential maker materials in one secure place that is shared between all 30 classrooms.
One class used the STEM cart to investigate the ecosystem of a pond behind our school. Students used the cart’s microscope to study plankton they retrieved from the water. This research activity led to collaboration with the local conservation office on the development of a campaign to protect our local environment. Students shared the data they collected using the cart’s materials at school assemblies and school board meetings.
My library strives to be the “hub” of the school by providing students physical and virtual resources to explore any subject imaginable. The STEM cart has expanded the resources we have available, allowing students to tap into and embrace their curious nature. The portable lab is a highly desired resource by students and staff. It has led to the design of meaningful instructional projects that engage students in the inquiry process.
Flowmeter, chlorophyll, and formalin are not words I use on a daily basis. But for ten days as a NOAA Teacher at Sea, I used technical terms like these regularly. I checked the flowmeter to measure the velocity of the nets we deployed. I measured the levels of chlorophyll in the ocean’s water. I stored plankton samples with formalin, a solution used as a preservative. Through hands-on tasks, not information extracted from a textbook, I developed an understanding of the ship’s objectives. Our students are not so different. A STEM cart gives students the opportunity to participate in learning where they apply science concepts; not just memorize them. Students learn more and remember best when classroom activities are authentic and engaging.
What’s on the cart?
A portable STEM lab should contain the supplies that best serve your student population and the school’s curriculum. Seek input from teachers about the type of science topics a STEM cart would support. Invite students and staff to give feedback on the kind of materials they would like to see on a mobile science lab. To get started, peruse items on our STEM cart.
I have a STEM cart, now what?
Use advice from the graphic below to make your STEM cart a success!
Author: Sam Northern, Ed.D.
Sam Northern is a National Board Certified Teacher-Librarian at Simpson Elementary School in Franklin, Kentucky. He currently serves as President of the Kentucky Association of School Librarians. In 2014, Sam was selected for the Fulbright-Hays Summer Seminars Abroad Program where he spent four weeks in China. Since then, Sam has voyaged to Antarctica as a National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellow and worked aboard a research vessel on the Atlantic Ocean as a NOAA Teacher at Sea. From January to April 2018, Sam traveled to Finland as part of the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program to research best practices for project-based learning. Connect with him on Twitter @Sam_Northern and Facebook @themisterlibrarian.