Summertime STEM(ulation)

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Summer STEMulation

Sunshine, sun tans, shooting stars, secret adventures, summertime exposures keep us engaged with new possibility and promise. As I gear up to oversee projects such as collaborative student driven fab labs and green space sustainable gardens; summer months offer me the opportunity to expand my STEM repertoire with engaging activities that enhance students’ scientific investigation of their world though project based models and hands on design activities created to promote reading, writing, retrieval of information, and analytical inquiry.

Bringing STEM Education to underserved urban communities involves the blending of best practices and social justice to enhance student learning and achievement through the use of technology.  Incorporating STEM activities into my Special Education curriculum allows me to reach many students with varying needs by guiding their learning experience in such a way that it encourages them to think critically and apply their knowledge to real world situations.

Undo Ordinary

Importing new knowledge into my classroom begins with a scientific investigation into a question, problem, or process that leads to a solution. Innovative instructional methods such as using social media teaching tools (specifically the internet), allows students to develop relevant 21st century research skills, refine independent critical thinking skills, and improve their multi-media presentation skills.   Most recently, studies have found that student learning and engagement are enhanced through the use of differentiated technology in direct instruction.  “No other factor contributed more to the change in student’s achievement than the intervention of DI.” (International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement, January 2011).   Differentiating instruction through the use of engaging technology offers students an avenue that is native to them to receive instruction that is tailored to their own needs as well as the ability to connect with the world in real-time.

In an era of complex cultural advancement where the next new innovation becomes obsolete, it seems within minutes, educators are faced with the task of keeping up with this pace and teaching content that is engaging and rigorous to a diverse community of students with an array of strengths and weaknesses.  But what does the task have to do with what they want to do with the rest of his/her life? How do we inspire Science? Technology?  Engineering?  Math?  How do we implement pedagogical strategies that encourage neurodiversity in a classroom?  We must leave the confines of conventional approaches and combine creative unconventional capacities for intervention that promote team-building practices and a wonder for the structure that is our world.  “Careful reviews of the substantial literature on college teaching and learning suggest that the pedagogical strategies most effective in enhancing student learning outcomes are not discipline dependent.” (Pascarllea & Terenzini, 2005)

Explore, Understand, Share

Enter Maker Spaces…these dynamic group interactions focus on building social connections and increasing confidence in students.  When applied to a classroom setting, flexible mixed ability groups highlight a range of unique abilities and interests showcased in tasks that celebrate exceptional learners.  For example, when involved in a hands on civil engineering bridge building project, the highly focused student on the Autism spectrum can offer his/her ability to recall factual information, and interpret data, the active, the imaginative student with ADHD can generate and conceptualize idea after idea in his/her 3-d sculpture or video game, and the SLD student can use the computer to design and present a cohesive visual representation of the social and economic consequences of this transportation system.  Reinforcement from the extensive collaborative play allows participants to evolve and move forward to investigate and justify solutions as a team.

The power of connecting to digital and visual arts through the internet offers me the ability to become part of STEM projects such as the Rain Gutter Regatta, Code Studio, Learning Style Labs, and Farm to School garden blueprints.   Experiences like these motivate me to engage in exciting hands on opportunities within my classroom.  I am so excited to be able to facilitate guided instruction using multi-dimensional strategies that are innovative enough to keep students engaged and happy to be immersed in the process.  Each student is able to connect the new hands-on knowledge to their environment and reimagine their part in the world as a dynamic microcosm of life.

Inspired Project

As I take time to think ahead, I look forward to facilitating the creation of a sustainable garden space at Commonwealth Youth Challenge Academy that will involve cross-curricular STEM activities.  The students have already thoughtfully named this garden space, “To The Top.” They have come up with an idea to repurpose shovels and rakes that have been lightly used to build a trellis wall garden.  They will grow peas, cucumbers, tomatoes, and beans.  Engineering takes place in measuring and designing how high the wall trellis will be and how far apart each rake and shovel will be from the other.  Math will be utilized in counting the seeds and calculating the depth each will be placed in the soil. Technology will be used to enter and visually present data such as the time propagation takes, and the measuring of plants weekly to compile the information into tables and graphs.  Science is all inclusive using reasoning as a systematic approach to predict patterns or correlations in the climate, weather, and rainfall of this coastal region. Students will photo-document and record each step of their garden project.

Your Life Will bear Fruit

Right now our project is pretty rough-hewn, as it is in the early stages of development… quite fitting, actually, because inside of us (like tiny seeds) there is unlimited potential, and like the seeds of a garden, if we want to tap into the full potential of our underrepresented youth in urban communities, they too, must be in the right environment and we must be their sunlight.


Cynthia Ortiz serves as the Special Education Coordinator at Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy in Virginia Beach, Virginia.  Ms. Ortiz specializes in learning and behavioral exceptionalities.  She believes in empowering urban youth to explore their world through innovative STEM projects.