Opening Doors: STEM Learning and Access for all

by Kristen Nordstrom| Originally published on the Biomimicry Institute

As both a teacher in a public school for over 20 years, and a nonfiction writer, the question of how to deeply engage my learners and readers is always on my mind. What is their entry point? How do they connect? I’ve discovered there are so many ways.

Could it be a math game that helps my students discover number patterns as they hop around a hundreds chart? Could it be sifting through a pile of dirt in earth science? There’s gravel, sand, clay, and even humus in that brown blob! Maybe it’s an interdisciplinary project-based investigation like the one we are working on now at Ladera STARS Academy, a Title 1 STEAM school I co-founded with a group of educators four years ago.

We’re researching a wildlife crossing that is being built in our area in California. With student questions driving our project, and excellent nonfiction books in our hands to answer them, we’re researching why and how animals will use this bridge. We’re even building our own wildlife crossings with guidance and feedback from Robert Rock the landscape architect that designed the project, Dr. Bradley Shaffer an evolutionary biologist from UCLA and Beth Pratt the project manager and California Director for the National Wildlife Federation.

At the core, the students connect to this project through their questions, the experts we bring to our classroom, and through their desire to help the diverse wildlife population in our area — mountain lions, black-tailed deer, California quail, and even tarantulas! They wonder, investigate, make discoveries, and contemplate how they could make a difference in the world. These are the essential elements to dynamic learning that I believe open doors for all learners. These ideas have pushed me to new places as a teacher and are ideas percolating in the back of my mind as I write.

A Time for Change and Findings Along the Way

At the time the school was founded, I felt the world was changing in troubling directions. I was inspired to work with other dedicated teachers, and one awesome principal, to bring the power of hands-on science to a beautiful and diverse group of students, including children on the autism spectrum, bilingual learners (Mandarin, Punjabi, Spanish), and foster youth. We used the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), coupled with project-based learning, as our guide, but the true center of our work stems from the curiosity of our learners. This is where we engage our students and access the curriculum.

We start by asking questions, strive for conceptual mastery, and learn the vocabulary along the way. It was also during this transition in my teaching practice, that I found the final “layer” in my nonfiction writing. MIMIC MAKERS: BIOMIMICRY INVENTORS INSPIRED BY NATURE was in the editorial process with Charlesbridge Publishing, and my story was finding a way to integrate with the brilliant illustrations of Paul Boston for the first time.

It’s been a journey. Here are some of the tidbits of truth I’ve gleaned along the way.

1. Be honest. If you’re an educator, has your school or district mandated a curriculum that has reduced your teaching to scripted guides and worksheets? Find a place to bring back the curiosity in the classroom. Maybe start with daily read-alouds using excellent books that inspire your students to wonder about the world. As a nonfiction writer juggling loads of information, I had to work hard to keep the curiosity at the core of my writing. The beginning of MIMIC MAKERS was scientifically correct, but the questions were gone. A revision brought them back and an opportunity to weave the theme of children-investigating-the-world into the text, illustrations, and back matter.

2. Be proactively inclusive. We don’t take our togetherness for granted in my classroom. We talk about who we are as a community of learners, who we are as individuals, and how we can work as a team. We practice whole body listening, share our thoughts in community circles, and seek to understand one another in an accepting environment. Everybody has a place in the circle, and everything we learn academically is dependent upon these conversations. Some days are better than others, but one thing never changes: children learn in safe places that acknowledge and validate their existence in the world. Diverse books help us along this path. They expand our minds, our hearts, and start important discussions. We depend on authors to write relevant books to help us process our difficult feelings, celebrate our uniqueness, and honor different points of view and life experiences.

3. Be patient. My favorite t-shirt I wear to school is starting to fray around the edges. I’m going to keep on wearing it, because the words on the front are my mantra: Progress over Perfection. This is the message I hope to convey to my students, and these are the words I remember myself as I chip away at another manuscript in the pre-dawn hours. We strive for excellence, but we measure our success by the progress we make.

4. Celebrate the creative problem-solver. The shift from the old science standards (where students were expected to memorize, memorize, memorize) to the NGSS has been profound. We are no longer passive recipients of information. We investigate, problem-solve, and design solutions all day long. We are thankful for all the books with feisty protagonists that inspire us to persist when we face setbacks. We are thankful for all the biographies that profile a diverse group of people who have faced adversity, served humanity, and accomplished great deeds. We need their stories.

Give it a Try

Pick five of your favorite nonfiction books (the ones you wish you wrote), and go on a scavenger hunt. For each book, find the way(s) the author stimulated a child’s curiosity. Make a list. Some things to look for:

  • Are the readers wondering what will happen next? Is this part of a narrative nonfiction story that has captured the reader’s attention?
  • Are there well-crafted page turns that have the reader flipping through those pages — curious to find what will come next?
  • Is there a discrepant event or discrepant picture that gets a child wondering?
  • Has the author taken the child to a new place — the inside of a beehive or through the lens of a powerful microscope to reveal something new?
  • Does the author pose questions that prompts a child to wonder at key places in their book? Where are those places? How does this drive the flow of the book?

Gratitude for Lessons Learned and New Beginnings

My students and I are learning together each day. Humans are one beautiful thread woven in the tapestry of all life. This healed perspective brings hope, possibilities, and the potential for a new generation to steward our planet.

Kristen Nordstrom​, M.Ed.is a nonfiction author, teacher, and founding member of a Title 1 NGSS-based (STEAM) public school in California. Her debut picture book, Mimic Makers: Biomimicry Inventors Inspired by Nature, is illustrated by Paul Boston. It profiles ten working inventors from around the world that have studied nature, made a discovery, and applied their understanding to inventions that help people and our planet. It is a Junior Library Gold Standard Selection, CYBILS Nonfiction Picture Book Finalist, NSTA’s Best STEM Picture Books List of 2022, and the AAAS/Subaru Best STEM Picture Book of 2022. Connect with Kristen at kristennordstrom.com, on Twitter @KristenNordstr1, and on Instagram @knordynordy.

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