Last week was the Bainbridge Island first STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) camp. I was lucky enough to be selected as one of the teachers to participate in the inaugural edition of what is sure to become an annual camp. It was a week long day camp with students broken up into their interest area in either Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math.
There were 8 Bainbridge Island Teachers (from Sakai, Woodward, or Commodore) to support approximately 100 students. There were also 20 volunteer counselors from Bainbridge High School. Needless to say, this was an ideal learning environment.
The week progressed with each morning having a spectacular science type event followed by three one hour and twenty minute periods spent in your primary class. The entire week held a space theme and we even had a visit from a brilliant NASA astronaut, John Fabian. Students spent the week making rockets, programming robots, building solar cars and editing videos. Students were engaged, intrigued, and learning.
To get an idea of what the week was like watch the following video which was made by the students in my Technology class:
BISD STEM Camp Video 2012
This brings up the question, why isn't school like this all the time? Students are heavily engaged in critical thinking, problem solving, hands on learning, storymaking, programming, and just about everything else we'd possibly want for our future engineers and scientists. Students were using angles to calculate the height of the rocket and movement of robots. They were bringing details together to create a narrative about a specific class looking at basic story elements. They were doing 3d modeling and printing their creations to test a hypothesis. Is there really anything more we want?
There are a few things here that are possibly worth looking at. First off, what students are learning can't be tested. We have some kind of sick fascination with the belief that learning that can't be tested isn't real learning. Over the past year, I feel some of the best learning done by my students wasn't on any subject that could be tested. The most important skills aren't knowledge but social skills, confidence, and self advocacy. We can really only test knowledge. This leads into the next issue about what shows up on standardized tests and state standards.
For anyone who's read any of the Washington state standards (and leading into the Common Core standards) you'd know that these standards are actually a very good target for learning. They are aimed at broad conceptual points and include the ability to think and analyze, not simply regurgitate. However, somewhere between the standards and the curriculum, this gets lost. Again, if you can't test students to show your curriculum works, how can you sell it as successful.
But the camp was successful, students learned, and there was no test at the end. Would a test have driven more students to work harder? I doubt it. It also would have made the entire process less fun. But I'm not sure that we could guarantee the same success with 28 kids and no assistants. We had a 1 to 12 student to teacher ratio with 2 high school volunteers per 10 students. We also had a $200 budget for the week per class. I know that public education can't successfully work that way. But maybe if it was just a little more similar...