Building background: The first step to communicating like scientists

“Your students sound like little scientists!” 

That’s what a colleague of mine said after observing one of the lessons inspired by my Kenan Fellowship product.  I have never been prouder. Proud of my students, proud of my mentor, proud of the Kenan Fellowship support partners, and proud of  myself as a teacher.

I am finally teaching the unit originally conceived during my summer internship and at the Kenan Fellowship summer and fall institutes.

To begin with, my Kenan Fellowship has completely changed the way I approach everything that I teach.  And I do mean everything.  For example, my first lesson this year was having students communicate their personal ESL goals.  This entails them looking at their past year’s language proficiency scores and deciding on an area to improve.  I typically would ask them to  support how they will do this with several details.  While this activity is a personal goal setting activity, designed to boost self-confidence and provide motivation, it also gives the English learners that I teach valuable practice in organizing and supporting their thoughts orally and in writing.  This year, because of my Kenan Fellowship product, it also served as a listening activity which students used to collect, interpret, and communicate data about each other’s goals.  Due to the influence of my fellowship product, this lesson led me to focus on the background that the students would need to begin collecting, interpreting, and communicating the data for the tomato seed project later in the unit.  Even as they communicated the data about their peers’ goals, they are beginning to use science/STEM discourse and developing inquiry skills.

As additional practice gathering data, I planned another lesson where students created Google Forms to ask more questions to a larger pool number of people.  This gave students still more opportunities to practice data collection and data interpretation.  Of course, they also practiced language skills by communicating the data that they collected and interpreted.  Needless to say, without my Kenan Fellowship product guiding my planning, it would not have occurred to incorporate this so early into the unit and begin to focus on the science skills this soon.  Additionally,  focusing on inquiry skills during the early lessons gave me a chance to scaffold these science skills without incorporating the science experiment content, which can be overwhelming for the students.

After lessons that incorporated opportunities to practice collecting, interpreting, and communicating data:  First, with their peers’ goals, then with a survey they received from me, and finally with a survey that they created and sent themselves, the students have sufficient background to collect, interpret, and communicate the data from the tomato seed experiment in the lessons that will follow.

The next several lessons will involve students researching how a tomato seed grows into a full plant with its fruit.  The process for learning about the tomato plant life cycle will involve the Project based learning model.  When I explained to one student that he would be growing live tomatoes in the classroom and collecting and communicating data about their growth to actual scientists, he simply said, “whoa!”.  My students and I are really excited about how this unit is going so far and can’t wait to proceed.

We don’t get to choose what happens to us, but we do choose how we deal with it.

It has been a little more than seven weeks since my last blog post.  Originally, I had planned to blog monthly about my journey along with my students’ journey to what I hoped would be an awesome class project based on my Kenan Fellows internship this summer.

However, a catastrophic event occurred a little over 10 days into the school year….Exactly.   Hurricane Florence made landfall on our coast, directly impacting our community of New Bern and Craven County. 

While, at first, I thought this hurricane would be a minor one.  I thought we would miss a few days of school, a little wind, and rain only .  However, as the rain, wind, and damage began to mount, I quickly realized that this was no ordinary storm.  I would come to realize that this storm would be an event that would change our community like  no other.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, while sitting without power, I humorously thought about how far off my original schedule of implementing my product for my Kenan Fellowship I would be.  An inconvenience to the business of our designed planter to hold our “space seeds”.  I wanted to get on with the growth comparisons of “space seeds” and “normal seeds” that the experiment called for.

Then, I began to hear about the devastation and destruction all over the county and other surrounding areas of my community.  Friends from out of town called to check on us.  A former student who is now in Italy even called because he’d heard  about the storm.

As the rain and wind subsided, I saw how much of the community was devastated.  We were informed that schools would remain closed for at least two weeks.  “My project,” I thought.  “What would happen?  My timeline that I had worked to  produce?  What of it?”

As more calls came in from my son’s teachers, friends and family saying, “We are just calling to see if you need anything.”  More messages of concern from some of my Twitter PLN (Professional Learning Network).  Later in the week, teachers, administrators, and colleagues began to rally together to use these days out of school to help our community rebuild.

During the more than twenty days without school (and some of those without power), community members, church leaders, and educators helped to distribute food and clothing to members of the community.  We went door to door to check on neighbors and help to clean debris and repair rooftops damaged by the wind and rain.  We tarped roofs, gutted flooded homes and cleaned mold stained walls.

My time out of school gave me the opportunity to reflect about the role of family and friends and the importance of community.  Ironically, it was the time out of school where I had the opportunity to get to know my community better.

Perhaps, Phil Boyte summed it up best.  He said, during the Fall Institute, that connections lead to success more than any academic lesson.  Since attending his talk, we have gone back to school:  “Back to School 2.0”, as many dubbed our return on October 18th.

I have learned over the last several weeks that we don’t get to choose what happens to us, but we do choose how we deal with it.  Eight weeks ago, I was prepared to begin lessons based on the effects of gravity on tomato seeds.  Because of the events associated with Hurricane Florence, I now see the importance of being an involved member of my community and building strong connections. 

After Hurricane Florence, our schools used elements of the Sanford Harmony program to build stronger relationships and teach empathy among the students.  I observed students sharing about their losses and talking about their experiences during the hurricane.  It is because of this, that I have decided to alter my project just slightly.  While I will continue to have students use the engineering design process to design a planter for the tomato seeds, but going forward, I will incorporate more elements of design thinking into the process of creating solutions.  I believe that it is important for students to feel like they can devise solutions to real problems based on developing empathy for the users of their creation.  Who knows? Maybe, my students will help to contribute to the design of something that will rebuild parts of our community after the devastation from Hurricane Florence.

From Internship to Product Implementation: The Journey begins at the intersection of STEM activities and language learning

From Internship to Product Implementation

It’s been said that teachers are preparing students for careers that don’t even exist yet.  I definitely believe this.  I have witnessed how certain careers have become obsolete in our lifetimes.  How many of us remember a telephone operator?  What about a full service gas station attendant?  And… if you’ve seen the movie; “Hidden Figures”, set in the 1950s, then you know that a computer wasn’t always the device that I’m using to write this blog now.

With society changing so rapidly and artificial intelligence replacing workers, many of the careers that we know about today probably won’t exist in the next 10 years.  Additionally, those that do, will be performed very differently.  The only careers that are truly safe from automation will be ones that rely heavily on critical thinking skills, collaboration, communication, and creativity.  These have been commonly referred to as: “The 4 C’s of 21st Century Learning.”

I prefaced my blog with these thoughts to show that my product will incorporate ideas that will help the English learners that I work with become real world problem solvers and effective communicators while gaining knowledge about STEM careers and activities.

The weeks that I spent observing how engineers communicate and approach problems they encounter inspired me to create a product where students would ask a big question about a real problem, research it, and report about their findings to a real audience.  I was fortunate enough to find an organization that was looking for “citizen scientists” to gather data about research that they are doing.  This is the first part of my product:  My English learners will investigate the effects of outer space on the seed germination of tomato plants and compare sizes and shapes of ground plants and space plants.

The next piece of the product came about as I observed engineers engage in the engineering design process.  I watched them plan, research, develop prototypes, and test their solutions to problems that had been brought to their attention.  This led to the idea of having students design a suitable container to house the seeds from which the data would be collected. My English learners will be able to use the resources of my mentor organization, FRC EAST’s Fab Lab to 3-D print and laser cut pieces to assemble into a planter with a coded timer to self-water the plants.

Another integral part of my product is English language development through communication in groups to discuss observations and to report data to an audience.  I was inspired by the amount of authentic collaboration and communication that I saw among the engineers at FRC East.  I saw that engineers need to understand a problem that is communicated to them, to meet and discuss solution ideas, plans, and to present their design idea through a PDR (preliminary design review).  They may even have to defend and support ideas they have using data and facts.  As one engineer stated, “100% airworthiness and safety is our goal.  One error can cause a part to fail.  Even if you are 98% certain, everyone must work together to get to 100%.”  That is true collaboration.

Overall, my product will have four components: 1) Designing a planter with a timed watering system using a scaffolded version of the engineering design process, 2) Investigating the effects of outer space on tomato seeds compared with ground tomato seeds, 3) Communicating scientific data and analyzing and interpreting patterns to an audience, and 4) Researching and exploring STEM careers.

I hope my product will give English learners a chance to participate in project based learning, engage in the citizen science process, use the engineering design process, and have the chance to analyze, interpret and communicate data to an audience in an environment rich with language support strategies while engaging in STEM related activities and practices.

My product transfers the knowledge about teamwork and collaboration that I gained from my internship directly into the team/collaborative approach that I will use to have the students report their observations of the plants’ growth, development, and size and shape comparison. I am hopeful that this will give the students practice working this way so that this practice of approaching a problem in this manner will be the normal process.  I have seen research that shows how collaborative and cooperative learning can boost achievement, but seeing this practice in the workplace shows me that it will be a necessary skill that the students will have to use daily in their careers.

An additional component of my product will include a STEM career night.  This will give students a chance to present the results of their observations to parents and members of the community.  Engineers and representatives from FRC EAST will also be in attendance to provide information about STEM careers.  I am now more aware of careers involving STEM that exist in the community and will use this as an opportunity to inform students about them.  Another future component of this product will be to have students visit the FRC EAST facility to observe STEM jobs.

I have not really had any challenges implementing the product so far other than scheduling all the activities for the students at my schools.  Communication with my mentor and the team has been great.  The support has been great.  I would consider the new found support from the engineers at FRC EAST one of my biggest successes.

A Day in the life of an FRC East Engineer: Hands-on STEM ideas for my classroom

My summer internship

A conversation with an Engineer:  What is a day like for an engineer at FRC East?

Growing up in Eastern North Carolina, I had seen the FRC East sign many times, however, it wasn’t until spending a little over three weeks here completing my internship and interacting with some of the more than 700 engineers that I now understand what happens at FRC East.

The Fleet Readiness Center East, whose mission is to generate combat air power for America’s Marines and Naval forces, could not remain operational without the engineers’, artisans’, chemists’, and mechanics’ roles in supporting the various aircraft in the fleet at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point.

My first excursion at FRC EAST was a tour of the facility with Jamaine, an engineer on staff.  He explained that the mission is a dynamic and collective effort that involves everyone from the production artisans-who produce and repair the parts, to chemists in the lab-who analyze liquids.  At the Fleet Readiness Center East, there are engineers who are involved in design and others have roles in investigations.

Support of an aircraft may begin wth a request.  That request can be initiated from the shop, a pilot, routine PMI (periodic maintenance interval), or the need to design a new part on any of the aircraft that may have been damaged in battle beyond repair.

As we toured the hangar facility, I saw several of the aircraft that were in for PMI, as well as parts for other things at various stages of production in the engineering design process.

According to Jamaine,  there are two main types of engineers at FRC East:  PSEs (Production Support Engineers) and FSEs (Fleet Support Engineers).  Production support engineers can be specialized in certain areas and they generally support production of a part of an aircraft.  FSEs support the fleet directly.  They can talk to pilots, artisans, and mechanics to generate an inquiry to solve a problem.  FSEs and PSEs both have to understand and view things from a systems perspective to be able to communicate with the diversity of personnel to identify an engineering design challenge.

Looking over at some of the aircraft being maintained, Jamaine explained that work on that aircraft involves several teams: a team of artisans, an estimation and evaluation team, a quality assurance team, and a production control team, all of whom must work together with the engineers who create, approve and maintain design schematics and specifications for paints, coating, oils, and metals.

Engineering involves a “business aspect”, as well.  Engineers must not only focus on designing, but also have to meet timelines and be effective communicators while following the engineering design process. They can never compromise on safety or quality.

Later during the week, I met with one of the chemical engineers at FRC East. Robbie and his team support the aircraft at Marine Corps Air Station through structural investigations and research and development of non-destructive metals.  They work to identify the best combinations and concentrations of paints and coatings as well as develop, perform, and analyze stress tests for certain metals.

Additionally, I had a chance to meet with Josh, a materials engineer who works as an investigative engineer at FRC East.  His focus is failure analysis.  He performs forensic analysis of materials. 

I had the opportunity to observe how he and his team work backwards to understand the lessons learned from a mishap and to create new designs. As Josh stated, “Even out of failure, new design can occur.”

Then, I met with Nicholas, a digital production engineer at FRC East.  As he stated, “Pure design rarely occurs here.  Most of the design that we do, is custom repair.”

Nicholas uses CAD software to 3D print model specific parts that may have been created from the OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) blueprint.

One of the last engineers that I had a chance to shadow was Patrick, a production support engineer.  Patrick and his team are a “design heavy” group.  As he explained, they design a lot of the equipment used to test, repair, and maintain the components that ensure the air worthiness of the fleet.  One of the more interesting things that I did was to witness the design process from initial idea to completed product.  I watched as the inquiry began with a work order.  As Patrick explained, the order came from a mechanic on the floor who needed a more efficient tool to repair an particular aircraft.  From there, a team of engineers look at the requirements, specifications, and tolerances of material to decide if the idea is feasible, safe, and cost-efficient.  Then, the design team presents a PDR (preliminary design review), and later a CDR (critical design review).  There is a great deal of collaboration and questions even at this phase of the engineering design process.  From here, the engineers create a prototype model.  This can be a 3-D printed model generated from a CAD (Computer Animated Design) software sketch or a working prototype created in the mechanic’s shop.  At this point of the design, the model is checked and revised.  If it meets approval, then the model is finalized and manufactured.

It has been said that the internship is the “heart of the fellowship”, thus incorporating all of my vast and extraordinary experience with the engineers at FRC East into rich classroom lessons and practices that will impact my classroom and others will be essential.

According to a recent article I read about the top skills that students will need to be successful in the 21st century, coordinating with others, complex problem solving skills, critical thinking skills, and creativity are among them. Some of my main practices and lesson plans will be heavily rooted in Collaboration, Creativity, Critical thinking and Problem solving skills. 

Among the many successes during my internship, being immersed in a STEM career for the past three weeks has been my number one success. I have seen that the kinds of problems that engineers solve inherently involve collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking.  Going forward, all of the activities that I use in my classes will now focus on STEM.  This will help me teach the English learners that I work with to develop these skills while simultaneously acquiring English.

Another huge success of my internship, in addition to witnessing STEM careers up close, is that I also have made connections and have networked with engineers who can help me to incorporate authentic STEM activities into my classrooms. 

My internship has allowed me to see how engineers and careers function on a systems level.  Witnessing this has given me insight to how I can begin to restructure some of my relationships with other educators going forward, which I view as a challenge.

It will also be comforting to know that while developing these skills, I will also be exposing my students to some of the fastest-growing careers over the next twenty years so they will have an opportunity to explore these career paths to find their calling.

The Rock in the Stream

The rock in the stream

So, this week  at the institute, I have learned so, so, so, so, much.  I have learned about everything from project-based learning, citizen science projects, STEM integration strategies, computational thinking, branding, to culturally responsive teaching, just to name a few things.


At one point, I felt like it was just too much.  Then, I thought back to the trip to the Tuckasegee River during the Goose Chase activity.  I remember seeing a rock in the middle of stream and I reflected on Michelle’s, Peter’s, and Mark’s messages about the necessity of moving water to increase the dissolved oxygen of the stream so life can happen.


Surely, on that rock in the stream with water gently flowing over and around it, Michelle showed us a small speck invisible to the naked eye, but revealed, nonetheless, using our macro lens under the rock was a crane fly nymph.  Life.


I felt a little like that rock at times this week.  The information flowed endlessly over and around me.  But, as I quietly reflected, ideas began to emerge about how I can incorporate all of it into my lessons and in my class.


My big takeaway this week is to going back to my district and having meaningful conversations with my colleagues and students about all that I have learned this week.  Additionally, I am planning to implement project-based lesson units with my classes, with the idea that this will become my product for the year.


This week at the institute changed me and challenged my thinking in a drastic way.  I plan to go back to my classroom and continue to add as much “dissolved oxygen” as possible to my class and beyond so that new life will continue to happen.


I don’t want to be the stagnant pond.