Hacking STEM: Introducing Hands-on Hacks for Your Classroom

Teachers using household items to teach STEM

To engage the leaders of tomorrow, teachers need access to the right materials today. These materials need to be easily obtainable, affordable and reflect the academic standards that bring real-world scenarios into the classroom. Microsoft has created Hacking STEM, a monthly resource devoted to helping teachers modernize their current STEM curriculum through inquiry and project-based lesson plans, aligned to middle-school academic standards.

The Hacking STEM portfolio offers lessons and activities that integrate phenomenon-based learning experiences with a hands-on approach. Students build affordable scientific instruments that visualize data across space, earth, life and physical sciences curriculum. Each project is designed to cultivate classroom experiences solving real-world problems. Using computational and design thinking, students develop college and career-ready skills in context.

Hacking STEM partnered with the California Academy of Sciences and KQED last month to debut the “Earthquakes and Tectonic Plates” lesson plan, which introduces students to interpreting seismic data and using triangulation to predict the locations of tectonic plates. To enrich this lesson plan, Hacking STEM developed two hands-on activities that supplement teaching the core scientific principles behind earthquakes. These interdisciplinary activities had students use mechanical, electrical and software engineering with data science to bring the phenomenon of earthquakes to life in the classroom.

 

Two STEM projects that integrate mechanical, electrical, and software engineering with data science to supplement a unit on Earthquakes.
Two STEM projects that integrate mechanical, electrical, and software engineering with data science to supplement a unit on Earthquakes.

 

“These projects integrated inexpensive, everyday materials and microcontrollers to stream real-time data into customized Excel worksheets,” said Karon Weber, Microsoft’s Senior Director of the Education Workshop. “By the end of the unit, students had made seismographs from plastic cups and wooden spools, collected and analyzed real-time seismic data into Excel worksheets, and completed modeling a tuned mass damper, the modern engineering mechanism in Taipei 101 that helps to mitigate the damage caused by earthquakes. Students then mapped 10 years of earthquake data from the US Geological Survey to visualize plate tectonic boundaries on a globe.”

 

Science teachers measure wind speed using an anemometer made from paper cups and straws. Additionally, they can drive their anemometer to simulate global wind speeds in different parts of the world, by clicking on the map.
Science teachers measure wind speed using an anemometer made from paper cups and straws. Additionally, they can drive their anemometer to simulate global wind speeds in different parts of the world, by clicking on the map.

 

Karon Weber spearheads Hacking STEM, inspired by educators like Michael Fullan, Tony Wagner and science evangelist Ainissa G. Ramierez, PhD. “I recently saw Dr. Ramierez give a talk where she described STEM as a smoothie, requiring an interdisciplinary approach to inquiry-based learning,” said Karon. “With each Hacking STEM project, we take a real-world phenomenon and try to help teachers give their students a full dose of STEM vitamins by requiring them to use  21st century technical skills. The integrated approach represents real-world problem solving.” The Hacking STEM earthquake unit, according to Karon, is just one example of “a super enriched STEM smoothie, designed to use affordable materials and modern skills to engage students in a fun and authentic way.”

The Hacking STEM lesson plans are written by teachers and enrich science, technology, engineering, and math classes, alongside a student journal aligned to the ISTE and NGSS standards. Projects can be tailored to suit the demands of the day: Extensions are included for those interested in spending more time on an activity and each project can be simplified for elementary grades, or enriched for high school students. To make teachers’ lives easier, each unit is broken into suggested class periods. They also include an Excel worksheet that calculates the parts and pieces needed, all captured on an Amazon shopping list (example).

Each month the Hacking STEM site includes multiple resources to help teachers bring a phenomenon to life in their classrooms:

  • A lesson plan mapped to the Next Generation Science Standards and the International Society for Technology in Education standards, including learning objectives, assessments, student journals, a maker activity designed to engage students while demonstrating the underlying STEM principles.
  • Detailed instructions for the maker activity and code needed for the project. To make these projects available and accessible to all students, the required components are inexpensive, everyday materials typically found in the home or school.
  • Excel worksheet with a prebuilt dashboard that contains meters, counters, charts and graphs. The dashboard displays real-time data generated by the maker activity while connected to microcomputers like Arduinos and the free custom Excel plug-in.

 

Science teachers measure wind speed using an anemometer made from paper cups and straws. Additionally, they can drive their anemometer to simulate global wind speeds in different parts of the world, by clicking on the map.
Science teachers measure wind speed using an anemometer made from paper cups and straws. Additionally, they can drive their anemometer to simulate global wind speeds in different parts of the world, by clicking on the map.

 

The developmental journey, guided by Karon Weber and her team, is informed and constantly refined by feedback from thousands of teachers they consult at various educator events. Stop by the workshop on a Saturday and you’ll find local Washington teachers trying out the projects, fine-tuning the instructions and helping to land the pedogeological pathways suggested each month.  The team is always looking for educators to provide feedback and is inviting teachers to join their beta test community here.

To begin hacking STEM in your own classroom, please visit the Hacking STEM website. And be sure to check back regularly as monthly updates will include new projects, lesson plans, training guides and other tools aimed at helping you modernize your curriculum for 21st-century students.