How teachers are hacking STEM in everyday classrooms

James Burke looks at a screen with students to interpret seismological data.

The first thing you notice about James Burke and Jason Ewert is their boundless passion for hands-on learning. It’s in the way they talk about the eager young minds in their classroom. It’s in the way they can’t help but finish one another’s sentences. It lives in their quest to find new ways of teaching in the real world.

“In the 16 years that I’ve been teaching, I’ve never not wanted to get up and go to work,” says James (pictured above).

As middle school educators in the Seattle, WA metro area, James and Jason form an important part of Microsoft’s Hacking STEM program, an initiative aimed at helping teachers modernize their curriculum for the 21st-century with a suite of free, downloadable tools, including lesson plans, related activities and customized Excel spreadsheets. Written by teachers, for teachers, the materials complement the existing STEM curriculum by integrating all four disciplines into a set of classes that’s easy to implement. The program enables teachers to guide students through the construction of homemade anemometers, windmills, robotic hands and more. It accomplishes all of this with affordable, everyday materials like paper plates, plastic cups and spoons, drinking straws, small LED lights and simple circuit boards.

James’ past teaching experience means he knows firsthand that the academic playing field is not level for teachers and students across different geographies. He spent time working with the Peace Corps as a water resource manager in West Africa and later established an educational  non-profit in Jamaica, aimed at equipping underserved teachers with technology training. “Education needs to be for everybody, and the majority of our planet doesn’t have the resources that this new technological world requires,” James says.

Jason Ewert hunches over a Hacking STEM project with students.

“Everything that was created was made from paper plates and plastic cups and a few little wires and magnets. We try to make sure every unit has the analog component to it and then the digital piece. That way we can provide that option for teachers to keep it simple, or go on a deep dive if that’s what they prefer.”

Similarly, Jason (seen above) values the opportunity to help teachers do a lot with just a little – it’s changed the way he thinks about his own classroom.

Two students connect a wooden spool to string and a plastic cup.

Easily downloadable, pre-hacked Excel spreadsheets bring data to life in real-time visuals and have helped awaken those ‘aha’ moments in students. “Live data is where it’s at with middle school kids, because it’s that instantaneous ‘oh.’ You pump that salad spinner, (kids say) ‘wow, that’s what it’s doing right now,’” Jason says. “You can take your little seismograph and shake it, and you see the actual seismogram being generated on the screen. It’s that sweet spot right now. It’s where they learn, and it’s exciting for them.”

And when the kids are energized by the material, so too are the teachers. While crafting lesson plans that are experiential, engaging and fun, James and Jason have seen a change in their classrooms. They spend less time mitigating behavioral issues and more time guiding their students on how to think their way through problems critically. James is careful to point out that he, alongside the Hacking STEM Lesson plans, don’t provide the students with answers. Rather, they empower them to find answers on their own. Jason tells his students, “Fail fast, learn from it and move on.”

Jason points to an Excel graph projected in the front of his classroom.

James and Jason each acknowledge that, for their students to be adept 21st-century thinkers, they require 21st-century learning. It’s why they initially became involved with Hacking STEM and why they continue to devote so much time to it. “I wanted students to understand technology to the point where they would have some voice in how it moves forward,” he says.

Jason knows the prospect of teaching STEM can be intimidating for teachers grounded in more traditional disciplines. But he also knows from experience that getting started is far easier than most expect. “All we need the teachers to do is the same thing we’re asking our kids to do. Just, get in there, and dig in,” he says. “If you mess around with it long enough, you’re going to get it.”

Students lean closer to a laptop, viewing the data being recorded from their hands-on project.

By partnering with teachers, Microsoft is constructively testing all assumptions made in the design of new STEM lesson plans. Are the lessons practical? Do they bring real-world scenarios into the classroom? Are the needed materials affordable and accessible? Most importantly, will this help democratize STEM learning? With the guidance of James and Jason, Hacking STEM finds a way to address each question in ways that make sense for the everyday classroom.

James and Jason are at the forefront of a revolution in education. Together with Microsoft, they’re hacking the classroom, modernizing lesson plans for a more tech-savvy student and democratizing STEM education with affordable, everyday items.

To join the movement and begin Hacking STEM in your own classroom, visit aka.ms/hackingstem to get started.