The years have zipped by, and it still surprises me that I’m in my seventh year of teaching! In these seven years, I’ve taught grade 6 and grade 8 science - Life Science, Physical Science Honors, Comprehensive 1, and Comprehensive 3 Science. Currently, I’m enjoying my 8th grade science classes and have the privilege of serving as the Science Department Lead at my school. Teaching has been an experience, and science has always been a part of my life. I definitely have a passion for it!
My Love of Science is Not Everyone’s
I was a Marine Biologist for 20 years before I became a teacher. I have a degree in Marine Science from Coastal Carolina University and received my teaching certificate from the State of Florida in 2019. I have always loved science, especially the ocean, since I was a little girl. I’m especially passionate about life science and strengthening my understanding of the inner workings of nature and how connected everything is on our planet.
My first science classroom was a Life Science course for grade 6. Since the start of my teaching career, I’ve had high expectations of my students because I see their potential. Of course, now I fully understand that just because science is my passion it may not be everyone else’s. I don’t expect all my students to love science as much as I do, but I encourage them to try their best.
For my classes, I need to teach a set curriculum but I always try to teach in a way that my students will understand the connection between science and life outside of the classroom. Science is all around us each day, from the computers they work on to the air we breathe as well as everything else in between. Unfortunately, I’ve discovered that many of my students dislike science because they feel it’s too hard or have had a challenging experience in other classes or with other teachers. I try to remind my students that you can still like a subject even if it’s hard and to not discount science because of an experience. Science can be something they enjoy learning.
One of My Favorite Early Science Experiments
One of my favorite and memorable experiments during my first year of teaching – a 6th grade Life Science class - was an opposable thumb lab for an Evolution unit. Students were given a series of tasks to complete with and without the use of their thumbs, like tying their shoes, cutting a piece of paper, flipping pages in a book, printing their name, etcetera. Students worked in pairs so that one student completed the task while the other student timed the activity using a stopwatch. The task was first completed with the use of thumbs. Then, hair ties were used to bind their thumbs to their palms to restrict thumb use. Students learned that some tasks took 5-6 times longer without using their thumbs when compared to the times recorded while using thumbs. They also discovered that some tasks were not possible to complete without thumbs.
When I first introduced the assignment (on paper; we did not have computers or tablets at that time) students thought it was "stupid” and “easy.” In fact, I’d get told, “Miss, I have been tying my shoes since I was four, so why do I have to do this?” Little did they understand how useful our thumbs are! Students quickly realized that human evolution of opposable thumbs was critical to the survival of our species and it is one the key factors that helped our species evolve to the top of most food chains.
This "simple" lab was engaging and eye opening for students. Seven years later and this is still one of my favorite activities to do with my students. They can experience that science can be fun, even when we’re learning something.
How Things Have Changed
Teaching is continually evolving because students are constantly changing. I’ve incorporated more hands-on manipulatives in the past five years using MyStemKits resources, and each year I discover new uses for manipulatives and/or find new kits to use. Many times, I’ve been able to retrofit the 3D printed materials to meet my instructional needs and help my students understand the concept being taught.
I received my first 3D printer in my second year of teaching and my second 3D printer at the beginning of this (2022) school year. I’m lucky enough to have two 3D printers in my classroom, including the Robo E3 3D printer, and they are useful for creating the items and models I need. I would encourage any teacher to use materials and objects that can be customized to better help their students learn new concepts.
Student engagement is especially important for me. My class is 70% digital and 30% paper-based or notebook-based. I incorporate many online apps and programs that offer a variety of interactive activities, quizzes, flashcards, games, and more. The students respond to this type of interaction which leads to more participation and discussion about new concepts. I like looking for new learning programs that I can use with my students so that we all stay motivated.
I know that the digital aspect of student learning is important, but I am a firm believer in reading and writing with pen/pencil and paper (not typing). That said, I also teach my students how to take notes efficiently in their notebooks and encourage them to do so often. This is an aspect of my instructional practice that has not changed over the years - all students are required to have a notebook dedicated to the science class. Writing in a student's native language, or in whatever language they are most comfortable with, helps them build knowledge foundations and remember essential content information.
Besides the digital aspect of instruction, another thing that I’ve added to my lessons are drawings. I have learned that when students are asked to draw a representation of a vocabulary term or concept, they are more likely to remember the definition or concept with a better understanding. So my students are asked to include drawings in their journals or handouts.
My Classroom Now
My classroom setup looks similar to what it was when I started teaching. Students are seated in groups of four and I strongly encourage student collaboration on all assignments, except for assessments and tests. Science is about pushing our knowledge, asking questions, then finding the answers through experimentation and investigation. I like for my students to ask and discuss higher-level questions even if it means we get off-topic a little. Asking the why, how, or what would happen if questions empower my students to explore the unknown and what’s possible.
When I started teaching, I tried to answer all my students' questions. Now I answer very few. Instead, I have the students investigate or answer one another's questions. They learn more from one another by doing it themselves compared to me just by telling them the answers. Of course, I may point them in a specific direction, but students are responsible for developing their own ideas, questions, and answers. This also gives students purpose and accountability while keeping engagement levels up.
I adapt and change to the needs of my students, and it is my job to create an engaging learning environment for them. This means the learning environment changes from year to year because each year of students is different. Even in this current school year, I teach middle school and each class period has its own dynamic; what works for one class period does not always work for the next. As a teacher, I need to be able to identify these differences and customize instruction to ensure student understanding and enjoyment of science.
Teaching is a very demanding and, at times, difficult profession. However, my students make it work especially when they tell me at the end of the year, "Science is now my favorite!" or "It may not be my favorite, but I have a new respect for the subject." These are the reasons I continue to adapt and change so I can continue to challenge and engage my students regardless of what occurs in the world around us.
About the Author: Meredith Williams, an 8th grade science teacher at Freedom Middle School (Orlando, FL), specializes in integrating MimioSTEM solutions in her science instruction. To encourage her students to think critically and creatively about problems through science exploration, Williams incorporates a variety of 3D-printed manipulatives, so her students have something hands-on to observe, analyze, and form ideas around. Williams also regularly implements and provides feedback on MyStemKits lessons and activities, which she uses in conjunction with her 3D printer.
To read Meredith’s experiences in the classroom with her 3D-printed materials, click here - Mimio Educator – MimioMaster blogs.
To explore the award-winning MimioSTEM solutions including MyStemKits curriculum and the Robo E3 3D printer, click here – MimioSTEM.