After moving from engineering to education, I had a lot to learn about teaching! I was used to speaking to a group of middle-aged male engineers, and now I had a classroom full of sixth graders arguing over a bag of Takis (popular San Antonio snacks). I had decided to start an after school Space Club, and to my surprise, I had over fifty students crammed into the classroom on day one. Now what?!
Students actively listened as I shared the world of engineering. They jumped right into the engineering design challenges. They loved using their engineering notebooks to draw multiple design ideas, they worked together in teams to build prototypes, and they enthusiastically tested and then improved their solutions just like a real engineer.
I wish! That last paragraph is a dream-world that only exists in the mind of engineers entering the classroom, who just have no idea. In reality, I walked into a class of students who were mostly there to eat some free snacks, talk to their friends, and maybe learn something cool about space. But it had to be really cool. And I don't want to build a paper rocket. So lame. Whatever. Give me some candy!
I quickly had to figure out some classroom management and somehow develop a culture in the club that promoted learning. Students soon realized that this after-school program would not be a social hour, and yes there would be food and candy, but it was earned from thinking, building, and participating. After a few weeks, Space Club was down to a core group of 25 students. Some stuck around for the food, but they were a mostly enthusiastic bunch. We completed a few engineering design challenges with some success, and the students seemed genuinely interested in the topic of space and engineering. However, I was having difficulty keeping them focused. After discussions with a few science teachers, I decided I needed to create clear expectations and structure to the group
I decided that my Space Club needed some rules. After some research looking at other programs, I came up with the following "Space Club Oath."
Space Club Oath
- I promise to respect my classmates, the teachers, and myself.
- I promise to try my best.
- I promise to believe in myself.
- I promise to be safe.
On week 4 of Space Club, I projected the Space Club oath on the wall along with a cool picture of an astronaut floating in space. I told the students that our next months of Space Club would include some very exciting projects, but they would be more complicated and dangerous. I needed to make sure everyone was committed to the program. A silence fell in the room as I asked all the students to stand, raise their right hand, and repeat after me. We repeated this procedure each week, and a different student would volunteer to lead the oath. This simple process signified the start of the program and helped students shift from eating snacks and socializing to pulling out their notebooks and focusing on the challenge. Of course, this didn't eliminate all problems, but it gave students a clear transition and a sense of responsibility.
Take It Further
After establishing the oath, I loved how students felt more ownership of the program. I then decided to elect leadership to make it feel more like a student club. Students elected a Director, Project Manager, and Secretary. Unfortunately, this turned into a popularity contest, and the most competent student did not necessarily win. I also had a hard time finding meaningful tasks, so they served in more superficial roles. For example, at the Space Club Family Night, they were given a script to read at the event. I was hoping they could provide more student input into the running of the program, but being sixth graders, this didn't really happen.
Reflecting back on last year, I have plans on improving my management of the program. Some ideas I hope to implement:
- Allow students to add their own rules to the oath in the beginning of the year
- Instead of overall leadership, the club forms into teams that each elect a Project Manager, which can rotate throughout the year
- Include specific safety rules in the oath depending on the day's project
- Adopt an incentives program instead of just candy! I have a few ideas that I plan to include in future blogs.
I just wanted to throw in a quick plug if you are looking for summer STEM activities! You can check out our Summer STEM Calendar here! I hope everyone is having a wonderful summer :)