Turning the Page on the Worksheet

06 Oct 2022

Priscilla Lumbreras, a DoD STEM Ambassador, Reflects on Transition to Inquiry-Based Learning

The worksheet has been a staple in classrooms for many years. Worksheets are the foundation of many lessons and one of the most popular instructional tools teachers use to drive learning in the classroom. However, the learning is seldom memorable and students quickly forget the content. A shift to an inquiry-based model of learning will make the content memorable and enrich the overall classroom experience.

The following was written by Priscilla Lumbreras, a high school science teacher and DoD STEM Ambassador. DoD STEM Ambassadors work with the Defense STEM Education Consortium (DSEC) to advance STEM outreach for students who are underrepresented in STEM and/or military connected. Lumbreras was selected by the Society for Science, a DSEC partner, as their DoD STEM ambassador for the 2021-2022 school year.

During the school-year shutdown of 2020, I was able to take advantage of shifting learning to an online platform. Many STEM-based institutions were suffering because of the shutdown and they had to shift their community outreach efforts to online platforms. My professional circle expanded as I came across opportunities to interact with professional scientists and engineers in many industries.

One very important interaction was with scientists and engineers from the Center for Hierarchical Materials Design (CHiMaD), a materials science consortium made up of top materials science engineers from SpaceX, NASA and Apple. Undeterred by being the only biology teacher in the group, I relied on the stubbornness that has been my driving force in this profession. I spent the rest of the summer processing what I had learned.

The result was a STEM lesson that not only eloquently combined state-mandated biology concepts with materials science concepts but also incorporated 3D printing, microprocessors and coding. I shared my lesson with several of the organizers and they were so impressed that they offered full funding for the project from beginning to end. Now I just had to convince 130 high school freshmen with many different ability levels to follow along with my plan.

The lesson was multifaceted. My first goal was gaining buy-in from rambunctious ninth-graders. I pulled articles about football players with confirmed cases of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain injury caused by continuous blows to the head, and laid them out for my students to discover on their lab tables as they arrived. It took a few seconds before their natural curiosity led them to read what was in front of them. Within two minutes every single student was clamoring for an explanation as to what we were doing that day. Rather than simply talking about our project, I shared that they were going to form teams of expert neuroscientists, materials engineers and software engineers to investigate and find the best head protection materials to mitigate the forces absorbed by the skull while playing sports.

To build the immense knowledge needed for this undertaking, I carefully delineated a very specific outline so that teams could discover the information in steps. First, teams learned about our nervous system and the delicate balancing act of maintaining homeostasis. Once the biological aspect had been examined, I introduced them to materials science concepts they needed to understand to start thinking about materials. I introduced physics by teaching them about Ashby diagrams, which demonstrate how various materials compare in terms of their densities and their abilities to absorb force. I then circled them back to the biological component where they built model brains and focused on how the different sections of the brain are compartmentalized for different bodily functions. Finally, I introduced the last piece by showing them how to build their own sensors and their own force-measuring machines using an Arduino microprocessor that they programmed by writing a few lines of code. At the end of each class, students complained that their brains hurt from so much thinking. I knew that the lesson was effective because I had to force them to stop working for cleanup at the end of each class and they left each day wearing huge smiles!

The last important aspect of this lesson was making it accessible to the students who need lesson scaffolds to be successful. This is especially important to me since over half of students in each of my classes fall into this category. Of equal importance is that these scaffolds are accessible to them as discreetly as possible. To accomplish this, I embedded speaker icons that linked to voice-overs for parts with heavy text. For complex reading passages, I reconstructed passages so that they had better readability and were easier to comprehend. To help guide them through the extensive research process, I embedded helpful links to help them narrow down the scope of their research. For the coding and engineering aspect, I embedded pre-written lines of code with explanations of the resulting commands so that students could simply string the commands together to get the desired result. To help in engineering the force-measuring machine, I provided color-coded schematics so that students could be successful by following pictures of the steps in the process.

The lesson was not created in one day, and shifting focus from a worksheet-centered classroom to an inquiry-based classroom did not happen overnight. Rather, it has taken years of learning and finding resources that I could creatively stitch together. The worksheet still has a place in my classroom, albeit a minor one. The first major step in making the switch is looking at the process of learning from a different viewpoint and realizing that the shift will happen one unit at a time.

About DoD STEM and Defense STEM Education Consortium

Defense STEM Education Consortium (DSEC) is a collaborative partnership of STEM-focused organizations dedicated to addressing and prioritizing our nation’s STEM talent. DSEC aims to broaden STEM literacy and develop a diverse and agile workforce with the technical excellence to defend our nation. Through strategic investment in STEM education and outreach activities, the effort will provide students with more exposure to educational and career opportunities as well as DoD research. DSEC is led on behalf of DoD STEM by RTI International.

About Society for Science

Based in Washington, DC, the Society for Science (Society) has been a champion for science since 1921, dedicated to expanding scientific literacy, effective STEM education, and scientific research. The Society is known for award-winning journalism, world class science research competitions, and outreach and equity programming. Learn more about Society for Science Advocate Program.