Six ideas to make your STEM classes awesome (and NGSS aligned)

Here are six ideas to help you create amazing, inspirational, and original STEM classes, while supporting the NGSS. I developed these strategies after creating my STEM learning initiative, Biochemistry Literacy for Kids, which brings high-level science from my college courses into K-12. Hopefully others can use these ideas to revitalize their own classes and improve student achievement.

  1. Don’t dumb it down. Believe in your students.

Everyone knows that kids are sponges, so why not treat them that way? The mind of a child is precision engineered for rapid learning. Think of how much a person learns between birth and age three; now think about how many new things you learned in the past three years as an adult!

People talk about smart kids getting bored and acting out in school, but I don’t think smart kids are the only casualties of low-impact curricula. I believe all students, regardless of aptitude, can sense when the educational system treats them like they are stupid. All kids want to be treated like competent learners, not incompetent children. We need to make sure students know we believe in them.

Providing enriched learning environments, and assuming that all kids can learn, can go a long way. Setting challenging, yet attainable learning goals for your students, changes the mood in the classroom, and makes the kids want to achieve. They’ll want to live up to your high expectations. When I tell my students that they are about to learn a “college level” course in biochemistry, they instantly know that I respect them as learners. Simply saying, “You are about to learn something amazing, something that most grown ups don’t think is possible for you to learn, but I do.” really gets their attention and puts you on their side.

  1. Energize your curriculum, not just your style.

What stereotype comes to mind when you picture an “inspirational” teacher. Is it Robin Williams as John Keating from Dead Poets Society? Is it Bill Nye the Science Guy from his classic edutainment series? Or maybe it’s the eloquent Lin-Manuel Miranda from Hamilton rapping about US history. I have seen teachers with an energetic speaking style and a cult of personality to match these celebrity educators who can capture a class’s attention simply by their auras, pyrotechnics training, or their silver tongues. But I don’t have any of that. For me, it’s the awesome power of my subject itself to explain the world that gives me my power in front of a class. Armed simply with the truth and an excellent instructional methodology, I believe any teacher of any subject can become an inspiration for students. 

To wield the true power of your curriculum, you need to delve into it—deconstruct it, fix it, and reassemble it. This takes time, and no one has much of that, but even a little bit of honest reflection can go a long way. For example, what is the most amazing thing you teach? What are the gateway concepts that change forever how a student sees the world? Leverage those topics from the first day of school, and find a way to present them better than ever before. Position less exciting but necessary topics later on in the school year. Students will be able to learn those too, since by then they will already know what an amazing teacher you are, and that everything you say to them is absolutely awesome. 

  1. Have a logical learning sequence

Have you ever responded to a student’s question with, “You just have to know this. It’s just the way it is?” Chances are, your teacher gave you the same “explanation” for that question as well. Break this cycle by creating an amazing learning sequence that gives students the foundation for everything you teach, and guides them in a step-by-step manner through your subject. It’s OK not to know everything, and there are some things that nobody knows yet. But find out what those unknown things are, and find out the answers to the known things you should have the answers for. 

Don’t be afraid of adding in substantial supporting knowledge to your learning sequence. There’s a payoff for creating a strong, even remedial, foundation for your class—everything else will come quicker for your students. And when they feel like they are learning the material in a logical and effective sequence, and not memorizing floating concepts, you come off as an awesome and brilliant teacher.

  1. Use (effective) visualizations

A picture is worth a thousand words, but as a student, I remember spending many confused hours trying and failing to decode what those words actually were for too many pictures, charts, and graphs that just made no sense to me. With ready access to PowerPoint, all teachers can now be textbook illustrators. Don’t show a textbook figure to students unless it’s a great one. Make your own visualizations. Once you get started, you’ll see that creating visualizations helps you learn your subject better, and the exercise makes you a more confident teacher. The more time you spend making your own visualizations that actually work for your students, the less time you’ll spend explaining and defending crappy ones from some publisher. Tying into some of the previous points, making your own visualizations makes your students feel like you care enough about them to spend time customizing the class for them, it allows you to appear (and be) a master of your subject, and it allows you to self-actualize your vision for your class’s learning sequence. Visualizations help your students see the subject the way you do in your mind.

  1. Go beyond the NGSS.

Learning standards can be interpreted as a target minimum expectation for what students should learn. I try to convince schools to add a strong biochemistry component into their curriculum, even though it is not common practice, because the subject has an incredible power to explain things that kids desperately want to know. Adding in some chemistry and biochemistry units to the school year energizes the curriculum by giving students rare and powerful tools to interpret all kinds of other subjects. When kids study science from its atomic and molecular foundations, difficult topics become easy, and teachers can spend time answering sophisticated questions about the world. Biochemistry is probably not the only subject that could have this effect on K-12, so teachers should look into other areas, perhaps where they have a strong background or interest, and see if going beyond the NGSS could strengthen learning.

  1. Believe in yourself as a learner and a teacher.

We all have gaps in our knowledge, some caused by failures of our own teachers to properly inspire and educate, others caused by systemic problems of the educational system as a whole. But that doesn’t mean you can’t reignite your own learning or venture into forgotten or unexplored territory. I believe people of any age can learn anything if they are given the right tools. It’s easier than ever to learn about a new subject area or connect with people (like me) who want to help teachers achieve what was thought to be unachievable.

I believe that if you can learn it, then you can teach it. I often teach lessons that are “hot off the presses” meaning that I not only created the lesson just days before teaching it, I also learned the material just days before teaching it! (Sometimes a new concept is just too amazing to keep to yourself.) Don’t be afraid to learn and teach something new or outside your comfort zone. If you’ve followed the suggestions outlined above, you will be incredibly effective.

If you’d like to see what a curriculum that uses these ideas really looks like, check out our project website.