Bringing books to life – transporting an author’s words and worlds from typewritten pages into physical spaces – marvelously rouses the passion for reading within young readers.
Just imagine your excitement if you learned that Tad Lincoln had lost his famous father’s speech — and that it’s up to you to find the script in time! Imagine the fun of uncovering the clues you’ll need by solving riddles and math problems.
For Melanie Koss, an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, no imagination is necessary. She’s witnessed such life-changing joy at NIU STEM Read field trips, the brainchild of STEM Read Director Gillian King-Cargile: Students in secondary grades come to campus for a day of activities that unpack “the science behind the fiction.”
“STEM Read has been going on for several years with the NIU Center for P-20 Engagement, and I have volunteered with them for a few years,” Koss says. “In revamping the mission of the Children’s Literature Teaching Collection, I decided to partner with STEM Read. They’ve been wanting to have some connection with the College of Education for a while, and this seemed like a logical pairing.”
Linking STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – and STEAM (the “A” for arts) to literature makes it “completely relevant and motivating” for students, she adds.
“We think you can take almost any book and find STEAM connections. It just requires a little bit of creativity,” she says. “It’s really fun to read a book and realize, ‘OK, you are now being a detective. You need to be able to be a spy.’ ”
One young reader clearly demonstrated the power of that encouragement to Koss.
“I worked with a girl for 20 minutes to solve math and word problems to get clues to where Tad lost his dad’s speech,” she says.
“Her mom told me, ‘She doesn’t have a lot of confidence in math and reading. She really struggles. This is the first time I’ve ever seen my daughter excited to complete a worksheet, so thank you,’ ” she adds. “She actually was the one who solved it first, and she got to go up and give the speech to a Lincoln impersonator. She was beaming. She had so much more confidence in her ability.”
Koss and her partners – King-Cargile and Kristen Brynteson – are now preparing to put smiles on the faces of countless other “junior detectives.”
NIU’s STEM Read Summer Institute, which takes place Monday, July 30, through Wednesday, Aug. 1 in the Holmes Student Center, will guide teachers in putting on their own STEM Read events in their schools and districts.
“So many schools are saying to us, ‘This is amazing. We want you to come to our school,’ ” she says. “The idea of this is that we are training teachers or district reading specialists or coaches so that they can get the skills to set these up for their own school districts. They will learn how to do the full-day field trips. They’ll be trained as facilitators.”
Those who attend will leave with more than knowledge and graduate credit or professional development hours.
Each registration includes one-year access to STEM Read event kits, housed in the Children’s Literature Teaching Collection. “You’ll be able to check out bins with all the materials you’ll need,” Koss says.
Registrants also receive digital toolkits from 2017-18 events; one archived toolkit from the vault; access to one NIU STEM Read Educator webinar per semester for the 2018-19 school year and the ability to set up virtual coaching sessions with the team during the 2018-19 school year.
Meanwhile, Koss says, the children and adolescents who participate in STEM Read activities will develop and sharpen their problem-solving skills across all subjects.
“There’s such a push now to get STEAM into schools, and there are so many different standards. Teachers are being pulled in so many ways, and we know reading and math is that heavy push,” she says. “Teachers are looking for ways to integrate STEAM and literature across the curriculum, and this hits the 21st century learning standards.”
Plans for the future include a continuation of the summer institute to teach the field trips NIU offered in the past year as well as an add-on day to “train the trainers.”
For the Children’s Literature Teaching Collection, raising awareness through institute registration will help to broaden the mission and expand the level of outreach and engagement.
Koss is eager to greet teachers from across the service region and faculty from across the campus at the CLTC, located in Gabel Hall 130.
“I want to find ways to make it more useful and more meaningful. We have room full of books right now that are being underutilized – a great collection of books that are supposed to be used in different classes,” Koss says.
“We’ve also heard from teachers that something that’s very difficult is finding quality bilingual books that aren’t direct translations of English books,” she adds. “It would be amazing if we could have a regularly updated collection of bilingual books and then have teachers come in and look, use them for their purchasing decisions, or to meet together to develop some plans. I’m hoping to find ways to build such a collection.”
Visit STEM Read for more information on the institute.