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NIU STEM Read goes virtual to create immersive online learning experiences

March 24, 2021

NIU STEM Read is known for mind-blowing field trips that use games to bring to life the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) concepts behind popular fiction books. In a normal year, each field trip would gather 400 to 1,000 students in a ballroom, gym or even the convocation center to design costumes, practice their suturing skills on banana peels, build improvised shelters out of items on hand or immerse themselves in other creative hands-on challenges.

We all know that this year has been anything but normal, so the STEM Read team faced the challenge that defined so much of 2020: How could they bring their interactive, hands-on field trips online to create an immersive virtual learning experience that stayed true to the STEM Read vision?

“Translating these loud, messy and action-packed days full of learning into an online program was no easy task,” says STEM Read Director Gillian King-Cargile, “but we set up a few principles in advance to guide us through the process.”

The guiding principles included: You can still set the mood by using costumes, music, sound effects and virtual backgrounds. You can still bring in experts to speak because everyone Zooms now. With a little planning, you can still do hands-on activities. You can encourage students to follow their curiosity by letting them choose among different games, expert videos and activities. And you’ve got to be flexible to allow teachers to incorporate activities into their online, in-person or blended school schedule.

“We started by focusing on the positives – what we’ve always done well and can still do online,” says King-Cargile. “In fact, we even managed to find some happy accidents in the transition to a virtual program. For example, because we’ve made the materials very flexible, the field trip is no longer limited to one day, so schools can spread the activities out over a week or even a month. This gives students more opportunities to delve deeply into a subject or career field that interests them.”

Each virtual experience includes online activities, videos that launch the activities and interviews with experts so students can dig into the concepts and careers behind the stories they’re reading. Then there are interactive games that students can play online, as well as the hands-on activities STEM Read is known for.

“Some of the schools we’ve worked with are completely online and some are blended so the kids are in school two days a week and online three,” King-Cargile says. “The teachers really needed something that could be used in a lot of different ways, so we made everything self-paced, and we leave it up to the schools how they want to do the activities. The activities can be done in person, or the kids can get a supply pickup and do activities either on their own time and share back, or do small group Zooms with their classmates and work on things simultaneously.”

Teachers and students have welcomed the opportunity to delve deeply into stories and concepts that sparked their interest.

STEM Read Director Gillian King-Cargile poses as the 19th century detective Kate Warne for “Saving Lincoln,” inspired by The Detective’s Assistant by Kate Hannigan. Costumes are one way to bring fiction to life for students.

“The teachers I’ve spoken to are very impressed with the materials,” says Steve Bell, instructional coach at Founders and Brooks Elementary Schools in DeKalb. “They think the videos and the games are well done (one teacher mentioned that a student LOVED the Dig Holes game). I asked if they wished anything was different and all nine of the teachers who I spoke to said they would not make any changes and thought everything was very engaging.”

“We recently did ‘Can You Dig It?’ inspired by the STEAM Concepts in Holes by Louis Sachar with DeKalb’s entire fifth grade, which is about 620 students,” King-Cargile says. “The students have responded to it well because it’s a little bit different than your regular elearning. You’ve got new people coming in and giving you information, including lots of experts who are doing these things in real life.”

“In the book Holes, Stanley Yelnats is our character, and he’s wrongly accused of stealing a pair of sneakers from a charity, so he’s sent to a juvenile work camp where the boys are supposed to build character by digging holes all day long,” King-Cargile says. “Stanley realizes the warden must be looking for something, and the book becomes an adventure story that’s also a mystery exploring the past.”

According to King-Cargile, Holes presented the opportunity to explore a wide range of STEM fields and topics, including archeology, investigation/detective work, engineering, counseling psychology and the juvenile justice system.

“We talked to NIU archeologist Kerry Sagebiel and heard about her field work in Beliz, looking at Mayan ruins. We learned about the different technologies archeologists use that are obviously much more effective than just digging lots of random holes, including drone surveys and ground-penetrating radar and lidar,” King-Cargile says. “Then students had the chance to participate in an online game to search for artefacts in this more targeted way.”

Choice boards allow students to follow their own interests to learn more about STEAM topics and careers, including this example from the “Survive!” STEM Read experience.

King-Cargile says the students also heard from therapists from Adventure Works in DeKalb about more positive alternatives to youth incarceration. “They talked about adventure therapy, and then they had a cool activity that the kids could do that was about making shelter. The kids got into some engineering concepts, and they also delved into social and emotional learning concepts of what shelter is and what it means to them.”

King-Cargile says it’s hard to overestimate what a difference it makes for students to hear from experts who are actually doing the work that they read about in their books. “We have three virtual STEM Read experiences based on different books, and for all of them we interviewed experts from NIU, Argonne National Laboratory and other community partners. The students learn about the career paths and daily work routines of computational physicists, engineers, social workers, historians, disaster preparedness experts, and even experts in espionage and code cracking.”

In addition to “Can You Dig It?” inspired by Sachar’s Holes, the virtual STEM Read experiences include “Survive!” inspired by the STEAM concepts in the I Survived series by Lauren Tarshis, and “Saving Lincoln,” inspired by The Detective’s Assistant by Kate Hannigan. These three virtual experiences are designed for fourth through eighth grade and can be adapted to fit the age group and curriculum.

STEM Read is part of NIU STEAM, whose mission is to provide students, educators and community members with experiences that increase STEAM knowledge and skills while inspiring curiosity, creativity and collaboration. For more information or to schedule a STEM Read virtual experience, contact [email protected].