Teachers Describe ‘Workshop Model’ for Teaching STEM in Middle School

December 19, 2022
Front of John Glenn Middle School in Bedford MA
John Glenn Middle School educators presented on the “workshop model” of STEM education at a recent School Committee Meeting. Photo Credit: Robert Dorer

Technology educators at John Glenn Middle School are teaching through the “workshop model,” which they say offers not only academic but also social advantages.

“We want all students to feel that they can succeed in STEM,” said teacher John King. “The mastery-based focus allows students to take the time they need to really learn to cover the skills they need.” 

Added his colleague Lisa Morrison, “The kids work in groups to encourage social interactions and recover social skills they lost during Covid.” 

STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

King and Morrison presented details of the workshop model at a recent meeting of the School Committee. 

“Two years ago, we learned the workshop course,” Morrison said, through which “students can work together to make sure they are correct.” 

The model provides opportunities for students to have formal assessments, more differentiation, and for students to feel successful in STEM, she said.

The teachers’ narrative was interspersed not only with still photographs of students collaborating on projects but also with students’ positive testimonies on video. School Committee Chair Brad Morrison (no relation) said, “This might be one of the best presentations I have seen.”

Lisa Morrison said there are three parts to the model, beginning with recorded mini-lectures, which “students watch and take notes at their own pace.”

Then there’s an assessment to make sure they understand. 

“We use assessment results to group students into practice work groups, after they complete their note checks,” King explained. 

Morrison added, “All students move through the modules at their own pace, after they have demonstrated understanding.”

Finally, focus is on individual learning. Students progress at their own pace and only move on when they understand, Morrison said. King pointed out that this presents opportunities for differentiation. “We want the focus to be on learning, not speed.”

“We changed our approach to curriculum to make sure students understood the concept,” King said. “We needed to find a way to give students the time and support necessary.” 

Morrison said, “We are trying to broaden kids’ definition of what STEM is and what using technology looks like. It’s not just robots. It’s not just coding.”

Committee member Sarah Scoville observed, “You are looking at all the stuff that we worried about as a Covid loss, like social-emotional learning and differentiation.”

“We are working to get kids to accept that failure is okay and to look at failure differently,” Morrison said in answer to a question. “You don’t know what you have to know until you’ve failed. In the model kids are able to apply themselves with note-taking, practice work, talking to one another. Everyone can be successful as long as they take that failure and really learn from it.”

Morrison stressed that “the workshop model does not change the curriculum,” which over three years ranges from keyboarding skills and coding to introduction to computer-aided design, materials properties, and structural systems. The course covers 23 of the state’s science and technology frameworks for middle school students, she said.

Brad Morrison inquired about the classes’ overlap with math and science, and King stressed, “This is not a science class or a math class. You are going to be taking the skills and applying those skills to something new and different.” Some students are even carrying over parts of the model to their eighth-grade English classes, Morrison said.

King defined three “overarching engineering and technology topics” addressed in the curriculum: engineering design; materials tools and manufacturing; and technology systems. 

He explained that frameworks are assessed as part of eighth-grade science and engineering MCAS.  The most recent results place JGMS ahead of the state average for the same questions, following the pattern of previous years, he said.

MCAS scores will be one way of assessing whether the model is working, Morrison said. Also, “We are going to collect parent and student feedback for student reports of feeling more comfortable.”                            

Committee member Dan Brosgol asked how teaching STEM has changed. “A lot of the technology had gotten more efficient and smaller,” King replied. “We can do a lot more in our space than we could six years ago. Everything is scaled down, everything runs quicker.” Morrison noted that this year, eighth graders in the class learn “about actually how to build things.”

The information shared by the teachers “sounds so different from when I was in school,” said Bedford High School senior Elora Syed, the student representative to the School Committee. She noted that independence in pacing is an important skill to develop in preparation for high school. “We tell kids all the time: you are going to need these skills in high school,” Morrison replied.

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