January. The month for making resolutions. At STEM Tuesday, it’s also the month for exploration. Why not resolve to explore creative ways to bring middle grade, STEM-themed books into the lives of young readers?
Launch into exploration with Mission: Mars. Author Pascal Lee, a planetary scientist and chairman of the Mars Institute, embraces the theme by transporting readers to this far-flung destination. As would-be astronauts contemplate heading to the Red Planet, even short segments of the book serve as possible springboards to new lessons or activity ideas.
For example, with a single, short passage on page 5, you can connect math, science, and ELA. Here, providing a sense of the distances to Earth’s nearest neighbors, Lee compares how many months it would take to drive (at 70 miles per hour) to the Moon and Mars—5 months and 5,000 months (more than 400 years), respectively. The numbers are fun and informative – and a great model for your students’ own sense-making and communication.
Invite them to check Lee’s calculations (because it’s good to get in the habit of checking authors’ figures). Next, students can write a similar passage comparing the same distances (to the Moon and Mars). After they select different vehicles and research or estimate typical speeds, you can help students work through how long it would take for the vehicles to get them to their destinations.
For a truly open-ended approach, ask students how they would try to solve the problem and invite them to give it a try on their own. Of course, you might prefer to provide more direction, using this example in a lesson on proportional reasoning, using tables, spreadsheets, unit analysis, or other approaches relevant to your curriculum goals. Afterward, return to Lee’s passage. Help readers notice that comparisons like this work especially well because they connect to something the reader can readily imagine or has experienced. Which of their own comparisons would be most useful to readers of different ages? Which might make the greatest impressions? Why?
Keep on trekking. Once your readers-turned-math-and-science-communicators have the Earth-Moon-Mars scale under control, let them loose on the whole universe! Cracking open National Geographic Kids Ultimate Space Atlas (which I authored), check out the facts and figures related to the sizes of objects and distances across our Solar System, through the Milky Way, and beyond. Students can translate these measurements into the distance scales they have just developed based on vehicles’ travel times. Continuing your exploration of space, use Venn diagrams to compare and contrast various features of solar systems, stars, and more. Or take a close look at the different types of graphic information in this highly visual book. How do illustrations, scientific images (from telescopes, for example), photographs, and more draw readers in? How do they shape a reader’s impression of the information?
Diving in to an exploration that is closer to home, check out Kenneth Mallory’s Diving to a Deep-Sea Volcano. Vbrant pictures of exotic organisms and underwater landscapes complement the fascinating story. As with space exploration, technologies for transportation, remote sensing, and communications play a vital role in oceanographic discovery. Now’s the time for an engineering design challenge that’s linked to ocean exploration technology–submarines and more.
For example, Engineering is Elementary’s* Ocean Engineering unit, Taking the Plunge, offers an engineering challenge focused on remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROV), no electronics required. This or any well-developed ROV design challenge would make an important engineering connection to Mallory’s book, attracting tinkerers and readers alike.
The Hatfield Marine Science Center’s free ROV-related guide can also help you dive further into the deep sea exploration! For example, following one of the resource’s links, I found this wonderful clip. Watch an enchanting little fish roam its territory while a scientist reminds us that anyone watching the video live was witnessing the first-ever glimpse of this particular species. The experience—as well as the scientist’s voice–affirms that science is an exciting, vibrant adventure.
Launch and dive into science exploration — at the same time. That’s no mixed metaphor if we’re talking about Jennifer Swanson’s Astronaut Aquanaut: How Space Science and Sea Science Interact. To strengthen conceptual knowledge and help readers connect science topics to the excitement of exploration, try reading the book before or during a science unit on density, buoyancy, plate tectonics, technology…or any of the other topics that are woven into the book.
The included science activities might be of special interest to help you extend the literacy experience, but don’t miss the obvious opportunity to reflect on the comparisons throughout the story.
You might want to use the text as a model for students–and challenge them to find and write about other topics with surprising or interesting connections. (How about comparing and contrasting the forces that shape mountains and canyons…that cause droughts and floods?) Whatever your learners choose, ask them to consider what concepts bind them and what connections they see in how people explore these topics.
Keep an eye out for opportunities to explore. Speaking of “new” species, Sandra Markle’s The Search for Olinguito. reminds us that sometimes exploration involves taking a new look at something we have seen before. Curiosity and sharp observation are part of the story of scientific exploration. If not for scientist Kristofer Halgen’s observation of a unique pelt in a museum collection, the olinguito (an adorable raccoon relative) might not be known to science. Emphasize this point with a fun, game-like experience.
Tell partners take a good look at each other. Then, ask partners to turn away from each other; each one should make a subtle change to his or her appearance. When partners face each other again, can they find the change? You can adapt this idea as an ongoing group experience. Every few days, change something about the physical environment. Challenge students to notice. Keep them tuned in to visual detail.
This book is also a great opportunity to help your students understand how scientists classify organisms in the first place. The American Association for the Advancement of Science offers a basic classification activity that you can use to engage your students in this essential content. At the end of the lesson, you’ll find links to extensions that will help you dive deeper or begin at a more advanced level.
To explore (scientifically) is human. One more note for this month: Science and STEM stories have the potential to positively impact the whole child, modeling, for example, inquisitiveness and tenacity. Science is a human adventure. Feeling the shiver of curiosity, digging for answers, facing challenges and disappointments, and celebrating success are all part of the experience.
Ask students to share their own stories that parallel the scientific tales of exploration in these books. Possible prompts include:
- When have you had a question you really wanted to answer? How did you figure it out?
- When have you found yourself inventing or adapt an object so you could do something you wanted to do? (Something as simple as using a paperclip to replace a button counts as an example.)
- When have you ever felt stuck? How did you get past that?
- Tell us about a time when you reached a milestone that you worked hard to attain.
After students share their tales, turn to books on this month’s list in search of the scientists’ similar experiences.
Share your own exploration! As you venture into your own new territory with these books and the theme of STEM exploration, please don’t leave us in the dust. Drop us a line in the comments section below! Think of it as an entry in a communal adventure log!
- How else do you help students experience reading and doing as exploration?
- Do you prefer to focus on exploration as a one-time theme or sprinkle it throughout the year? Why?
- What other books do you use to help introduce exploration as an important aspect of science? How?
- What ideas worked well—or not so well—with your students?
When she’s not exploring the topic of her next nonfiction book for kids, author, STEM education specialist, and President of Blue Heron STEM Education Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano, M.Ed., helps students and teachers explore science and STEM fields with dynamic, hands-on author visits, professional development programs, and curricula that are customized to meet their needs and interests.
*Disclosure: As one of original authors and a consultant for Engineering is Elementary, I have professional ties to that program. However, I do not receive sales commissions or royalties.