Incredible Engineering, Incredible Relevance
& Incredible Learning  
  September 2014

In This Issue
STEM-I for Incredible
Incredible Engineering
Three Powerful Experiences
Tapping into Pop Culture

See the 2nd article for details!

Looking for Workshops for Professional Development with STEM?

Click here for details about the workshops offered by CEI.
They are designed to spark innovation. Our leaders are experienced in STEM areas and in presenting.

They include:
Kevin Manning,
Astronomer & Physicist

Suzan Mullane,
25 yrs experience in teaching. Provides in class demonstrations

Justine Haupt
Engineer at Brookhaven National Laboratory

Liz Parry,
wide experience with guiding teachers in STEM

We know the ideal PD is blended, personalized, and flexible.Please contact Dr. Christine Mason at [email protected]
 or (800) 386-2377 for more information on pricing and/or bringing a customized workshop to your school, district, or conference.
~ ~ ~

Is the secret out?
Boy With Goo!

See our final article
 in this issue for inspiration from schools
around the country.

~ ~ ~

Perhaps you missed NAESP's Annual Conference?

Click here for highlights,
including CEI's involvement.

Page includes photos and links to videos.

New project-based learning ideas should be part of every class.
Need inspiration?
Click here for goals to seek and ways to take students in new directions. 

Do your teachers and administrators need ideas for adapting  Common Core materials?
CEI has a web page devoted to many aids and links.
Click here!


Is your school ready to go GREEN?

NAESP has a page devoted to resources and opportunities.
Articles include:

In addition the site provides links to initiatives from the EPA, the
Green Schools Alliance, Grades of Green, Green Ribbon Schools, and many more

Check out the page here!


Stu Tables

CEI offers a wide array of workshops with distinguished faculty who deliver timely, up-to-date workshops for schools and districts.
Check out the possibilities!

Hot Topics:
STEM, Reteaching, Neuroscience, Compassion
& many more.

 Newsletter editor:

Carolyn Lieberg 

Dear Educators,

Incredible, amazing, marvelous, extraordinary, Wow!  In one of CEI's first newsletters (December 2010), we focused on STEM.  I closed that newsletter by saying that "Science inherently provides students with direct, hands-on activities to problem solve and engage in critical thinking activities with their peers." In another CEI newsletter (November 2012), I asked, "Does your school really understand how an 'engineering perspective' takes schools from the world of theory to direct application?  Are your students involved in conducting exciting experiments?  Do they regularly apply math to solve practical problems--even problems that they are proposing?" Since December 2010, CEI has continued to research STEM practices to provide you with a steady stream of information on STEM.

STEM is an indispensable part of 21st Century Learning.  With STEM, "incredible" can take many forms.  It can be the Wow! of student inventions and designs, the Wow! of re-design and creating better products, or the Wow! of student engagement and learning. In this issue of Wow! Ed we focus on research on how to implement STEM for the biggest bang, engineering feats, the power of pop culture, and a related reminder that there are myriad ways to build on student interests and strengths to create incredible, remarkable experiences for students.


Adding an "I" for Incredible to K-12 STEM    
By Christine Mason, CEI Executive Director 

The primary driver of the future economy and concomitant creation of jobs will be innovation, largely derived from advances in science and engineering.... 4 percent of the nation's workforce is composed of scientists and engineers; this group disproportionately creates jobs for the other 96 percent.  

(National Academy of Sciences, et al. 2011, p. 4) 

Consider K-12 STEM-I:
K-12 Science, Technology, Engineering, Math -- Incredible.

The "I" for Incredible. The experiences students gain with STEM may pave a path toward their future 21st century careers. Careers in the aerospace industry, urban planning and development, global resource conservation, medicine, mass communications, equipment manufacturing, biotechnology, human resource development, marketing, retailing, the arts, even education, and more. However, even for students who do not elect to follow a STEM career, STEM will be important. Just as iPads, PCs, and Smart Phones have changed our lives, STEM is opening the doors to new designs and new lifestyles.


If you are noticing an increasing interest in STEM, you are not alone. Future jobs are dependent on STEM, creating a considerable interest from business, industry, and the federal government. With this interest, STEM education will likely be a major initiative for at least the next decade. Given these circumstances, how can schools add the "I" to give students an incredible STEM experience? The following research findings from a 2011 NAS report on STEM education in K-12 schools provide some essential guidance:

  •  School leadership is critical and the principal is the driver for STEM success
  • Teachers need adequate professional development and training -- teachers are far more likely to be comfortable with literature and the arts than they are with math, science, and engineering.
  • Adequate time and resources must be provided for STEM integration and that integration must be explicit -- students need teachers to help them make connections between the subjects and to understand how one subject supports another.
  • Effective instruction builds on students' interest and experiences to engage students and sustain their interest.
  • Measures of STEM success must go beyond standardized measures of academic achievement. STEM jobs require employees to be motivated, interested, creative, and committed to both ethical behavior and the interests of humanity.

The 2011 NAS report also emphasizes the need for equal access to STEM opportunities for students of different ethnic groups and for students living in poverty. This means that schools should have equal access to laboratory facilities, resources, and supplies, and to teachers who are well trained.


The E in STEM: Engineering. In one recent report, The National Academy of Engineering (NAE -- see home page for current contest) published findings from a research review of STEM and K-12 education (Honey, Pearson, & Schweingruber, 2014). The following findings from that report appear to be of particular relevance to schools:

  • There is growing recognition of the role of engineering in the design process, with designs that are developed with budget constraints, criteria for usefulness, optimization, and trade-offs. These provide practical guidelines for students as they design their solutions.
  • The redesign process is an important part of learning about engineering.
  • Engineering often involves teamwork and collaboration, and students benefit from experiencing a variety of roles as they design innovations.
  • More generalization occurs when the materials and resources are not overly specific.
  • Transfer of learning is key and cannot be assumed.

Meeting Teacher and Student Needs. To facilitate learning, teachers need enough support and guidance so that they are comfortable with the topics and subject matter. Teachers also need time to review and compare the Next Generation Science Standards and other high academic standards, relating the standards to their instruction. For students to gain the most from STEM integrated instruction, teachers must pay attention to not only the STEM components but to learning in the individual subject area (whether it be literacy, history, or literature). A student-centered approach with high-quality instruction that is stimulating and supportive of individual student interests is recommended.


Also, since several research studies report greater efficacy for STEM facilitating the understanding of the S, T, and E than the M. Students need teachers who provide adequate focus and instruction on mathematical principles and operations. There is sometimes a tendency to gravitate toward creative problem solving which may or may not support the application of mathematics. So as wonderful as STEM appears to be, math in particular needs to be taught and practiced both in the context of STEM and also as its own discipline.


Finally, to get the greatest gains, teachers and students need help generalizing from specific STEM activities. For students to adequately understand and benefit from STEM, some specific components, such as adequate resources, and teachers who are well-prepared are mandatory. However, attention to this last recommendation might well be the key to effectiveness. To facilitate generalization, the National Research Council (2012) recommends:

  • Multiple and varied representations of concepts and tasks (multiple exemplars)
  • Encouraging elaboration, questioning, and explanation
  • Using tasks that are challenging for the learners
  • Ensuring that students are motivated
  • Using formative assessments.
STEM, because it involves hands-on activities that can be highly engaging, can be appealing to many students, including students who struggle with learning primarily from textbooks and discussions. STEM can also bring hope to students because of post-secondary and career opportunities. Fortunately, many businesses as well as the federal government are interested in supporting STEM instruction. At this stage in STEM implementation, educators can learn from each other and from the research that has been undertaken and is also ongoing.  While many questions remain, adding engineering, and integrating STEM across subjects could not only lead to better workforce for the future, but may also create lively classrooms with student teams that are fully engaged in problem solving, critical thinking, and the practical application of knowledge to real-world scenarios.



Honey, M., Pearson, G. & Schweingruber, H. Editors. (2014). STEM Integration in K-12 Education:Status, Prospects, and an Agenda for Research. Washington, DC: Committee on Integrated STEM Education; National Academy of Engineering; National Research Council.


National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine.(2011a). Rising above the gathering storm revisited:Rapidly approaching category.Condensed version.Washington,DC: The National Academies Press.


National Research Council.(2011). SuccessfulK-12 STEM Education: Identifying Effective Approaches in Science,Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Committee on Highly Successful Science Programs for K-12 Science Education. Washington, DC: Board on Science Education and Board on Testing and Assessment, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education,The National Academies Press.


National Research Council (2012) A framework forK-12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Available at (retrieved September 5, 2013).

Washington, DC: The Academy for Systematic Change. 
Incredible Engineering Feats: Ideas for Classrooms

By Christine Mason, CEI Executive Director 

and Carolyn Lieberg, CEI Editor 


Engineering is the practical application of science to solving problems. Whether they be large problems like how to build a bridge to span a waterway or smaller items, like keeping track of scissors and tape, engineers may be able to devise designs to meet specific needs. Today's article provides a few ideas for your use as "hooks" to get students started with brainstorming about the value of engineering.

While searching online for another word for "amazing," I ran into an ad for "incredible cabins." In returning to my writing, I have not been able to find the original discovery I made, but after much searching I entered the words "incredible treehouse cabin." And voila, up pops a web page with something like 50 different treehouse cabin designs.  



There is a growth in STEM activities everywhere, it seems. The websites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and other crowd-funding websites have created opportunities for problem-solvers to not only solve a problem but to publicize their solution and seek money to manufacture it. Whether it's roll-up keyboards or a knife that "grates" hard butter for spreading, problems galore are inspiring inventors young and old.


Schools are getting into the act in a number of ways. The pressure to devote more hours of the school days to STEM has been one catalyst. The economic drive for more entrepreneur development helps the cause. The desire for better international scores for students also inspires schools to work on scheduling issues. And the successes of students, from elementary through graduate years, continues to seed more projects and plans. Businesses, foundations, and government challenges have also inspired individuals and collaborative groups to solve problems.  


The Internet offers hundreds if not thousands of examples of ideas, small and large, that have spawned improved tools and contraptions. Below are a few examples of locations and innovations that have improved people's lives.  


The World Maker Faire invites people to create inventions for whatever purpose they see as needing help. Several of the inventions at that site are about art (a robot to decorate eggs and other spheres; a vision arrangement to help an artist with ALS draw pictures using his eyes). Looking at what others have done is often one of the best inspirations for trying out an idea that we may have toyed with but not really pursued.




More examples. In the UK, developers came up with a lamp powered by a weight of about 20 pounds. Lifting and then lowering the weight provides energy to illuminate an LED bulb, which burns with about the brightness of a kerosene lamp. Since 1.5 million people don't have electric lights in their home, this sort of solution can make a big difference.  


A related invention by Kenyan Anthony Matua is a thin chip of crystals inserted in a shoe sole. Walking and other activities charge the chip, which then can be connected to a mobile phone to charge it.  


Here is one site that collects innovations and allows users a free month to see what has been logged onto the site.  




To provide one final example, the Cubinator is a robot that solves the Rubik's Cube with amazing speed. Watch it at work online to dazzle students.


We never know which invention may inspire a child here to pursue an idea. However to stimulate creativity use some of the examples we have provided here or go the websites mentioned for hooks to help draw students into your STEM lessons. We all love being amazed, and amazement is often the beginning of yet another wondrous thing. 

Three Incredible High School Experiences
by Julie Rager, CEI Intern
In high school, I participated in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program. It was very intense and required so much hard work, but it was worth it. As part of the program, interpersonal development was encouraged by requiring several hours of activities that focused on creativity, action, and service. These programs helped me through one of the most difficult and challenging periods of my life as I struggled with the profound grief of losing three family members within three years.

Reflecting on my high school experiences, three activities stand out:


As a senior, I participated as the Madrigal Student Choir leader. At the time, being a part of the Madrigals meant being part of the most exclusive choir in the school. Each member was specifically chosen by the choir teacher and had to audition for only a few available spots. As the student leader, it was my responsibility to warm-up the choir at the beginning of each class, as well as learn every part of every piece that we performed. The idea behind this was for me to be able to assist anyone who wasn't clear on how to correctly sing their part, and a few times, even though I sing soprano, I had to stand in as an alto or a tenor because someone was sick or unable to perform.


The idea of a choir is not to sound like fifteen or twenty different voices singing the same song, but to blend so that the sound seems like one clear, beautiful voice. To do that, you have to let go of your own agenda and any need to be the "best" or most talented singer; then the choir as a whole can produce the right sound. This was especially important for me as the student director, because I had to be willing to help anyone, or fit in anywhere I was needed. If I didn't do that, while I may have sounded great, another person or another section could have reacted and thrown off the sound of the whole piece. In a choir, it's all about how the group performs, and not the individual.



I was in a unique position of being able to learn Tae Kwon Do from my grandfather starting at a young age. By the time I was in the IB program, I had received my first degree black belt and was helping other students learn the proper ways to execute basic techniques. This was very important in order to instill effective self-defense skills and personal safety skills. By blindly throwing a punch without understanding where you are aiming or what you are aiming with, the potential for injury is high, not to mention the risk that your technique will be ineffective.


One thing that always stayed with me during that time, was that a first degree black belt was only considered a "master of the basics." The average person thinks that once you have that black belt, you know everything, and there's nothing further to learn. That couldn't be further from the truth. There is always a new technique to be learned, and there is always some additional knowledge or insight that your instructor can provide that can help you improve your effectiveness. The minute you believe you've stopped learning or that you know it all is the minute you have the greatest potential for defeat.



Volunteering at an adult day care center was very rewarding. The elderly are often forgotten or discounted, but in fact have a wealth of knowledge and love to share with those who are willing to spend time with them. I heard some incredible stories during my volunteer work, and I also had quite a bit of fun. I got to do crafts and lead songs and just be someone who cared.


When I started, one woman in particular only spoke Spanish and was often alone. The other volunteers really shied away from her both because of a language barrier, and also because this woman seemed ill-tempered. Having taken several years of Spanish in school, and knowing my Spanish IB exam was inevitable, I was determined to practice my Spanish with her.  


It was very hard at first; she was unresponsive, or she laughed when I said something wrong. But after I'd been there a few months, and she saw that I was determined, she often started to seek me out when I came to volunteer, and soon she was regularly participating in activities or engaging others in conversation. I would like to think I helped her while I was there. I can definitely say that my Spanish improved dramatically, and I did so well on my exam that I tested completely out of the foreign language requirement for my Bachelor's degree.   


Lessons for All

The IB program was an incredible experience and it taught me so much about confidence and finishing what you start. In addition to what I learned during my various experiences, the biggest thing I learned from the program overall was to keep going. Some of my classmates who started the program dropped out when the work got too hard or the amount of homework became too much. More than once I was tempted to do the same, especially as I adjusted to living with my grandparents and the loss of my mother, father, and brother, all within a short three-year window. However, the IB program kept me busy and grounded, and it became something that was so important for me to finish no matter what. I wanted that diploma, and I got it! Not only that, after I graduated with a 3.9 GPA, my IB exam scores qualified me to start George Mason University as a sophomore. I am so grateful for these experiences.   


Student interests and skills can be the basis for incredible learning experiences. In addition to the IB program, two other related programs also provide venues for developing critical thinking skills: the Cambridge International Examinations program and Advanced Placement . However, with or without a formal program, teachers who match student interests and strengths with challenging real-world experiences can both capitalize on student motivation and also provide an important bridge to further expand student interests and learning.


Julie Raeger, an undergraduate psychology major at the University of Maryland, is beginning an internship at CEI this fall. Her focus will be on heart centered learning.

Tapping Popular Culture for Student Engagement   

by Nick Jones, CEI Intern      

Children spend six-and-a-half hours a day texting, playing computer games, and using the Internet for non-academic purposes (Hagood, 2007). They sign into their Xbox live accounts, teaming up with people from all around the world to eradicate fictitious online enemies. Their thumbs seem to work faster than their brains as they text at every available moment. Their world is populated by Guardians of the Galaxy and Instagram.



As orange becomes the new black on Netflix, youth today live in a pop-centric society -- whether it be the latest action heroes from Marvel, obsessing over One Direction, or trying to defeat Enderman in Minecraft, youth live in a world that is alive with a wealth of conflict, resolution, and in many cases even anti-heroes.  

In contrast to the everyday world that youth inhabit, traditional school curriculum focuses on "high culture." That is, standard classroom instruction includes studying the works of literary greats such as Shakespeare and learning about the discoveries of Galileo and Newton. Such routine emphasis on established academic topics historically has not provided opportunities to bring pop culture into the classroom, thus creating a divide between high culture and pop culture.



Relevance. One of the basic premises for increasing student engagement and interest in learning is to begin with something that is relevant to students' lives. Hagood (2007) found that "when teachers draw on adolescents' out-of-school literacies as scaffolds of learning, students' in-school reading interest and proficiency increase significantly" (p. 226). In other words, using students' out-of-school interests builds a foundation for teachers to understand how students learn and respond to media content and in turn can create instructional material that is relatable and engaging. When teaching elementary subjects, something as simple as having students change the lyrics of their favorite song to a pneumonic device for a learning concept can inform them that their ideas and interests matter.


With the introduction of new technologies in the classroom and the average student being evermore technologically savvy, education reformers are pushing for multi-literacy practice. Groups like the International Society for Technology in Education and the Center for Media Literacy are working to move educators away from print literacy as a means for measuring comprehension. The Center for Educational Improvement, with our focus on 21st Century Learning, is also acutely aware of the divide that exists between real world applications and classroom experiences. Youth today live with a cellphone that is almost permanently attached to their hands, yet many classrooms continue to ban digital devices that are not allocated by schools.  


Pop culture may also be a way to engage students and find common ground in spite of demographic differences between teachers and students. To the extent that the population of white teachers (about 82% [Ahmad, 2014]) choose not to tune into students' culture, the gap could create additional teaching and learning challenges.


With standardized testing reform currently making headlines, curriculum and content are certainly hot topics that must be approached with sensitivity. In an excerpt from the CCSS website, "students need the ability to gather, comprehend, evaluate, synthesize, and report on information and ideas, to conduct original research in order to answer questions or solve problems, and to analyze and create a high volume and extensive range of print and non-print texts in media forms old and new" (Kontovourki, 2014). Pop culture content provides material for students to do all of the aforementioned tasks and also relates academic material to real-life, out-of-school text.


Schools That Integrate Pop Culture into the Curriculum. Schools like Epic, Quest to Learn, and PlayMaker School are succeeding in these ways. These schools all use gaming and extensive experimentation to teach curriculum. Epic Charter School in Oakland, CA, which opened its doors to students Aug. 25, operates on the hero-theme. Every student at Epic is a hero who works on tasks related to science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) while earning points and leveling up. At Quest to Learn in both New York and Chicago, students engage in game-like learning and embark on missions with standardized learning objectives. In Los Angeles, PlayMaker School  teachers guide students to "build, deconstruct, and reinvent a vast array of devices, games, and inventions" in order to "form deep connections with complex concepts through discovery"



Minecraft Lessons. Similarly, a name on everyone's tongue these days is Minecraft. As the official website reads, "Minecraft is a game about breaking and placing blocks." With such popularity among youth, teachers and gaming professionals teamed up to make MinecraftEdu, which boasts functionality in all subject areas. With a simple search, teachers can find Minecraft lesson plans from teaching about ancient civilizations to language arts exercises. MinecraftEdu demonstrates how out-of-school texts can in fact be transformed into educational material.


As standardized expectations for learning continue to evolve, educators and officials schools may accelerate their success by tuning in to ways to integrate pop culture and of digital and media literacy to create engaging learning content, instill a sense of familiarity and relatability, and improve the overall classroom dynamic.


Ahmad, Z., & Boser, U. (2014, May 4). Teacher Diversity Revisited. In Center for American Progress. Retrieved 2014, from


English Language Arts Standards: Introduction: Key Design Consideration . (n.d.). In Common Core State Standards Initiative. Retrieved 2014, from


Hagood, M. C. (2007). Linking popular culture to literacy learning and teaching in the twenty-first century. In Literacy for the New Millenium (pp. 224-233). Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.


Kontovourki, S. (2014, April). Backstage performances: A third grader's embodiments of pop culture and literacy in a public school classroom.
 Literacy, 48(1), 4-13.


Playing, Making Discovery. (n.d.). In Playmaker School.



Nick Jones joins CEI as an intern. Nick is an award-winning journalist and a communications and media student in Arizona State University's online program.   

 The Incredible Power of STEM  

In 2014 we are indeed fortunate to have such a powerful tool as STEM. We are indeed fortunate that engineers and engineering educators are teaming with schools to bring STEM and (STEAM- adding Art) to students of all races and ethnic groups, to young boys and girls, in hundreds of schools throughout the U.S. If you have not yet started down a STEM path, take a second look. One way to keep students in schools and engaged is to teach through asking students to solve problems, giving them opportunities to imagine, create, plan, design, and give students opportunities to wow! each other and us. And as one of CEI Associates, Liz Parry, says, to "let students know that failure is expected -- failure is not about the student but rather about the design." Great designs come from taking risks, making mistakes, and continuing to problem solve.  What a powerful way to look at learning.


Christine Mason
Executive Director, Center for Educational Improvement
CEI is collaboraating with the NAESP Foundation to bring innovations to school leaders.
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