STEM Read Institute sparks educators

Macy Gray (right)
Macy Gray (right)

Macy Gray’s journey as a teacher began at Mayatan Bilingual School, a non-profit in Honduras where she taught sixth-graders.

When she returned to Illinois this summer to begin a new job this fall teaching sixth- and seventh-graders at Chicago’s Altus Academy, the 2015 Elementary Education alumna from the Department of Curriculum and Instruction wanted to pursue some professional development.

And she found it in NIU’s STEM Read Institute, where she was one of 13 teachers exploring hands-on activities that unpack “the science behind the fiction.”

“My specialty – what I feel like I’m good at – is literacy and writing,” Gray says. “I also love science, but I felt like I needed more. You can love reading all you want, but to help kids love reading is different.”

Gray believes that “The Toy and the Twister” series, by STEM Read Director Gillian King-Cargile, can make that task easier. “They told us that you can use picture books at every grade level,” she says, “and, sometimes, that’s all the students really want.”

July’s STEM Read Summer Institute empowered teachers to put on their own STEM Read field trips, the brainchild of King-Cargile.

These field trips annually attract hundreds of middle and high school students to the NIU campus for professionally delivered gamification days focused around a piece of upper elementary of young adult literature. The institute provided teachers with the tools and materials to run these gamification days for their own classrooms, schools or districts.

Honest Abe needed help to find his lost speech.

Registrants for the institute received 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.

They also now have a one-year access to STEM Read event kits, housed in the Children’s Literature Teaching Collection, as well as business cards from an Abraham Lincoln impersonator who helped the educators conquer a Lincoln-related exercise in detective work.

“I thought it was great. All of the teachers were excited and glad to have experienced this first-hand and to go forward,” says Melanie Koss, an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and director of the Children’s Literature Teaching Collection.

“We’re hoping that they’re really going to take what they learned and apply it in their own classrooms, schools and districts,” Koss adds, “and come back every year to learn about our new field trips.”

Co-presenters Koss, King-Cargile and Kristen Brynteson, director of professional development for the NIU P-20 Center, were pleased with exit surveys that consistently ranked the three-day workshops with high marks and words such as “wonderful.”

“I loved their enthusiasm and their willingness to engage, and also their excitement to go off and find a way to do this in their schools,” Koss says. “It’s always nice to know that what you’re doing is meaningful and that it makes a difference.”

Melanie Koss (back) observes STEM Read Institute educators designing secret clues to covertly alert their unknown comrades.
Melanie Koss (back) observes STEM Read Institute educators designing secret clues to covertly alert their unknown comrades.

Carol Johnson, an English teacher at Oswego High School, enjoyed NIU STEM Read’s June partnership with the International Society for Technology in Education conference that brought her in touch with Andy Weir, bestselling author of “The Martian” and “Artemis.”

Participants engaged in a session on “Gamifying Artemis,” playing the STEM Read game based on Weir’s latest book, demonstrating to Johnson the power of bringing books to life.

Adding STEM Read concepts to her classroom now will allow her to “see how engaged students can be,” she says, citing an idea from Koss to assign students to develop their own games based on books.

“I feel it’s very relevant to the modern classroom,” Johnson says, “and learning the thought processes behind it was what I really wanted to get.”

Sheila Ruh, a media specialist at Westmont Junior High School, came to the NIU institute with colleague Laura Riley.

“STEM activities are great for students because they incorporate real-world application of the curricular skills and concepts we teach students. These activities are engaging, incorporate critical-thinking skills and require collaboration with other students,” Ruh says.

“There is also problem-solving and communication among members of the teams as they complete the various activities,” she adds. “These skills can be applied to all learning and lead to a lifetime of success.”

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