Reflections on NSTA Milwaukee

I just wrapped up my third NSTA regional conference, this time in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  As always, I left feeling refreshed and energized in my chosen profession – there are few groups of people more innovative, passionate, fun-loving, and caring than science teachers and I learned a lot from my colleagues and elders in the field.  Here are a few of my highlights from this year’s conference that I wanted to share!

Using linguistics to teach science.  I went to an awesome presentation put on by Suzanne Loosen and Kelsie Pattillo, two Wisconsin linguistics teachers who connected the study of language to anatomy, physiology, computational thinking, logic, zoology… and more!  I love thinking about the systems that we are immersed in every day and their connection to science – students kept language diaries in their classes to observe differences in how language is used in different contexts, watched language development in young children (! metacognition, anyone?!), and used activated charcoal to track how sounds are made in the mouth.  The North American Computational linguistics Olympiad has a lot of cool resources to get kids thinking about how language works – their problem sets would make good warm-ups, teambuilding activities, or building blocks for logical thinking and proofs in math or computer science.  Also, linguists apparently love coming in as guest speakers.  🙂 Will definitely use this in both my human biology classes and my computer science elective!

Equity conversations: why do we always focus on undergraduates and professionals?  We had the honor of hearing from Jo Handelsman, a groundbreaking bacteriologist and the Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under President Obama.  Her talk, titled “The Fallacy of Fairness,” provided some basic statistics and information about inequities that persist in academic science and the ideologies that scientists at major research universities use to justify perpetuating inequalities between men and women and between white folks and people of color in academic science.

Her talk did a fabulous job outlining what research exists to try and demonstrate the existence of bias that hurts women and people of color (her term was “minorities,” which I intentionally do not use) – especially the defensive backlash that she received over and over again from (presumably straight, middle-/upper-class, cis) white men that a. they themselves/their organization do not have personal bias, and b. they earned whatever honors they have and bias did not benefit them in any way. She also found that when videos were made featuring stories of women’s experiences in the STEM workforce, men who watched them consistently did not believe that the stories could be true while women overwhelmingly confirmed having had similar experiences.

Important takeaways from the research she cited included that people justify hiring decisions that favor white people and men after hiring decisions are complete by identifying the characteristics those candidates had and asserting that those characteristics were the most important in the search.  Identifying those key components before the search begins removed much of that bias.  She also found that scientists who denied personal bias had deeply entrenched ideas about being bias-free that are rooted in self-identity as a rational scientist, despite the fact that when scientific research was done on their own institutions/the individuals themselves, it was shown that bias existed.  This paradox was particularly striking… and shows that something major has to shift in how those who benefit from bias are taught as children to cope with this reality.

I left the talk feeling a little baffled by how little research is typically presented about the impact of bias on students in K-12 settings.  It is one thing to talk about the impact of bias on professionals who have graduated with advanced degrees in STEM fields (or are even undergraduates in those programs) – it’s another thing to investigate the ways that bias inevitably appears in our classrooms, the language and actions used to encourage or discourage students, and the ways that STEM topics are framed.  Moreover, I felt as though classroom culture and peer relationships were not acknowledged at all, which must have a huge impact on students’ self-identification with science and their experience of bias and marginalization in STEM spaces.  If you have resources that are easy to read on these topics, PLEASE share them with me!!

Discrepant events rock!  There was a really great “Exploratorium” put on by preservice teachers at a local university that showed discrepant events for a variety of phenomena.  These engaging “hooks” get kids interested and can even serve as the overarching phenomenon for an entire unit on a traditional subject like optics, density, or the laws of motion.  My favorites from the many excellent demos were this density bottle, a battery-magnet monorail, the floating rice bottle, and a pendulum catch.  I especially appreciated the biology-focused ones, including a bobby-pin nerve test to measure two-point discrimination, many optical illusions, a brain-body connection test, and the classic, fun, and squicky “naked egg” demo.

Real-world connections and strong story-telling are the keys to good (science) teaching.  I was lucky enough to go to two of six sessions put on by Debbie Goodwin and Andrew Nydam (both Polymer Ambassadors) related to materials science, the chemistry of solids, and teaching the science and engineering behind how cars work.  All I can say is – WOW!  The compelling way they interweave very advanced science into everyday phenomena – teaching content that is new to many experienced physical and chemical science teachers – is stunning.  If you have a chance to hear them speak or attend one of the free week-long summer trainings they are a part of offering – do it!  The major takeaway of their presentation for me is how disconnected traditional science curricula are from the real-world materials that kids will encounter throughout their lives, whether that’s as engineers and scientists, car or home owners/renters, or simply as people curious about what 90% of the world is made of.  To truly understand a subject, students need to be able to apply it to the real-world things they encounter and have an intuition about how things fit together.  Whether it was a new way of thinking about chemical compounds through solids, applying energy conversions in the process of the sun’s energy becoming the fuel in a car, or why plates break when they drop to the ground, these folks are thinking holistically about chemistry in a real-world way.

Double Dare is the perfect teambuilding resource.  This is not from NSTA, but “Ask Me Another,” my favorite game show, did a segment on Double Dare games that reminded me how weird and perfect Double Dare physical challenges were for engaging the child-animal brain.  I use teambuilding activities as a way to bring my advisory together, help lab groups communicate, or review content, and I am always looking for new games to play with kids that are cheap, fast, and engaging.  Many of the challenges are pretty messy, so I wouldn’t necessarily use them as-is, but the basic principles of games can extend pretty far in the classroom!  Here are some lists of physical challenges from the show.


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