A team of teachers developed an interdisciplinary STEM project which boosted students’ motivation to learn more about science
Which celestial body from the Solar system can become our second home? This was the big question that students from 9th and 10th grade at Secondary School “Ekzarh Antim I” in the town of Kazanlak worked together to solve. This was part of the school’s interdisciplinary STEM project which required biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, IT, and entrepreneurship teachers to work together. It also involved a learning-by-doing approach. Despite all challenges posed by the pandemic and the long periods of distance learning, students were able to complete their project. Their feedback was exceptionally positive – they were interested in the topic, enjoyed the challenge of problem-solving, liked doing research and conducting experiments, were happy to have had the opportunity to work in teams, and found the interdisciplinary nature of the project fascinating. This success would not have been possible without the hard work by the teachers at the school – one of the participants in Teach For Bulgaria’s program “Model Schools”.
What inspired this STEM project?
After Secondary School “Ekzarh Antim I” received funding from the Bulgarian national program for the development of STEM facilities at school, all IT and science teachers joined Teach For Bulgaria’s program called “Model Schools” and more specifically, they participated in the STEM module of the program. The module required that they draft an interdisciplinary project. When their training was finished, they decided to go ahead and execute the project by creating an extracurricular club for students in 9th and 10th grade. Their goal was to experiment and gain experience which they would later use in the STEM center.
Their students split into teams and started working on a model for a self-sustainable artificial biosphere located on an object of their choice from the Solar System. Teachers gave students the option not to include humans in their biosphere and they also didn’t put any limitations on the way the teams were to present their models – presentation, video, website, etc. The goal was to get students to learn in an engaging way. Meanwhile, they had classes about Earth’s biosphere. Teachers created a shared presentation with interdisciplinary information and worksheets for each class. Each topic had a theoretical and a practical part and teachers found different ways to conduct their classes. The practical part involved experiments and data analysis, online research, problem-solving and product development.
Teachers started a professional learning community which allowed them to work closely together. They did backwards planning (an element typical for Teach For Bulgaria’s training programs). This process involves formulating a big question, setting curriculum objectives, defining the final product, and then planning specific topics and activities. Teachers presented the topics in an unconventional way in order to get students interested and motivated to look for solutions. They also collected students’ feedback regularly in order to improve the whole process.
The teachers noticed positive effects immediately – students were very responsible and took ownership of their own learning. Even though the STEM project was an extracurricular activity and some of the classes had to be online because of the pandemic, all students took their work quite seriously and worked really diligently on their biosphere models. The teams often worked after school. At the end of the school year all teachers received interesting and diverse end products which illustrated everyone’s hard work. The questionnaires that the students had to fill out at the beginning and at the end of the project showed that they had mastered the material from the main curricular objectives. Working on the STEM project also helped them develop skills such as creativity, science literacy, team work, and digital competence. Students’ feedback was also positive. Teachers received positive feedback from the parents and their colleagues at school as well.
What is “Model Schools”?
Secondary School “Ekzarh Antim I” in Kazanlak is from the program’s first class of participants. 324 teachers and leadership teams (principals, vice principals, school counselors, etc.) from 15 regions of the country participated in basic and elective training sessions and received additional mentorship during the school year as part of the program. 27 schools were selected to be the second class of participants out of nearly 100 applications.
“Model Schools” is aimed at helping schools in the development and application of sustainable and effective teaching and leadership practices which contribute to every student’s success. It is a two-year program, comprised of two integral courses: Instructional Leadership and practical methodological courses selected by the school. Each course involves a specific school project, ongoing training, and mentorship. The courses are approved by the Ministry of Education and Science and everyone who completes them successfully receives qualification credits.
The program is a successor of America for Bulgaria’s Education Leadership Academy and builds upon Teach For Bulgaria’s professional support and training experience. The participants do not pay any fees for any of the training sessions or mentorship they receive during the program.
Boyana Radeva, one of the mentors of the school: The program supported the team to work even more effectively on the progressive ideas they already had
What changes have you noticed in the work of the teachers you mentored?
They became much more focused and mindful. Of course, I’m just a bystander and so my impressions are subjective, but I feel like even though they were already working on wonderful initiatives and projects individually, it wasn’t until they joined “Model Schools” that they were able to see the big picture holistically and put things into perspective. Now they have the deep understanding of why this is all happening – not just because it’s new and exciting, but because it contributes to something much bigger. They had some trouble defining their big goal during their first year in the program, but once they did, they were able to get everything else aligned and stemming from the main goal.
How did you support the school?
Such progressive, devoted, hard-working, and entrepreneurial thinkers didn’t need many new ideas from me. They already had plenty. They also had the drive to make them happen. The challenge for me was to figure out what questions still remained unaddressed. Addressing these questions would help streamline the process, create and establish procedures, structures, and transparency… I had to figure out what “their” thing was. The catalyst that would tie everything together and help them organize their team even better. I hope that my mentorship has succeeded in asking the important questions and that the teachers at Secondary School “Ekzarh Antim I” would keep looking for answers.
Valya Radeva and Valya Garbacheva from the STEM team at Secondary School “Ekzarh Antim I”: “Model Schools” challenged teachers’ creativity and made them go out of their comfort zone
Valya Radeva is a senior teacher of biology and health education and a STEM PLC leader at Secondary School “Ekzarh Antim I” in Kazanlak. Valya Garbacheva is a member of the STEM PLC and an IT teacher at the school. The other members of the STEM PLC are Donika DImitrova (chemistry and biology), Aleksandrina Shomova (biology), Ivelina Deliivanova (IT), Donka Tosheva (physics and astronomy), Stefka Parova (math), and Angelina Atanasova (economics, entrepreneurship and geography). The entire PLC took part in the STEM module of Teach For Bulgaria’s program “Model Schools” during the 2020/2021 school year.
What are the main challenges when you work on initiatives like the STEM project you executed last year?
The challenges we experienced were complex. We wanted to execute the project during our regular classes, but organizing this endeavor was extremely difficult. It required several teachers to co-teach a series of classes each week for example. This is why we decided to execute it as an extracurricular activity which gave us more flexibility in terms of class duration and allowed us to get students from different classes to work together.
The second challenge was the unusual pandemic situation which forced us to hold some of the classes online.
Another difficulty stemmed from the fact that we had to take into account how busy the teams were and we also had to plan interdisciplinary lessons which is quite challenging and requires a lot of preparation, individual and group work.
We realized that we were able to work very well together online, so we had online team meetings every week to address some organizational issues.
The learning materials were developed in a shared presentation format which we created in Canva. All members of our team added relevant information, questions, or activities. We got together to discuss and edit the presentations, and to talk about our lesson plan.
Which aspects of “Model Schools” did you find most useful?
The program made us do something different. It taught us how to execute a project of this nature step by step.
How are you applying what you’ve learned in your work?
Our experience will help us plan and execute other similar projects.
What are the main advantages of “Model Schools” in your opinion?
It challenges our creativity and makes us go out of our comfort zone. It breaks down stereotypes and helps us learn how to collaborate better.