Those Darn Knowledge Gaps!

Climber reaching across a chasm.

One summer, when I was in elementary school, I was terrified! You see, by the end of the school year I had not yet memorized the Times Table and I knew that I’d be entering the upcoming school year clearly disadvantaged. I imagined a disappointed teacher and my embarrassment and humiliation amongst my schoolmates. That is pretty much what happened!

Come September I had some catching up to do but I was not the only student who had not mastered the Times Table or some other skill. We all had some scrambling to do to catch up.

Our teacher, to her credit, tried to help students to review and learn last years’ concepts, but alas had to abandon the effort because of the pressure to cover new material.

No student was immune! Every student was weak in some area. Some of these weaknesses were not so critical in elementary school, but as they accumulated over time they became more and more important.

Eventually, the gulf between what some students knew and what they were expected to know grew wider and wider. Over time some students simply gave up and self-selected as being good at math, being artistic, an athlete or whatever. These impressions impacted them for the rest of their lives.

As educators, I would like to think that we assume that all students have the capacity to master what we are teaching them in school. After all, we are not asking students to be prodigies in the subjects we teach. We are simply asking them to achieve a level of mastery that supports their continuing educational careers.

And yet, students fall behind and often never recover.

There is a solution to the widening knowledge gaps that students experience. It starts by having a detailed map of every concept the student needs to know in order to achieve mastery of a subject. We call this a Knowledge Matrix. For each concept, you need to have instructional materials to teach and to test the concept. The Knowledge Matrix also specifies which concepts are prerequisites to other concepts.

A simple Knowledge Matrix may look like this.

It shows that a Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich is made up of three separate concepts: 1) peanut butter, 2) jelly, and 3) sandwich. You need to understand these three concepts before you can understand what a Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich is.

This is a much more detailed analysis of what you are teaching than having a lesson plan because lesson plans do not define the relationship between concepts. Having that relationship is important because it specifies which concepts are prerequisites to which other concepts. In this example, peanut butter, jelly, and sandwich are prerequisites to Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich.

Concept mapping tools such as CmapTools offer a way to map the concepts but a Knowledge Matrix is a very specific type of concept map. It differs from other mapping systems in the sense that it represents just one relationship – which is “concept A is a prerequisite to concept B.” Deriving this relationship is actually very easy. Just look at the definition of any concept. The definition will give you what the requisite knowledge is. In the case of a Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich the definition is:

A Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich is a sandwich that contains peanut butter and jelly.

Other than connector words such as “and” or “is” the definition shows us which words we need to understand in order to define this concept. We can go further by defining peanut butter and then determining from that definition what are the prerequisites to peanut butter.

Try it for any subject that you are teaching. By going through this exercise you will see which concepts your students need to know and you will also discover how your lesson plans may be missing important concepts. This often happens because we take certain concepts for granted. To a teacher, some concepts may seem to be obvious or common sense, but to the student, it may not be so.

Coming up with a Name for your Makerspace or STEM Lab

Makerspace Name Ideas

You have the space, you have the gear, now for the name! There are a lot of great name ideas out there, so I have compiled a list of some you may like, as well as a makerspace name generator of sorts!

Unique Makerspace Names

These names may combine words, utilize a play on words, or just sound fun:

  • Collaboratory
  • Imaginarium
  • Mindcave
  • Da Vinci’s Workshop

Simple Makerspace Names

Or why not try something simple?

  • Eureka!
  • The Brainstorm
  • STEM Lab
  • Makerplace
  • Fablab

I also created this simple chart for coming up with a makerspace name. Just pick one word from each column and you’re done! It couldn’t be easier.

Makerspace Names That Suit YOUR Makerspace

Still not sure? Here are some tips for coming up with a unique name:

  • Think about what your makerspace’s focus is. Is it on building? Arts? Robotics? Environmentally friendly design? Try using a word that supports your makerspace’s mission and feel.
  • Get input from your students. How do they feel in the makerspace? What are their favorite tools and projects?
  • Describe your space. Is it on an upper floor? A basement? In a nook? In a library? What’s the history of the space? Try incorporating an aspect of the physical space into your name and it’s sure to fit.

What do you call your makerspace or STEM lab? Comment below or head to the STEM educator support group on Facebook to share your name with us!

Looking for more ideas while setting up your makerspace? You may find the following articles useful:

Setting up Your Makerspace

Setting up an Elementary STEM Lab
by Sarah Lalonde
So You Want to Start A Makerspace?
by Teach Outside the Box

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    Jack & Jill Go Back To School in 2020

    Vintage image of Jack and Jill falling down the hill.

    Jack and Jill are working on a physics problem. Their teacher asked them to calculate the force needed to hurl a 500 pound projectile from a spot on Earth to 20,000 miles in low earth orbit. They don’t have any idea of what they need to know to solve this problem and they don’t want to dig through numerous articles or videos on the subject. They want to learn what they need for this problem as thoroughly and rapidly as possible.

    On their iPads they access the Physics Knowledge Avatar. In the Physics Knowledge Avatar, the Knowledge Matrix (a visual representation of concepts and how they are related to each other) illustrates that the concept force is related to angle, initial velocity, horizontal velocity, hypotenuse, right triangle, cosine, sine, parabola, time, and gravity. They now have a view of what they need to learn to understand this particular problem! They see that the “starting” point for this cluster of concepts is the angle concept, so they click on it to start. 

    They are presented with a succinct description of what an angle is and links to more in-depth information including examples (such as animations) and experiences (such as simulations).

    This Knowledge Avatar also has a robot assistant. The robot assistant answers questions, such as “what is an angle,” asks the students questions to test their knowledge, and advises them on how to proceed. She can also be a good friend.

    The next link is to a question. Questions are intermingled throughout the content to ensure that the student understands the concept and to provide them with feedback. If the student does not provide the correct answer they are given detailed feedback and they are shown which concepts they need to review to successfully answer the question and understand the related concepts. 

    Students are not forced to follow a particular path. The Knowledge Matrix illustrates how concepts are related so unless students have already mastered a concept, there is no reason to jump ahead. Questions that they encounter along the way will provide them with feedback about whether they understand the concept with a score and links to review prerequisite concepts.

    After covering the essential concepts related to force, Jack and Jill are presented with a simulation where they must predict the distance of the projectile shot from Earth considering specific values of force. This interactive simulation helps solidify the concepts just learned by providing practice and a visualization of their experience. 

    Jack & Jill look at each other and realize that this learning hill wasn’t so steep after all and, thankfully, they didn’t have to risk their “crowns” to reach it!

    Pair Stare for Blends!

    Practicing Blends with a Fun Game

    Who doesn’t love a fun game? My favorite way to engage learners of all ages is through play, and this game is fun for kids and adults alike! Over the years I have developed a number of these games, and now there is a set of pair stare games for blends!

    If you aren’t familiar with pair stare, you may want to visit this pair stare post. However, you can get an idea of how it’s played by watching the video below:

    You can try it out in the image below. Look at the top two cards. Do you see the one and only image or word that is on BOTH cards? Once you find it, do the same with the bottom two cards! 

    Why is this game so much fun? No matter how often you play, the game is always slightly different. You can try playing with the cards below. Pick two cards and then look at them until you find the match. It’s harder than it seems! Sometimes you think there must not be a match…but I promise you there is. A few things that can help you out:

    • If it’s a word or blend, it will always be the same color and font
    • the match will NOT always be the same size

    Did you find the answer to the image above?

    This game is always different, because when you shuffle the cards, there is a new match! ANY two cards in the deck have one unique match. With over 55 possibilities, it’s harder than it initially sounds!

    The game also has both words and images, as well as the blends! The words have been carefully selected as easier to read, as you can see above with words like brag, from, and free, while more complicated words that students would not yet be able to read are displayed in image form, such as trampoline, broccoli, and dragon.

    L Blends, R Blends, and S Blends

    You can find all three blends games in my TpT shop:

    Or save these ideas for later on Pinterest:

    The Yellow Brick Road Gets Upcycled – Wonderful Wizard of Oz STEM Activities

    Fairy Tale STEM Activity for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

    Can you help Dorothy and the Munchkins use the bricks to rebuild a home for the Munchkins, since their homes are in disrepair?

    Materials Needed for this STEM Fairy Tale Activity

    • bricks, blocks, dominoes, etc. that represent the yellow brick road. You can change the color to suit the color bricks you have!
    • printable characters or small figurines

    Before Getting Started with the STEM Tale

    First you will need to tell the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, or read the book. You should prepare a brick road the a suitable number of “bricks” for students to then disassemble. If you are using interlocking bricks such as legos, you should use a medium to large baseplate. STEM tales work best if you read the original fairy tale first (or do your own storytelling!). This also leads to great discussions during the engineering process, as kids love to compare the original story with the new version.

    Fairy Tale STEM with the Engineering Design Process 

    I have designed STEM tales so that as students read the story, they will follow the engineering design process. First, they need to identify the problem (how to repurpose the bricks to create a stable structure). Good news! If you follow the Next Generation Science Standards, you can use this STEM fairy tale challenge to fulfill the following NGSS* requirement:  2-PS1-3. (Make observations to construct an evidence-based account of how an object made of a small set of pieces can be disassembled and made into a new object.)

    Design a Home for the Munchkins

    After thinking of some ways to reuse the bricks, your students will then choose one they can build. They will plan out the design, and then construct their home.

    After the prototype is built, the kids then test it out! Is it big enough to fit the Munchkins? If something didn’t work right, it’s time to go back and improve the design.

    STEM tales are a great way to foster teamwork and problem-solving. This STEM tale usually inspires amazing creativity and excitement from the littlest engineers.

    Use the Ideas Above or Get the STEM Tale Resource on TpT

    Use the ideas above to create your own challenge or try out this resource I created that guides you through the process:

    It includes an 8-page booklet, printable characters, check list for self-evaluation, and a bonus activity. You can find it on Teachers pay Teachers by visiting this link:
    To read more about how to conduct a STEM challenge, visit this post:
    To see all posts in this series, click here:
    STEM Tales Blog Series

    Pin these ideas to save them for later.

    *  NGSS is a registered trademark of Achieve. Neither Achieve nor the lead states and partners that developed the Next Generation Science Standards were involved in the production of this product, and do not endorse it.

    Demystifying STEM with SOLIDWORKS Apps for Kids

    Demystifying STEM with SOLIDWORKS Apps for Kids

    Let’s face it: sometimes, getting kids into STEM is hard. You can preach the gospel of science, technology, engineering, and math all day long, but if a kid feels like their creativity and imagination are being stifled by rules and numbers, “STEM” can quickly turn into “STOP.” SOLIDWORKS Apps for Kids was created with this in mind.
    SOLIDWORKS Apps for Kids is an ecosystem of appsmeant to nurture new designers from age 4 and up. With Capture It, Shape It, Mech It, Style It, and Print It apps, kids are introduced to real-world workflow practices like ideation, creation, enhancement, and production in a fun and accessible way. The apps empower kids to learn while allowing their creativity to flow, giving them multiple methods to design and turn their craziest ideas into reality.

    Meet the Apps

    Capture It is a personal inspiration app, where kids can add photos, draw their own images and turn them into stickers, and create an idea board for all the designs that will come next.

    Anyone who is familiar with 3D modeling will recognize Shape It, a kid-friendly, easy to use CAD app that allows kids to shape, prod, and pull material into their very own creations.

    Two kids might create similar models, but with the Style Itapp they can really make their own designs pop. Kids can transfer models from Shape It to Style It and use colors, stickers, backgrounds, and more to decorate and make their model truly unique. Create a cute and happy spider or your own Mars rover.

    With the Print It app, kids can watch their designs come to life. Print It gives kids the ability to 2D print or 3D print their designs, and also allows them to learn about isometric views in a cool way with the Cube Print function. Keep reading to see an example of the Cube Print function.

    Is your child more interested in motors and linkages? With the Mech It app, moving machinery is in within arm’s reach, with cool and colorful spiral designs that kids can tweak in any which way they like.

    Mech It was definitely my favorite app to try out! Join a few bars together, add a motor, and then hit play to watch it go! You can even slow it down and speed it up with the slider bar. Here is a simple crank-rocker mechanism I created:

    Pro Tips to Get Started Successfully with SOLIDWORKS Apps for Kids

    1) Start with the Videos

    When you try out the apps, make sure you start with the videos! They are short but all very helpful so that you can get started right away and learn what all the different options are for drawing, styling, and modifying designs. Especially for kids new to CAD, this is SO helpful! Just click the ? in the upper right corner of the screen at SOLIDWORKS Appsfor Kids to find all the videos to get started on the right track.

    2) Utilize the Public Projects

    Navigate to the public projects, find one you like, then click on the copy icon to “Riff.”

    3) Start tinkering!

    Dive right in and start tinkering with whichever app appeals to you most!

    4) Remember to Print it

    One way for kids to show what they created is to print it. You can create 2D prints on paper, with or without a background, on a 6-sided cube, and in color by number style (what?!!! This is so awesome!). You can even 3D print your kids’ creations. I constantly get asked for project ideas for 3D printing. These apps have got you covered; design, go to print it, and grab your STL file. Explore the Print It app and never run out of ideas for your 3D printer.

    Internet Safety and Privacy

    Projects in SOLIDWORKS Apps for Kids are always private until you decide to share to the Apps for Kids Public Gallery. Users can “riff” on public projects—your kid might see a cutesy bunny design, like it, then riff on that project and transform that bunny into an out of this world alien. Creativity, imagination, and community are all part of the Apps for Kids ecosystem.

    STEM Block, Tech Lab, or Makerspace

    Educators across the country have embraced SOLIDWORKS Apps for Kids as a means to teach their students about design and engineering. Now, the Apps for Kids Classroom interface allows teachers to create and organize self-contained workshops.

    Use at Home Together

    Parents, do not deprive yourself of the opportunity to create something magical and fun with your child. Work together to create a robot army, an enchanted land, or a space adventure!

    While there are dozens of apps out there that may enhance STEM learning, these apps are truly a complete suite of apps. There is something for everyone, whether your students lean more toward revising and enhancing designs or creating something brand new from scratch.

    If you give kids the means to express and create, to engineer and tinker to their heart’s content, they can learn that STEM exists beyond numbers and rules. With SOLIDWORKS Apps for Kids, they are already there. Learn more about all the fun things you can do with SOLIDWORKS Apps for Kids right here.

    Pin These Ideas for Later

    Professional Development Options for STEM Educators

    Professional Development for STEM and STEAM Teachers 

    There are increasingly more PD opportunities for STEM and STEAM educators, ranging from online courses and webinars to conferences or hands-on workshops. This is a list to get you started, which I will be updating as more opportunities are added. Please feel free to comment with any of your own recommendations so I can add them to the list as well!

    Online PD Opportunities and Webinars Webinars and PD, such as Developing a Fundable and Sustainable STEM Program
    – hosts individual PD, free webinars, or PD for schools and districts. STEM options such as “Spark Imagination and Innovative Thinking with STEAM in your Classroom”

    Learner’s Edge:  Choose from online or print. STEM options such as “Consumer to Creator: Coding and Kids”

    NICERC: Cyber, STEM, and Computer Science curriculum for K-12. Cyber education certificate available

    ITEAA STEM Webinars (STEMinars) – members get access to previous webinars, such as “Top 10 Ways to Incorporate STEM in Your Elementary School” or one about safer Makerspaces

    ISTE: Check out ISTE U for topics such as digital citizenship or follow their blog for more ideas.

    STEM Conferences and Onsite Training Opportunities

    Early Childhood STEM Conference:
    Hosted by the Children’s Center at Caltech

    STEMpostium Ventura County:
    From the website, this is a “FREE week-long (4.5 day) summer institute for K-12 teachers followed by two optional Saturday workshops during the subsequent school year.”

    NSTA Conferences:
    From their site, “Each year, NSTA hosts a national conference on science education (in the spring), three area conferences (in the fall), and a STEM Forum & Expo.”

    NASA Space Port Conference:
    Presentations are given by astronauts and NASA science and engineering experts in all fields. Awesome!

    STEAM Days of Summer:


    Texas STEM Coalition:

    Your go-to edtech conference!

    CA STEAM symposium:

    Content Teaching Academy @ James Madison University:

    American Society for Engineering Education, ASEE conferences:

    Arts Integration and STEAM Summit

    Other Ideas

    Shadow a professional! Find an experienced STEM teacher and shadow them for a day. Can’t find one, or don’t have the ability to take a day to do this? Join the STEM Teacher support group on Facebook:

    STEM Teacher Group on Facebook

    Ask burning questions, find photos of STEM labs and makerspaces, get recommendations for resources on different STEM topics. Another way to connect with other educators is through Twitter chats.

    Twitter Chats: ISTE list of twitter chats or visit this awesome list!

    Resource-Specific Training for Robotics and STEM Tools

    If you have or are trying to acquire specific tools, robots, etc. for your classroom, visit the websites of the manufacturers of these devices. Many of them have extensive training opportunities and learning resources. Here are some of my favorites:

    MakeyMakey training
    MakeWonder professional development (makes of Dash, Dot, and Cue)
    littleBits webinars
    Sphero professional learning
    Let’s Start Coding online training

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    Winter STEM Challenge with Frosty the Snowman

    STEM Activities for Frosty the Snowman 

    STEM That is Easy to Implement

    This story is one of my favorites of the “Pick Your Path STEMventure” series. This story is about beloved Frosty, and helping to make his day the BEST.DAY.EVER. Students decide how they want the story to progress; in completing the story students will complete 3-4 challenges. The story not only guides students through the engineering design process, it includes design constraints and areas for them to fill in their thoughts, plans, and testing data. However, you don’t need the resource in order to do just the building parts. Read on to find some fun and creative STEM activities you can do to make Frosty the snowman have a great day!

    If you do use the resource I created, students will read through a story about Frosty, and then choose where they would like him to go. Depending on their choice, they will encounter different STEM challenges along the way.

    Sled STEM Challenge 

    Sleds are an excellent tool to teach students about force and motion, potential and kinetic energy, and friction. Can your students design and create a sled that Frosty can fit in and use? You could use a mini figure or paper Frosty as shown:

    Race sleds down a cardboard box on a slope, or use a large sheet of plastic cardboard (find at your local hardware store). It makes a great snow hill! Try different materials to see which ones travel best downhill. Shown are legos, and a section of plastic egg carton covered with vinyl tablecloth.

    An Unlikely Winter STEM Challenge – Hammock

    Why would Frosty need a hammock? Well, you’d have to read the story to find out. This is a simple challenge that kids always love. Who doesn’t love relaxing in a hammock?

    Do you want to build a snow-less snowman?

    There are several other challenges you can do with a snowman, including building one (use baking soda to make inexpensive fake snow). Students can challenge themselves to build a regular snowman and one that is upside down, as well! For older students, have them hypothesize the correct ratio of baking soda to water to make “snow” that sticks together and holds a shape. They can then test it out and create a recipe, then build their snowmen.

    Find this STEM Resource on Teachers pay Teachers

    If you would like to use the story and printables I’ve created, you can find them on Teachers pay Teachers at this link, Snowman STEMventure:

    or save these ideas for later by pinning this on Pinterest:

    Bird Beak STEM – Animal Adaptations STEM Adventure

    STEM Activities for Elementary Students to explore Bird Beaks and Pollination

    STEM That is Easy to Implement

    This is the fifth installment of the “Pick the Path STEMventure” series. This story is about a budding ornithologist, Beth, as she visits a nature sanctuary and learns about various birds. Students decide how they want the story to progress; in completing the story students will complete 3-4 challenges. The story not only guides them through the engineering design process, it includes design constraints and areas for them to fill in their thoughts, plans, and testing data.

    If you are studying animal adaptations, pollination, or even ecosystems, these are some engaging hands-on activities that your students will enjoy exploring!

    Pollination STEM Challenge 

    Pollination is a concept that can be difficult for kids to understand. In this challenge, they will transfer “pollen” (which can be chalk dust, flour, etc.) from one flower to another.

    A bonus in the resource I created is a page all about pollination. Students learn the basics and can color in the flower diagram to get a better idea of how plant reproduction takes place.

    Another Bird Themed STEM Challenge – Eating

    Do you know how hummingbirds eat? They don’t use their long beak like a straw, but use their tongues to lap up nectar much like a dog does. In this challenge, kids will have to try to grab the food at the bottom of a tube. They will be glad this isn’t a requirement for their own meals because it’s harder than it looks! The food can be anything that can be picked up, but I use pompoms. In addition to grabbing the item (such as with chopsticks), students can “hook” onto the food. If you are learning about magnets, you could absolutely work this in. Have the magnet be the food, and students will need to use an item in their “tongue” that is attracted to magnets in order to pick up the food.

    My favorite challenge in this story explores wading birds and different types of beaks. Can you pick up the food but allow the water to drain out? Can you stab the food?

    There are other types of bird beaks to explore as well, and this is a great time to talk about the food chain, the environment, and being a good Earth citizen. What would happen if a bird’s food supply goes away? Would they be able to adapt? Would their beak work well to eat another kind of food? These are big questions but I find most kids are ready to tackle them.

    Find this STEM Resource on Teachers pay Teachers

    If you would like to use the story and printables I’ve created, you can find them on Teachers pay Teachers at this link, Bird Beak STEM:

    or save these ideas for later by pinning this on Pinterest:

    St. Patrick’s Day STEM with a Leprechaun

    Fun STEM Activities for Elementary Students on St. Patrick’s Day

    STEM That is Easy to Implement

    This is the fourth installment of the “Pick the Path STEMventure” series. I wrote a short story about a leprechaun called Larry for St. Patrick’s Day. No, we are not trapping the leprechaun! That has been done enough. In the story, Larry the leprechaun gets the opportunity to earn gold coins on St. Patrick’s day by successfully completing various STEM challenges. Students choose how they want the story to progress; in completing the story students will complete 3-4 challenges. The story not only guides them through the engineering design process, it includes design constraints and areas for them to fill in their thoughts, plans, and testing data.

    A Few of the Challenges Included 

    Up first, is a rainbow challenge. If you are studying light, this is a great time to do this challenge. In addition to the stories requiring students to design and test structures, they will be exposed to various science and technology concepts, such as dimensional constraints, malware, and the color spectrum.

    Another St. Patrick’s Day STEM Challenge – Unplugged Coding

    Not all kids love coding, but it is still great to expose them to simple logic problems that are the basis of coding. Creating a path is a simple way to have kids think ahead and plan out a set of directions.

    This challenge has two versions, plus I included extension options in the digital download for additional challenges. The other challenges include:

    • a slide
    • a musical instrument
    • a bank that holds gold coins
    • two bonus challenges, including a gold coin flipping device!

    You can do several of the challenges mentioned above (aside from the coding one) without the resource I created, though if you would like it for the story and guided design process, keep reading. Here is an example of the slide challenge:

    Watch a Video Overview of St. Patrick’s Day STEM

    Find this STEM Resource on Teachers pay Teachers

    If you would like to use the story and printables I’ve created, you can find them on Teachers pay Teachers at this link St. Patrick’s Day STEM:

    or save these ideas for later by pinning this on Pinterest: