Jumping into STEM Learning and Climbing Past Language Barriers

By Elizabeth Stevenson, fourth grade teacher in Chicago, IL, and Jenny Burns, Community Coordinator for Allen Distinguished Educators
October 5, 2016

Award-winning project replicated with DIY Guide grant from Allen Distinguished Educators 

DIY Guide grants ensure adoption of ADE-created classroom projects and practices across a diverse range of schools – engaging student of all backgrounds.

Twenty minute exercises and school lunches inspired STEM learning in a class with over 80% English Language Learners (ELL) thanks to creative adaptations to the 53 Miles per Burrito project by Elizabeth Stevenson, a 4th grade teacher in Chicago. This high school-level engineering and sustainability project, developed by 2014 ADE awardee Mike Wierusz, prompts students to answer the question: “Can I ride 53 miles on a bike from the energy of a single burrito?” By comparing calories found in school lunches (instead of burritos) to calories burned in common physical activities, (instead of biking 53 miles) Stevenson was able to modify this project and form meaningful learning connections with her students. Stevenson was one of 28 teachers to receive a DIY Guide grant from the ADE program in spring of 2016. 

Elizabeth-Stevenson-in-classroom2.jpg“The project was a lot of fun,” says Stevenson. “My students were very engaged and truly enjoyed doing a hands-on science experiment. This project challenged my students to think about variables in their data and relate it to their everyday life.” Download open-source materials for this project.

Stevenson faced several challenges of her own while adapting and implementing this project in her class. With many ELL students and students performing below grade level, Stevenson was concerned about her students’ capacity to participate in the project. She also needed to appropriately substitute materials for the project such as the stationary bicycle and burrito ingredients, because of a lack of space and funds. So she made some modifications: “Since I did not have access to a stationary bike, I had my students jump rope, walk, and climb stairs to see which one would burn the most calories using a Fitbit as a tracking device,” says Stevenson. “This was more relevant to my students' everyday lives.” She also added a final display board element so students could share their findings visually. “My students who do not speak English were able to participate fully, which was amazing,” she explains. 

Teachers are encouraged to creatively adjust the projects to suit the unique needs of their students and classroom environments. 

Learn how Elizabeth modified and adapted this project:

How Mike Does It

  • School: Inglemoor High School 
  • Type of School: Public - District 
  • Location: Kenmore, WA 
  • School Population: 160 
  • Demographic: 33% minority students 
  • % Free/reduced lunch program: 18%
  • Grade: 11th & 12th
  • Timing: one week
  • Subjects: environmental science, social studies, math, entrepreneurship, technology, and sustainability
  • Materials: stationary bicycles, computers, ingredients to make burritos 
  • Project Steps: Students first consider the data necessary to answer the prompt, then they collect data by riding a stationary bike, finally they use critical thinking and high level math and science concepts such as converting watts to joules to calories. 

Watch Mike’s interactive guided tour and download his complete project materials.

How Elizabeth Did It

  • School: Joyce Kilmer Elementary (PreK - 8)
  • Type of School: Public - District
  • Location: Chicago, IL
  • School Population: 778
  • Demographic: 95% minority students
  • % Free/reduced lunch program: 98%
  • Grade: 4th
  • Timing: approximately three weeks
  • Subjects: science, math, physical education, nutrition
  • Materials: jump ropes, Fitbit, poster board, workbooks/pencils, school lunches and nutritional info
  • Project Steps: Students consider how different exercises burn different numbers of calories, then they observe and record how many calories are in common school lunch items. Next, students perform various common exercises for 20 minutes (running, climbing stairs, and jumping rope) while wearing a Fitbit. Finally, they displayed their results visually on poster boards.
More details about Elizabeth’s project adaptations will be available soon.

Featured project adaptations by Stevenson: 
  • Since Stevenson did not have easy access to stationary bikes, students walked, jump roped and climbed stairs with a Fitbit for 20 minutes to compare and record how many calories each activity burns. 
  • Instead of focusing on the burrito, Stevenson’s students considered the calories found in their school lunches because it was readily available.
  • In addition to recording their findings in workbooks, Stevenson had her students create a final display board to share their work with other students, parents, and school administrators.
  • Stevenson broke this project down over a few weeks rather than completing it in one week to make it more manageable for her to facilitate the groups and for her students who needed more support.
  • Stevenson found it difficult to facilitate and work with her students in groups. If she completes this project again she plans to ask volunteers to come in and provide support during group work time.
This project was well-received by her school community. “The parents and my administrators were very supportive of this project,” exclaims Stevenson. “I had parents telling me how excited their child was to be participating, and my administrators were also very happy that students were actively engaging in science exploration.” 

Student work from Mike's class

Students in Wierusz’s work in teams to collect and record results. Visit the 53 Miles per Burrito page to learn more.

Student Work from Elizabeth's class

In addition to recording results in teams, Dull’s students created posters to share their results with the class. 

The ADE program was developed by Paul G. Allen based on his belief that innovation is a key driver in improving learning opportunities for young people. “Innovative education to me means thinking outside of the box and allowing students to explore and engage in their education,” Stevenson explains. “I want my students to be able to come to conclusions by themselves. When students have the opportunity to come to their own conclusion, they are going to remember that information for much longer.”

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