A Teacher’s Passion to Create Authentic STEM Learning Projects

Joe Brooks
Jun 12, 2018 · 12 min read


This is a brief account of how & why I developed “Beyond the Classroom Aquarium,” a yearlong project based, curricular sequence of authentic STEM-Oriented and aquatic ecosystem themed learning activities (for students to love).

Beyond the Classroom Aquarium is a unique curricular sequence of 14 Project Based, STEM-Oriented and Aquatic Ecosystem Themed Learning Activities. In hindsight, looking on the process I went through in developing it, I identify my primary mission as having been to develop a curriculum that could be used to effectively nurture daily sustainability of a passionate sense of purpose among learners; for students who like to “do stuff;” to help students celebrate their engagement with learning — every day of the school year.

It was my vision to use the sequence of 14 project based, STEM-Oriented and aquatic ecosystem themed projects in the curriculum to transform novice students into knowledgeable and competent members of an aquatic ecology staff; possibly capable at the very least, of gaining entry level employment at a public aquarium, public garden, aquaculture facility or nature center. In essence this aquatic ecosystem themed curriculum was designed to systematically immerse students in a sequence of interdisciplinary and interconnected projects — thereby promoting academic development (and personal growth).

My first “A-Ha moment” leading to development of this curriculum occurred years ago as I was sitting in a colleague’s classroom transfixed by the creatures in the “classroom aquarium,” while reflecting on my evolving career in education. As I observed the behaviors of the fish, snails and plants in the classroom aquarium, I became obsessed by the desire to explore strategies to further promote learner engagement and learning through involvement in processes of designing, assembling & operating aquatic ecosystems, aquatic ecosystem components, and essential ancillary lab-related equipment. While embarking on this initial curricular exploration, a list (of never done-experienced-shared aquatic ecosystem related activities and materials) “appeared” within days.

In its earliest incarnations, my curricular vision was an extension of my realization that “We” (my students & I) had neither ever (from the ground up) designed, assembled nor operated an authentic aquatic ecosystem simulation/model (excepting dioramas & other forms of extremely inexpensive yet seemingly way over-used “make believe” and artificial “let’s pretend” kinds of educational “activities”)!

Further, I realized I did not know of one colleague who had ever guided his/her students through such visionary curricular sequences of ‘Design and Beyond’ processes. We’d never… fabricated components of aquatic ecosystems rather than purchasing “store-bought” ones. We never dreamed of the countless personalized ways that technologies could be woven into day-to-day classroom activities (via aquatic ecosystems).

As the curricular foundations began to gel, I continued to wonder how financially prohibitive (and time consuming) the curriculum might become. What sacrifices might need to be made without eliminating the character of genuineness in each project? What learning goals/standards might be included? How might all the disparate resources and knowledge I’d need to make this vision a reality be consolidated? AND, I wondered, aside from talking about “poop (from organisms in the systems),” what else might students find engaging in this curricular sequence of aquatic ecosystem themed learning activities?

In my experience, working with thousands of students and observing thousands more, it has often seemed that “Curriculum” has all too often served to promote engagement (for a limited time only) with distant and randomly fragmented sequences of learning activities with, at best, narrowly connected strands of continuity and authenticity. In many educational curricula with which I was familiar I noticed that personal elements of daily purpose and passion were rarely addressed directly.

I pondered these issues through years of direct work with students (and summer camp attendees) and multiple years of participation in aquatic-ecosystem-related professional development workshops as I worked on the framework of my curricular vision.

From reflecting on my work experience and participation in professional development I decided that my curriculum needed to start off strong, from the first day of school and remain strong until the final day of the year. Among other standard curricular features, I wanted my work to directly personalize every student’s daily purpose and passion. So I structured the curriculum to:

· Involve weeks of critical class and program set-up before the beginning of the school year.

· Provide a built-in two week beginning of the school year schedule adjustment period without losing momentum or leaving behind students who enroll late.

· Emphasize opportunities for real world activity and authentic consequences of participation in learning activities and projects.

· Reinforce alignment of learning activities and projects with personalized academic standards and development goals.

· Transition from teacher-centered to student-centered processes related to observation, critique and decision-making activities — documenting academic progress — per standards.

· Place students in aquatic ecosystem work groups with clear access (at the discretion of the lead instructor) to professional support in relation to any aquatic ecosystem component they have been assigned to design & assemble (plumbing, electricity, carpentry, coding, livestock management etc.).

· Involve each student on each design team in a process for sharing knowledge and system information about their team’s aquatic ecosystem design and operation with classmates on other aquatic ecosystem design teams.

· Guide student teams to design and assemble auxiliary aquatic ecosystem components; including opportunities for coding technologies related to aquatic ecosystems.

· Guide students to reflect on personal experiences with operational aquatic ecosystems (organisms & equipment systems) in the classroom and design & conduct a related scientific investigation.

· Guide student teams to update, redesign & repair classroom aquatic ecosystems as may become necessary over time as knowledge grows and ecosystem productivities expand (e.g. broodstock & larval rearing systems).

· Guide students to explore aquatic ecosystem related careers

· Guide students to participate in activities to become familiar with local (perhaps only schoolwide), regional, national, and international aquatic ecosystem issues and approaches/polices used to address these issues. Students are guided to explore virtuous and vicious cycles per the work of Gerald G. Marten — The eco-tipping point project and design (and implement) a community service project that approaches a local aquatic ecosystem issue.

· Student teams formally develop and present an advanced aquatic ecosystem design — for future development

· Students conduct a full-day final assessment conference where project timelines documenting the entire school year and results of scientific investigation are presented.

Friends, colleagues, and family will affirm that my efforts to design a well-crafted and naturally unfolding sequential curriculum of aquatic ecosystem themed learning projects from my earliest brainstorming sessions — became a long-term & painstaking labor of love (and frugality); created by an adventurous aquatic ecosystem minded STEAM/STEM educator (me) for like-minded fellow educators and their students. Issues of frugality were considered from every perspective in view of the idea this curriculum is worth doing. Thus multiple strategies for acquiring material, supplies and appropriate assistance are woven into each project.

Many people witnessed my ongoing efforts to repeatedly tweak and re-tweak the progression of projects — to streamline the curricular flow — in order to formulate a sleek curricular design that would enable educators/students to fully (and enthusiastically) participate in this program’s entire sequence of projects — within a standard school year. This task challenged me deeply. It took twenty-three years of obsessive thought (& a tireless review of resources) related to my educational design to realistically fit my aquatic ecosystem based vision into a full-fledged — yearlong — STEAM-Oriented & project based curriculum it is today. The 347 page book, Beyond the Classroom Aquarium (2014) was the end result of this vision. I divided it into the following sections.

· Introductory Activities — STEM Connections — Universal Aquatic Ecosystem Parameters

· Design, Assembly, and Maintenance of Three Primary Systems

· Design, Assembly, and Maintenance of Auxiliary System Component Projects

· Opportunities for Research

· Applications of Aquatic Ecosystem Knowledge & Skills- Service Learning — Beyond the Classroom

· Summative Assessment: A Beyond the Classroom Aquarium Conference (student run)

I believe fellow educators who use this curriculum find that the exposition of the sequence of learning activities in Beyond the Classroom Aquarium addresses the issues described above while also suggesting ways for them to implement the project sequence in their own settings to best fit their own students, while also infusing each activity with the most recent next generation science, common core, engineering & technology (and beyond) standards.

As stated in CHAPTER I: Your Classroom as an Aquatic Ecosys-STEM Learning Lab: Setting the Stage for STEM and Taking the Plunge — Introductory Considerations “My instructional experience with these projects did not follow the linear path…” outlined in the book. As a public school math/science educator I used the twenty-five plus aquaria that might be found in my classroom (from year to year) to excite learning and educational interaction as best as I could in the context of the high stakes testing environments within which we worked. As I developed this book, my students had opportunities (from one year to another) “to work on a range of activities: from those that may involve the simplest aquatic ecosystems and humblest single-celled organisms, to those that involve highly complex organisms and aquatic ecosystems….” For example, my students participated in the processes of raising clownfish, peppermint shrimp, various strains of unicellular algae and plankton, freshwater fish species and ocean dwelling corals. In aquaponics, they were involved in the processes of raising designing and assembling the aquaponics frame and plumbing the connections between the various system components — eventually raising a range of vegetables and maintaining populations of bluegill and perch. Some students came to school early in the morning and others stayed late to perform aquatic ecosystem work.

In Beyond the Classroom Aquarium, Technology, Engineering & Math do not take a “back seat.” Although aquatic ecosystems provide a passionate/engaging theme — opportunities to apply & assess student proficiencies in engineering, design, technology, math, communication, art, & performance of real-world problem analysis & resolution are abundant. Each project description in Beyond the Classroom Aquarium is designed for use as a guide whereby an educator may modify any given project and corresponding assessment strategy to best meet the needs of his/her own students. Some educators select to implement a limited number of Beyond the Classroom Aquarium projects each year. With careful advanced planning, others successfully implement the entire sequence of projects with their classes during a full school year.

On October 5th, 2016 I activated a brief social media fundraising campaign that would have enabled me to share strategies (materials and equipment) for implementing Beyond the Classroom Aquarium learning activities with fellow educators in week long professional development workshops. The campaign was offered through Indiegogo.com. Potential donors were invited to view my Indiegogo crowdfunding site by using the link given here: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/beyond-the-classroom-aquarium-educator-pd-workshop#/.

Although this fundraising campaign expired without raising its stated financial goal, I believe as strongly in this curricular vision today as ever and still imagine a day when I may be able to take part in seeing it fully implemented and shared with students and peers. Since retiring the book, I have been gradually donating the plethora of equipment and materials I own to local educators and nature centers. And I remain available to collaborate with like-minded educators. Finally, I continue to reflect on some of the edgier, more advanced project activities I included near the end of the book and am preparing to post a detailed first “supplement” to more fully elaborate on these projects (one at a time) in the summer of 2018.

I hope you now have a better understanding of how & why I developed this yearlong project based, STEM-Oriented and aquatic ecosystem themed curricular sequence of authentic learning activities that students love. I also hope you recognize the curriculums contribution to a purposeful and passionate learning environment. Students love becoming informed and experienced designers, co-creators and stewards of authentic aquatic ecosystems — in the classroom and beyond. I believe you can understand why I believe the sequence of Beyond the Classroom Aquarium activities and their comprehensive continuity set this curriculum apart from the many other specialized curricula that have been developed through the years.

Indeed, Beyond the Classroom Aquarium is unique. Probably no two aquatic ecosystem design teams will design and assemble identical systems. Each system reflects the unique combination of skills and understanding of the students in the system design team. Another feature that makes Beyond the Classroom Aquarium unique is that it is a curriculum written by an educator for other educators; a grassroots effort. It is not the result of a corporate curriculum committee. It is not the product of a major publishing corporation. Indeed, I have successfully used many such curricula throughout my career. As a result, I felt it was important to design Beyond the Classroom Aquarium so that educators who use it would, at the least, meet with success similar to that which results through use of standard corporate publishing house produced curricula while also possibly going beyond them on some dimensions of educational applicability and power.

For MUCH more information (about the curriculum, the projects, and me), please follow this Beyond the Classroom Aquarium page link: https://robertjakus.wordpress.com/2018/06/19/introduc/ (and the additional posts embedded in it). Your comments/input about #BtheCA are always welcomes by Bob. You may also visit this Beyond the Classroom Aquarium CreateSpace.com e-Store link: https://tsw.createspace.com/title/4888083. Though the opportunity to publicly purchase a copy of #BtheCA from the e-Store link was “retired” on Dec. 31, 2016, the e-Store link remains active for your preview and comment.

About the Author

Bob began working in education in 1978, after completing a BA in education from the University of Illinois. While working with many students he also thrived professionally under the mentorship of a few educational veterans. In 1988, he subsequently completed an MS degree and from 1988 to 2001 Bob taught almost 400 semester hours of math to community college students. In this same period he also worked for two years, with secondary school students.

Bob’s first efforts to formulate Beyond the Classroom Aquarium occurred in1990. Between 1996 and 2013, Bob participated in as many forms of professional development program as possible in order to better support his efforts to complete Beyond the Classroom Aquarium. In 2002, he was hired to serve as a middle school science teacher. While teaching at the middle school he immersed his students in aquatic ecosystem minded experiences related to math and science whenever he could. In 2005, he earned an MA degree. Between the years of 1996 and 2013 Bob continued to take professional development classes that could support completion of Beyond the Classroom Aquarium and he was also invited to share ideas from his book at annual conferences with like-minded peers who were members of the National Marine Educators Association.

Although Bob formally retired from his teaching career in 2012 and although the book was still unfinished, retirement afforded him time he needed and he finally completed the curriculum — in late 2014. You may still visit his Beyond the Classroom Aquarium web page: https://robertjakus.wordpress.com/2018/06/19/introduc/ to learn more about Bob and much more about Beyond the Classroom Aquarium.

Though Bob regrets that book sales were insufficient to allow him to continue selling the book through the createspace.com e-Store, he still dreams of sharing this curriculum with educators and students. Who Knows? Maybe someday he’ll start a non-profit related to this Beyond the Classroom Aquarium passion of his and conduct week long professional development workshops and Ed-Camps for groups of like-minded educators.

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