Hofstra Horizons Research

STEM Studio: Where Teaching Is Learning and Learning Is Research

Jacqueline Grennon Brooks, Ed.D.,
Professor, Department of Teaching, Literacy and Leadership; Director, IDEAS

Julia Caliendo, M.S.
STEM Studio Coordinator, Department of Teaching, Literacy and Leadership

>STEM Studio: Where Teaching Is Learning and Learning Is Research
Photo credit: Krystal Olivieri, Graduate Assistant – TLQP, Center for Educational Access and Success, Hofstra University

Learning to Teach

This semester, Hofstra University’s STEM Studio is contributing to the learning of Carlos and 500 other elementary pupils from surrounding districts. But, synchronously, it serves the elementary education students of the Department of Teaching, Literacy and Leadership. With the establishment of the STEM Studio, Hofstra’s teacher education programs launch a new level of integration of theory and practice. The STEM Studio provides math, science, and engineering design challenges that integrate literacy, social studies, multiculturalism, and the arts. It is a teaching and learning lab that offers a problem-based interdisciplinary curriculum, ongoing master teacher mentoring of pre-service teachers, and professional development for in-service teachers – all designed to enhance classroom settings with learning spaces in which all students – teachers and children alike – are thinkers and problem solvers.

Sponsored by the Office of the Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, the Institute for the Development of Education in the Advanced Sciences, and the School of Education, Health and Human Services, the STEM Studio complements the undergraduate STEM major for elementary education students established two years ago, while extending the clinical experience of pre-service teachers of all undergraduate majors. It also enhances the research opportunities within the Master of Arts Program in STEM Elementary Education, a program unique in the region for some time. Hofstra’s Teacher/Leader Quality Partnership Program has been an active partner this semester in supporting visits by classes from Hempstead schools, each of which visits the STEM Studio on three occasions. Multiple visits create opportunities for ongoing investigations that spiral around primary concepts. In this way, Hofstra students can design and create extended lessons in which their young pupils engage in the work of scientists, mathematicians, and engineers.

Figure 1

Teaching Is Learning

The STEM Studio provides a clinically rich setting in which Hofstra’s elementary and middle school education students learn to expand their emerging portfolios with instructional strategies that address the Common Core State Standards (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010) and A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (National Research Council, 2012). What does clinically rich mean? In many teacher preparation programs around the country, clinically rich means more time in the field. In the Department of Teaching, Literacy and Leadership, clinically rich means not more time, but distinctively different time in the field. The STEM Studio offers an approach to teaching and curricula that is significantly different than the norm in most schools. Our distinctive curriculum is problem-based – while young pupils learn concepts at deeper levels with transferable skills, Hofstra students and in-service teachers learn instructional strategies rooted in research-derived practices (Donovan and Bransford, 2005).

Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning, Hofstra students work with small groups of elementary pupils in learning spaces designed around seemingly simple tasks that have multiple solution sets and pathways. Each task is accompanied by an array of materials that can be used to solve the problem. Young learners actively design their own solutions to the tasks, negotiating possible outcomes with our Hofstra students. During this time, Hofstra students are continuously challenged to meet the needs of diverse groups of learners through questioning, task negotiation, and dialogue. This student-teacher interaction provides Hofstra students with the STEM content area knowledge, pedagogical background and experience that will distinguish them from other new teachers as they enter the field.

Using Problems to Teach

The curriculum units change three times per semester, with each unit offering six learning spaces. The first unit, “On the Move,” is a collection of tasks that invite pupils to consider the mathematical topics of measurement and geometry within the science topics of forces, buoyancy, and sound. Within this unit, pupils use various intellectual skills to perform different tasks (see Figure 1).

The STEM Studio uses these types of curriculum problems to assist Hofstra students and in-service teachers in experiencing the power of problembased learning while extending and reinforcing important mathematic and scientific concepts within a safe and nurturing, yet provocative and demanding, learning environment.

figure 1

Inclusive Learning Settings


Hofstra student Jessica Chalmers explores math  concepts using volumes of water with elementary students from Hempstead Schools

The STEM Studio curriculum is based on the pedagogy of constructivism (Brooks & Brooks, 1999; Brooks, 2011) and the principles of universal design for learning (Dolan & Hall, 2001; Pisha & Coyne, 2001). Both constructs anticipate a wide range and complexity of learner needs; thus the STEM Studio learning spaces and tasks are flexible by design and accessible for diverse classes. Hofstra students work with learners of different grade levels, skill levels, learning and language abilities, and physical challenges. Through real-time collaboration with mentors and classmates, Hofstra students determine ways to offer learning opportunities at the leading edge of their pupils’ present functioning. For instance, Laura Greene, working with a visually impaired fourth grade student, used the lesson on forces and friction in the “ambulance” problem to enhance the child’s vocabulary of textures, a useful language extension for someone who uses her hands and fingertips for much of her learning and relies on language for much of her communication. As the child pulled the ambulance over various surfaces, Ms. Greene narrated the sensations she herself was experiencing as she changed the degree to which she pressed down on each surface. Ms. Greene then asked the child to share her own sensations. The idea that the texture of the surface feels different under different pressures was a new idea that the child’s smile revealed. She pressed firmly, then with lighter touch, and found that “rough” turned to “prickly” with a softer pressure.

While Ms. Greene invented new ways to engage her student, Lauren Mrachko rigged up a pulley system with English language learners as they shared their emerging vocabulary and associated concepts of direction and mass. Jessica Chalmers witnessed children pouring volumes of red and blue water using a succession of beakers and graduated cylinders in order to determine how to step in with a ratio challenge to generate the exact match to her vibrant purple.

Jill Maier discovered that the challenge of building a boat became a just-in-time lesson on a more precise method of using a ruler. Through these varied experiences, Hofstra students learn to recognize and respond to students’ different abilities, value peer support, and appreciate the complexity and opportunities within an inclusive classroom.

Engaging Students in Learning, Not Teaching to the Test

With the establishment of the STEM Studio, Hofstra’s teacher education programs launch a new level of integration of theory and practice. The STEM Studio provides math, science, and engineering design challenges that integrate literacy, social studies, multiculturalism, and the arts.

The need for school districts to produce high standardized test scores has dominated classroom instruction in recent years. The STEM Studio seeks to engage in-service and pre-service teachers in effectively offering instruction that teaches children to think more reasonably, write more cogently, and compute more carefully, all within a context in which successful test taking is a by-product skill. Real learning maximizes the likelihood of scoring well on mandated tests.

The STEM Studio curriculum is situated in problems, also called tasks, which have been designed so that students engage in the intellectual skills tested by the New York state assessment program. To solve the tasks, students plan, measure, analyze, and find out, and think about what they are doing, measuring, analyzing, and finding out, and talk about and listen to each other’s thinking.

The topics of the curriculum are based on an eight-year analysis of the Grade 4 Elementary-Level Science Test (Caliendo, unpublished manuscript, 2011). All 30 Part 1 questions from the 2004 through 2011 Grade 4 Elementary- Level Science Tests were analyzed and each of the 240 questions were categorized according to content area, and then again based on the topics of individual questions. From this point, the subcategories were compared to the New York State Elementary Science Grades K-4 Core Curriculum to determine if every Standard and Key Idea had been included on the exams. All Key Ideas had been represented at least one time during the eight years of test administration. The analysis of all 240 questions revealed the extent to which the major content areas were covered. See Table 1.

Table 1
Analysis of Part 1 Questions from the 2004-2011
Grade 4 Elementary-Level Science Tests
Content Area Percentage of Test Questions
Living Environment 48
Earth & Space Science 28
Physical Science 15
General Lab & Analysis Skills 11

Hofstra students Laura Greene and Lauren Mrachko solve design challenges with elementary students from Hempstead schools.

To solve the tasks, students plan, measure, analyze, and find out, and think about what they are doing, measuring, analyzing, and finding out, and talk about and listen to each other’s thinking.

Over the course of a semester, the 18 STEM Studio curricular problems address at some level all topics represented in the NYS Core Science and Math Curriculum Guides and the fourth grade science test and third to fifth grade math tests. Additionally, the problems require pupils to engage in the practices and think about the crosscutting concepts of A Framework for K-12 Science Education.

There are seven crosscutting concepts outlined in the Framework that are integral to science, math, and engineering learning. They are:

  • Patterns
  • Cause and Effect: Mechanism and Explanation
  • Scale, Proportion, and Quantity
  • Systems and System Models
  • Energy and Matter: Flows, Cycles, and Conservation
  • Structure and Function
  • Stability and Change

How do the STEM Studio tasks address these concepts? As simple as each task sounds, the child’s intellectual work to create a solution is complex. The tasks pose a challenge that typically requires the student to think about the system under study and create a dynamic model using a number of skills that connect across content areas, prompting discussion about patterns. For example, “Design a boat to carry stones across the Atlantic Ocean” prompts students to create a model of a boat out of a piece of aluminum foil that is 64 square inches. A limitation on area requires measurement and decision making. The provision of three different types of scales requires measurement and decision making of a different nature. Through failure, students learn that their boats’ buoyancy and ability to hold rocks depend on its structure, scale, and proportion. Depending on the boat’s stability in the water and the changes they make, students learn cause and effect relationships. Often, after understanding their design error, students become even more determined to create a functional boat that can, in fact, carry stones across the Atlantic Ocean.

Learning Is Research

Everything is always changing in the STEM Studio. The young students who made boats and routed ambulances, among other activities, will return shortly to examine the needs of living organisms, for instance, by looking carefully at the behavior of an earthworm and learning how its body structure is directly related to its functioning in a dark, damp environment. And our Hofstra students will be there, ready with new approaches to foster ongoing skill and concept development.

So, let’s get back to the needs of those living organisms. Instead of requiring students to read textbook passages that claim “all living things need food, air, and water” (which isn’t even true!), the youngsters who visit the STEM Studio establish their own research questions (within safety and ethical guidelines) to determine how an earthworm may respond to changes in water access, lighting, different environmental surfaces, color, or nutritional sources, to name just a few possible inquiries. Hofstra students use each child’s inquiry as an opportunity to foster examination of the crosscutting concepts and development of skills. They research children’s learning and make adaptations in their teaching as a result. Their research informs us all, and next year’s STEM Studio will grow from their contributions.


Ms. Thadal and Ms. Beasley with their fourth grade class from Washington- Rose Elementary School in Roosevelt.

Brooks, J.G. (2011). Big Science for Growing Minds: Constructivist Classrooms for Young Thinkers. New York: Teachers College Press.

Brooks, J.G., & Brooks, M.G. (1999). In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Caliendo, J. (unpublished manuscript, 2011). A Review of the NYS 4th Grade Core Science Curriculum and Science Test: An Analysis of Content. New York: Hofstra University.

Dolan, R. P., and Hall, T. E. (2001). Universal design for learning: Implications for large-scale assessment. IDA Perspectives, 27(4), 22-25.

Donovan, M.S., and Bransford, J.D. (2005). How Students Learn: History, Mathematics, and Science in the Classroom. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common Core State Standards. Retrieved from www.corestandards.org on February 25, 2012.

National Research Council. (2012). A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Pisha, B., and Coyne, P. (2001). Smart from the start: The promise of universal design for learning. Remedial and Special Education, 22(4), 197-203.

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