By NIU STEAM Educator K.C. Sauer

School is back in session!  This year is special with most learners heading back into the classroom after last year’s turbulence.  While distance learning was not ideal for every student and disrupted many aspects of family life, the learners were mainly at home, and taking shelter during storms was much different. Now that students are back in schools, districts are responsible for keeping schools safe when severe weather strikes.

When I was a young learner growing up in southwestern Illinois, my school scheduled several tornado drills every year. I went to elementary school in a building that was over 100 years old, had no air conditioning, smelled of lead paint, and had a fallout shelter in the basement. The protocol was for us to go to a hallway in the lowest floors of the school building. Each classroom had an assigned area of the hallway. Once in our assigned area of the hallway, we had to crouch on our knees, lower our heads as close to the wall as possible, tuck and cover our head with our hands.

The early years of the 2010 decade brought a record-breaking number of tornadoes throughout the United States.  According to the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration, 1703 tornadoes were confirmed with 23 being violent and 6 being rated EF5 in 2011. Notable tornado events occurred such as the Super Outbreak of 2011 throughout the deep south and the catastrophic EF5 Joplin tornado, and then the Moore, OK tornado of 2013. Many schools were damaged during this period. This, coupled with the technology of surveillance cameras offered a glimpse into how debris moves throughout the interior of school buildings as a tornado strikes it. 

Hallways become wind tunnels and moving students to hallways has become a much-debated topic with emergency managers and school district personnel. Many school districts are reassessing where to house students when a tornado warning, or worse, a tornado emergency has been issued. Many districts choose to house students on the inside walls of classrooms and offices on the lowest floor of the building if they have the space.  Some districts will house students in basements if there is one available. Large schools with hundreds, or thousands of students still must use hallways because they do not have the space to house students in interior classrooms. According to Dr. Steve Stuart, Ed. D., principal of Edwardsville High School in Edwardsville, IL, the school building design and number of students mean there are not enough interior classrooms to house all students safely.

Districts also review their emergency management plans every year. Edwardsville Community Unit School District in southwestern Illinois has a different emergency plan for each building that takes into account the number of students being housed and also the architecture and layout of each school building. As needs arise throughout the year, the plans are reviewed and adjusted to meet the changing needs of the school population.  With many changes occurring each year, folders are kept inside each office and classroom with detailed information on what to do in every conceivable emergency scenario. Additionally, safety protocols for dismissal, athletic practices and events, and other non-athletic extra curriculum activities after school are made on a case-by-case basis and in the moment an emergency is imminent.

For times when learners are in flex periods like coming to school, dismissal, and outdoors for athletic or other extra curriculum activities, it is important to be weather aware by being observant of the weather and having ways to get warnings, and quick planning on changing weather conditions and then communicating those plans to others nearby.

The National Weather Service Office offers education opportunities to the general public for free through their NWS Spotter Training Program. Classes have been held online the past year but are generally held in-person. Trained Spotters are valuable in reporting severe weather, but they are also valuable in keeping oneself safe during severe weather events. The classes are designed for middle school age learners and up. Though many grade school learners have taken the classes, they’re ineligible to become official trained spotters. The knowledge is still really beneficial to all learners.

The National Weather Service also has an entire website related to teaching learners about weather. There is a wealth of information and activities for learners of all ages.

Schools can only be part of the weather ready community. Parents and their children also need to be knowledgeable about what to do when severe weather is present. Being weather ready is about being part of the community and helping others be aware of the current conditions and finding shelter quickly and easily. Having a way to get warnings and having a plan is the best way for to have a weather ready education community. Our goal is to progress through the school year successfully no matter the weather conditions.

Date posted: September 7, 2021 | Author: | No Comments »

Categories: Families & Students Educators Camps - Nature

By Ann Shult, NIU STEAM Educator

The beginning of the school year is usually a mix of excitement and apprehension with new clothes, new teachers, new schedule, and maybe some new friends or a new school. For some students and teachers, this will be the first time back in a classroom in over a year. The anxiety levels just went up. What can we as parents and teachers do to help both ourselves and the children in our lives reduce levels of anxiety and discomfort?

For me, the answer starts with one simple act: Go outside!

How can the outdoors help both our health and academic performance?

Health Benefits. Being in nature can help:

  • Reduce anxiety and anger.
  • Alleviate symptoms of ADHD.
  • Reduce eye strain and nearsightedness.
  • Increase levels of vitamin D to help with increased bone strength and density.
  • Increase physical activity and reduce the risk of obesity.

Academics Benefits. Being in nature can help:

  • Increase focus.
  • Increase engagement.
  • Boost creativity, critical thinking and problem solving.
  • Minimize disruptive behaviors.
  • Increase impulse control.

Amy Doll is the director of Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves. Here’s how being outdoors benefits her family.

“I have two boys and there is nothing more important to our school year routine than getting outside every day, even in winter. And at least once a month we try to go explore somewhere outside for a little bit longer. I can see a difference in them when we get back – they have better attitudes, they are less anxious, and they are more talkative – with me and with each other. It’s almost as if when we leave the walls and roof of our house they are reminded that the world is bigger than their individual anxieties and their minds expand accordingly. I can tell that they need this to be ready to learn at school.”

What can you do to get outdoors?

It doesn’t need to be complicated! Try these activities, which can take as little as 15 minutes a day:

  • Walk around the block.
  • Explore your backyard or local park.
  • Leave time for unstructured play. Some of my fondest memories as a kid were playing in a patch of soil on the side of the house.
  • Go on a scavenger hunt. There are plenty of nature scavenger hunts online to help students improve their observational skills.

Ready for something more? How about:

  • Plant a tree, vegetable or pollinator garden. Especially good for urban areas lacking green space.
  • Help a local organization with picking up trash, cleaning a river or removing invasive species.
  • Train your family dog.
  • Adjust a lesson plan so students are observing, recording data and writing.

I knew an elementary school teacher who encouraged her students to gather materials they found on the school grounds and put everything in a box. The next day during recess, she presented her students with two boxes, one full of purchased toys and the other with the materials found outdoors. It was filled with twigs, leaves, pinecones, rocks and other things found in nature. While observing her students, she noticed almost all of them selected items from the nature box. Creativity exploded when the students took those objects to make up stories, design birthday cakes and build other structures. The toy box sat mainly untouched.

Exploring the outdoors is a wonderful way to ease the transition as we prepare for a new year of learning.

Date posted: August 23, 2021 | Author: | No Comments »

Categories: Families & Students Educators Camps - Nature

By Kerri Sosnowski, NIU STEAM Educator

It’s August. End of summer, back to routine, back to school. And this year, back to in-person learning! Our students are ready to be back full time with their friends and teachers. Remote learning, while it was helpful during the pandemic, has set many students back not only academically, but in basic skills as well.

If the young people in your life have had the same pandemic experiences as mine, they’re probably out of practice with a lot of these basics – playing nice, communicating, collaborating, sharing space and toys or tools. (We don’t need to go into dressing in real clothes – surely our house is not the only one whose laundry is filled with only pajamas and bathing suits?)

NIU STEAM has identified what we call Essential Skills. These are skills needed not only for STEAM learning, but for all learning as well as college and career readiness. Many of these skills have suffered due to social distancing requirements – and I think the one that has probably suffered most of all is collaboration.

Collaboration is a difficult skill even for adults. But it is so necessary in the workplace and in school! Like any skill, it is learned and needs to be practiced. So, how can you help your child develop this skill? We have created some activities that are fun, quick and designed to do just that!

Here is one game to try at home:

  1. Gather enough small puzzles for each person playing to have one. These can be laminated magazine photos or cereal box fronts cut into six to eight pieces. We suggest 3 or more players.
  2. Mix all the puzzle pieces together. Keep them hidden until gameplay starts.
  3. Discuss the rules.
  4. NO talking or noises of any kind.
  5. You can only GIVE a piece, never take a piece.
  6. You cannot touch anyone else’s puzzle.
  7. EVERY person should end up with a completed puzzle.
  8. Brainstorm ways to go about completing the task while keeping the rules in mind.
  9. Dump the puzzle pieces in the middle of a table.
  10. You can set a timer for 5-10 minutes if you want more of a challenge.
  11. Once the game is complete, ask some reflection questions.
    • What went well?
    • What were your frustrations? How did you handle them?
    • Can you give an example of when you had to have patience?
    • What would you change about how you worked in the group?
    • How does communication help collaboration?

If you try this collaboration activity, we would love to hear from you!

Date posted: August 6, 2021 | Author: | No Comments »

Categories: Families & Students College and Career Readiness

Here at NIU STEAM, we love PBL! That can stand for project-based learning or problem-based learning, but what it really boils down to, according to NIU STEAM Director Kristin Brynteson, is “students working together to address a driving question that has connections to the real world and an authentic audience. For example, in one school last year, we led a project-based learning unit where students chose to address how to improve the lunch program at their school – a burning question for fourth and fifth graders! The students researched federal government policy on nutrition, created a school garden and conducted surveys. In project-based learning, the students are not just handed information. They’re discovering information, so they tend to build a deeper understanding.”

We use project-based learning in our camps and STEAM Studio sessions, we teach it in our educator professional development. We believe that – when implemented effectively – PBL is a great way to engage students in the classroom and help them build knowledge and confidence.

A few years ago, we had a chance to start a partnership with Leland School thanks to the generosity of NIU alumna Jan Half. Our STEAM educators taught an afterschool program at Leland, we provided a community STEM fair, and we also did five months of professional development with the Leland educators so they could bring PBL into their classrooms.

Date posted: June 15, 2021 | Author: | No Comments »

Categories: Families & Students Educators Project-based Learning