Mi-STAR Expands Offerings, Updates Units

Wednesday, February 9, 2022
The Mi-STAR curriculum was built from the ground up by teachers, curriculum specialists, scientists, and engineers. Now that Mi-STAR has completed its middle school science curriculum, the team is working to weave in additional elements based on suggestions the team has received from classroom teachers.

Some additions focus on practical needs identified by teachers. “Each unit now has an index of the documents that need to be printed, which will make it easier for teachers to find and print out classroom materials,” said Stephanie Tubman, coordinator of curriculum development and implementation. “We also have a new Off-the-Shelf lesson about atoms and molecules, which complements the lesson on chemical reactions.” That lesson was written especially for those not teaching Unit 6.3, which addresses chemical reactions in human digestion.

In addition, three updated units are set to be released in 2022, one each for grades 6, 7, and 8. The substantive changes reflect Mi-STAR’s commitment to continually enhance the Mi-STAR curriculum to support teachers and students.

“We’re calling them V2 units. Our goal was to shorten them, increase literacy, and incorporate teacher feedback,” said Stephanie Tubman, coordinator of curriculum development and implementation. “We've also added material to make them more current.

“It’s always been the Mi-STAR vision that units would evolve, which really changes how we teach science,” she added. “School districts are shifting to NGSS and wising up to the fact that it's less expensive to buy students a set of Chromebooks than to invest in textbooks that need to be replaced every few years.”

The updates make the units easier to teach and more effective at clarifying key concepts. “These three units are among the first we developed,” said Lindsey Watch, Mi-STAR curriculum development associate. “Since they were completed, we’ve learned so much, both from our Mi-STAR teachers and from writing the curriculum. We wanted to use that knowledge to go back and make them better.”

“A lot of the changes were driven by teachers who have taught those units,” she added. “We take their feedback to heart.”

Two of the units, 7.1, Off-the-Grid Gaming, and 8.1, Bugs in the Beds!? were tested by volunteer Mi-STAR teachers this Fall. An updated version of Unit 6.6, Ecological Interactions, is currently available for preview, and will be tested in the spring. If you are interested in trying out the new unit, register by March 15, 2022 using this link. Beta testers receive additional Mi-STAR support implementing the unit, and have extra opportunities to provide feedback to Mi-STAR.

The improvements include shortened and more-user-friendly assessments, revisions to the Unit Challenge scenarios to make them more student-driven, and revamped hands-on activities to improve classroom management and better hit key concepts.

In Unit 6.6, developers streamlined the Unit Challenge to focus on a headline-grabbing topic: the decline in the population of sport fish and whether or not big-headed carp are responsible. “The students will be solving a mystery,” said Tubman. “That new version will be beta tested this spring, and all sixth grade teachers are invited to try it out and give feedback.” 

“We revised the generator in Unit 7.1 and came up with something simpler, a fidget spinner,” Watch said. In addition, the story line is tighter and more engaging. “It’s driven by questions that students would ask,” said Tubman. “In the Unit Challenge, students are visiting a cabin in the woods, and they are working to build a model of a generator that could power a video game off the grid.”

Zachary Freeman, a seventh grade science teacher at Marshall Greene Middle School, in Birch Run, piloted Unit 7.1. “The first thing that popped out for me was the revamped generators,” he said. “I’m really excited about it, because the old generators could be finicky.”

The new generators are a simple assembly of fidget spinners and magnets. The supplies are inexpensive, and once built the gadget works reliably. “That’s a big one for me,” said Freeman.

In addition, lessons in the updated unit have been rearranged to improve the flow. “There’s some shuffling in how concepts are introduced, and that’s been helpful,” he said. “Mi-STAR has been digging in deep to make changes that will benefit the classroom.”

As for Unit 8.1, “teachers told us that students still had lingering misconceptions on natural selection and adaptation, so we also tackled that head on,” said Watch.

Jennifer Pera, a science teacher at Jeffers High School, in Painesdale, piloted a new lesson in Unit 8.1. “Students didn’t really understand that there are beneficial, harmful, and neutral traits,” she said. In the new lesson, students use a variety of tools (a fork, a spoon with a piece of yarn tied to the handle, and an origami “cootie catcher”) as model “mouths,” picking up different types of food (marshmallows and beans) and comparing how effective they were. “They realized that the organisms better at getting food were more likely to survive,” Pera said. “At first, the kids wondered about the yarn, but they finally realized it was a neutral trait.” They also wanted the results to be fair, but ultimately realized that an organism’s traits and the environment, not fairness, determine how likely it is to survive.

The original unit was good, she said, but now it’s better. “It’s really nice that Mi-STAR is taking the time to revise and improve,” said Pera. “The curriculum is a living thing; it's interesting to see how much it has evolved.”

As for the Mi-STAR curriculum, she says, “I love it. It has made teaching science more fun for me and way more engaging for the students.” Her students also enjoyed piloting the updates to Unit 8.1. “They were excited to be the guinea pigs,” said Pera. “As we were going through it, they said, ‘You should tell them this, or that.’ The students felt valued, that they had a voice.”

“What amazes me is how hard the Mi-STAR staff work all the time,” she added. “They are constantly grinding away at all different kinds of things. They could have put their feet up once the curriculum was finished, but that’s not what they do.”

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Mi-STAR was founded in 2015 through generous support provided by the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation. Mi-STAR has also received substantial support from the National Science Foundation, the MiSTEM Advisory Council through the Michigan Department of Education, and Michigan Technological University.