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My class is the noisy, hands on learning type of class that has paper airplanes and metric
measuring tape stashed around the room. Youll see used up sandwich containers with sand,
rocks and salt crystals glittering on top from evaporation and condensation experiments. There
are Alexander Calder type mobiles hanging from the ceiling and graphs and data tables stapled
crookedly to the walls. Ziplock bags of coins cozy up to rulers, calculators and digital scales. I
believe in a constructivist approach to learning, where learning is built or engineered in order to
make sense of the world. This messy, inspiring and engaging classroom is where teaching and
learning happen daily and I delight in it.
We, at David Lubin, hope to be the first STEAM elementary school in the Sacramento
City Unified School district. My school, nestled in a neighborhood of million dollar homes
serves not only these families but also families that live literally on the other side of the railroad
tracks. Some families around the school neighborhood choose to not send their children to our
school because having this mixed population seems undesirable for them. They have a case of
White Flight so these students attend the all GATE school a mile away, Catholic school located
around the corner, or private school. I cant see a better opportunity to put in the hands and minds
of young learners, regardless of race, the ideas and methodologies of a STEAM program. Finally,
a chance to follow Obamas urging to educate to innovate, a real opportunity to ignite a
passion for STEAM disciplines, so that our future is a future of Black female engineers, Latino
mathematicians, and Hmong scientists all working together to solve problems, creatively.

My school is situated in East Sacramento, serving a community of remarkably diverse

learners. Since its foundation in the 1920s David Lubin Elementary has always looked like the
city it serves, we are Black, Brown, White; deaf and hard of hearing; students with autism; and
GATE identified; we are students from our immediate neighborhood, as well as all parts of the
city. Roughly 13% of our population are English language learners, and almost 50% of those
students are Spanish speaking. Other languages, in my class, include sign, Russian, Pashtun and
I have the good fortune of teaching a core math and science class to fifth graders, while
my partner teaches writing and history. Together we educate two classes of 10 year olds, 58
students total, that divide their time equally between our two rooms. This bar graph represents
the percentage of ethnicities in both classes and the Y axis illustrates the number of students.

Student Ethnicities in Fifth Grade


African American 5%
Asian 5%


Bi-Racial 8%
Caucasian 67%

Hispanic 15%


African American





The mission of David Lubin Elementary School is to instill a love of scientific inquiry
and application and to empower students to pursue a life of choices by learning in an
interdisciplinary environment that emphasizes the strong work ethic and critical thinking needed
to solve problems in the real world. Our focus is on creativity, critical thinking, communication
and collaboration which is essential to prepare students for the future. To be effective in the 21st
century, citizens and workers must be able to create, evaluate, and effectively utilize information,
media, and technology. The New American Dilemma is the nations failure to educate and
develop a growing proportion of its potential talent base African Americans, Latinos, and
American Indians as its need for people with skills in science and engineering is
escalating (National Action Council of Minorities in Engineering, 2008 p.1). We recognize an
unprecedented opportunity to engage and include all students in the challenge and promise made
possible with a rigorous innovative STEAM program. We want to establish STEAM as an
integral part of learning for a future in which science can belong to us all.
Needs Assessment
The future, especially in STEAM, is about having cognitive flexibility and critical
thinking skills to be successful in life. But what does that look like and how do we go about
teaching these skills?
When introduced at an early age, engineering coupled with science, technology and math
has had positive impacts on elementary children. In addition, various research studies have noted
that the best time to create a connection, awareness and interest in STEAM fields would be the
elementary years (De Jarnette, 2012). The National Science Board (2010) has concluded that

there is a connection between higher level math and science classes taken in middle and high
school years with enrollment and success in a four year college institution., therefore it follows
that we as a nation must implore our elementary educators to introduce the STEAM disciplines
in the elementary grades.
When teachers employ the engineering design process they are giving their students a
system in which to think and work. However what I discovered last year is that engineering
design requires a substantial amount of imagination and reflection, this act of thinking, more
precisely for elementary students to be aware of their own thinking, or metacognition, is where I
have found a considerable disconnect with student learning. As students reflect they also lack
the ability to make connections and/or see connections between concepts. This is seriously
problematic as my school and many others advocate the four Cs: creativity, communication,
collaboration and critical thinking.


Use various types of reasoning (inductive, deductive, etc) as appropriate to the situation.
Analyze how parts of a whole interact with each other to produce overall outcomes in
complex systems.

Effectively analyze and evaluate evidence, arguments, claims and beliefs.

Analyze and evaluate major alternative points of view.
Synthesize and make connections between information and arguments.
Interpret information and draw conclusions based on the best analysis.
Reflect critically on learning experiences and processes.
Solve different kinds of non-familiar problems in both conventional and innovative ways.
Identify and ask significant questions that clarify various points of view and lead to better

I began in earnest to teach these skills this year, or attempted to teach these very cerebral
skills. I know I at least introduced them, talked about them and sometimes referred to them.
These 4Cs were always front and foremost on my mind, but were my students thinking about
them and applying them? Now, half way through the year I felt it necessary to survey my
students to see what they thought. Students were given a 20 question survey (Appendix A)
utilizing a 5 point Likert scale. Student response to the question, How well do you think
critically? (Table 1) is significantly lower than other questions in that subject area as well as
Do you think you understand what think critically means in math and science? (Table 2) to the
rest of the survey.

Table 1
How well do you think critically?













Table 2
Do you think you understand what think critically
means in math and science?











Students were prompted further by addressing the following question, Can you think of some
examples when the class demonstrated thinking critically in math and/or science? Some student
responses were:
when we think of different ways to solve a problem in science and math
Thinking about other peopls [sic] thinking of good ideas
Thinking quietly

the idea if two decimals for example 0.2x0.4 will be in the hundredths place

Yes, When we were figuring out what sports shop is better for Dr. Hoops to go to. We really had to
criticly [sic] think

When we are doing a math problem and some one tells the teacher a stratege
When we designed our paper airplanes
Building satilites [sic]

in science we critically think our rockets and how we make it move

We thought critically in science when we were thinking about and reading about how the parts of a
rocket work

A example is when we are making a satilite [sic] system where we try to make a design to make the
satilite go on a string.

Work hard said Ms. Rossi

Some of the critical thinking skills show up in student responses but not all students responded
and some responses were not applicable. What is difficult is how to measure this skill or to
clearly see whether students are indeed making those connections essential for critical thinking.
Critical thinking, cognitive flexibility and metacognition have all been tagged as essential
pieces of 21st century thinking, especially in STEAM fields. Dixon and Lammi propose
cognitive mapping techniques (2014). Students thrive when they are presented with problem
solving opportunities yet the strategies required to adequately approach and solve them may not
be supported by the techniques and pedagogy used in most classrooms. Students who encounter
difficulty connecting previously learned concepts to the solving of ill-structured problems, as
they have limited training in cognitive strategies, can feel frustrated. "A metacognitive approach
to instruction can help students learn to take control of their own learning by defining learning
goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them" (Donovan & Bransford, 2005). I believe
the answer to all this deep thinking is cognitive mapping, which is a visual guide to help them
see the connections we are making in class and provide them with a graphic representation to
help hang their schema instead of trying to maintain this through memory.
Concept maps have their roots in cognitive psychology and they attempt to illustrate a
visual representation of the dynamic schemes of understanding within the human mind and
Ausubels theories which provide guidance as to what constitutes a concept map. From a
constructivist point of view, any one persons interpretation or construction is as true as any

other persons interpretation or construction, as long as it works within a particular context

(Novak & Caas, 2008). The learner thus constructs its own interpretation of reality, built on
previous learning, to make sense of phenomenon. One can now understand this thought process
to also include creativity.
Furthermore creativity and learning go hand in hand in successful collaborative activities,
and creativity contributes to shaping new knowledge which requires a supportive learning
environment. To take this creativity to a new place, educators need to stimulate individual
knowledge transformation from tacit level to explicit level (Zhou et al, 2014) and this can happen

with the use of cognitive maps. Manoj Chandra Handa is forthright and posits that creative

learning is distinct from creativity in its focus on the process of learning itself (2015). Creative
learners think laterally and make associations between things that are not usually connected.
Creative insights often occur by making unusual connections (Handa, 2015). His creative
learning graphic is ripe for the undertaking of cognitive maps in a PBL classroom.
Research Questions:
Will cognitive mapping increase ALL students ability to think critically?
What are the differences in students critical thinking performances when given a choice between
completed cognitive maps, partially created cognitive maps and student constructed cognitive
What are the differences in students critical thinking performances between GATE students and
regular education students?
What are the differences in students critical thinking performances between English speaking
households and two language households?
What are the differences in students critical thinking performances between students with
disabilities and those without?
Are cognitive mapping strategies appropriate for fifth grade learners?
Is there a difference between constructing cognitive maps with words or pictures?


DeJarnette, N. (2012). Americas children: Providing early exposure to STEM (science,

technology, engineering and math) initiatives. Education. 133:1
Dixon, R & Lammi, M. (2014) . Cognitive mapping techniques: Implications for research in
engineering and technology education. Journal of Technology Education, 25
Donovan, M & Bransford, J. (Eds.), How Students Learn: Science in the Classroom. Washington
D.C, USA: The National Academy Press
Frehill, L., DiFabio, N. & Hill, S. (2008). Confronting the "New" American Dilemma -Underrepresented Minorities in Engineering: A Data-Based Look at Diversity. National
Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME).
Handa, M. (2015). Imagination first: Unleash the power of possibility. Gifted Education
International, 31(2), 117-141
Novak, J. & Caas, A. (Rev. 2008). The theory underlying concept maps and how to construct
and use them. Technical report for the Institute for Human and Mechanical Cognition.
Retrieved from ihmc.com