Parent volunteers can be such a help, but if you aren’t careful, they can also distract, detract, or even derail your STEM Challenges! It’s very important to take just a few minutes to help parents — and any other adults in your classroom — understand the student benefits of challenges and how to properly facilitate. It can be mostly succinctly stated like this: You aren’t helping students by helping them!
Check out my tips in the video below. If you prefer reading over watching, the transcription is also included.
Hi, welcome back. Today we are talking about the delights and the dangers of parent volunteers during STEM challenges. Now this applies not just to parent volunteers but also if you happen to have a pair of professionals in your classroom. The most helpful thing you can have your volunteers do is assist with distributing the materials and getting them organized, both before and after the challenge. Another thing that can be helpful is to have parents assist when tools are maybe not appropriate for the age group you’re working with. For example, if you have very thick cardboard that students want to cut, scissors aren’t going to do the trick. They’re going to need box cutters. For many age groups, you probably don’t want them using that type of tool.
In that case, I would have students draw an outline on the cardboard of the shape they want cut and then bring it to parents at a box cutting station. But a way to get around something like that is just not to use that very thick cardboard and instead use things like cereal boxes or Kleenex boxes, cardboard paper tubes, because students are able to make those cuts on their own. But if you have active parent participation or a pair of professionals in your room, they’ll probably want to be involved during the actual challenge and this is where we get into the dangers of volunteers.
So I have a couple of tips for you to make sure that your volunteers are helping and not derailing, distracting or detracting from your STEM challenges. Now, trust me on this. You do not want to just set these adults free during the build phase. The reason for that is without a little bit of instruction about facilitation, parents and other adults have a tendency to help the students too much and in turn that negates a lot of the best benefits of STEM challenges which is students developing their own problem solving skills, developing resilience and self reliance. I don’t mean to sound condescending or unwelcoming, it’s just difficult because STEM challenges are fun for all ages so people always want to just get in on the action.
So what you need to do is help parents understand their role as facilitators and that they help most by not helping too much at all. One way you can teach parents about this is to invite them to shadow you during a STEM challenge then they can walk around and hear the type of questions you ask, how you prod, when you push and when you step back. Another thing you can do is to give them sort of a cheat sheet for the things that can say and do and the things they should avoid saying and doing. For example, it’s totally fine to ask students to tell you about their design and it’s not okay to suggest what they might do to improve their designs. “Can you tell me about this part of your design? You guys look a little frustrated. Is there something that’s not going as you expected?” Both okay.
Reaching out and touching the students’ designs or suggesting that they prop something up in a certain way. Not okay. “What have you tried? What haven’t you tried? What else could you try? How might you fix that? How might you support that?” Good, good, good, good, good. I do have a volunteer cheat sheet for my newsletter subscribers so if you want to sign up and get that, I’ll put the link below.
One last note for you and for volunteers, when I feel that internal struggle starting where I really want to solve the problem for students, I will just make myself leave. It’s kind of that fight or flight. So I’ll say something to the groups like, “Yeah, it is a little bit tricky. Just keep working on it. I’m going to go ahead and walk around and visit some other groups. I’ll be back in a few minutes to check in.” You will be surprised how many times when you get back to that group that they’ve either solved that problem or found a workaround or just redesigned around the issue.
In my opinion, you don’t really need volunteers during the build phase of STEM challenges but it is something parents often really want to participate in. Obviously you don’t want to turn them away so just make sure that you take a few minutes to explain to them all the benefits that we’re trying to reach by the students doing the problem solving on their own. It’s pretty nice to have another adult in the room that you can sort of give that knowing look to, “Isn’t this an amazing lesson?” That’s it for today. Make sure you’re following or subscribed so you don’t miss anything. I’ll see you next time. Have a great week.