10 Great Movies for the STEM Classroom

Common Sense Media

Use these powerful films to teach problem-solving and nurture students’ curiosity.

February 20, 2018

Common Sense Education

If you’re looking to get kids excited about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), show them the ways that popular media uses — and misuses — the concepts you teach daily. Used as part of a lesson, clips from movies can reinforce topics, spark discussion, and promote new perspectives.

There’s still a great need to introduce kids, and especially girls, to STEM fields like neurobiology, nanotechnology, and civil engineering. Whether it’s a short clip from a Hollywood film to reinforce the concept of gravity or a feature-length documentary that highlights the work of engineers, incorporating movies into your lessons can help kids connect what they’re learning in the classroom to the world at large. And even after the credits roll, you can extend the learning: Create a model, start a debate, or begin a community project that the film — and your teaching — inspires.

Here are 10 film picks that showcase essential STEM skills for school, home, the workplace, and beyond.


The Lego Movie

Grades 1+

This hilarious save-the-world tale appeals to the builder in all of us; creative engineering solutions abound as the heroes embark on their block-building journey.

Teacher tips: Have students identify the engineering design process at work in the movie. Bring some Lego bricks into the classroom (or use Minecraft) and have students develop solutions to common problems, creating prototypes, testing designs, and iterating on their own designs. Students can document their findings and share the highs and lows of the creative process.

Discussion questions: Which of the movie’s creations was your favorite, and why? How might real-life engineers change the design process when they have to make quick decisions? How do the characters in the film demonstrate teamwork, and why is this important for engineers?


Big Hero 6

Grades 2+

In this Disney adaptation of a comic with the same name, a 14-year-old genius invents special microbots to join his brother’s university robotics program. After tragedy ensues, a group of heroes unites and uses their strengths in chemistry and engineering to overtake a crafty villain.

Teacher tips: Try some of the experiments provided by the film’s producers. From there, ask students to choose a problem in their school or community and work together in teams to brainstorm, design, and build solutions using their own unique talents.

Discussion questions: How can engineering solutions and inventions help — and sometimes hurt — humankind? What skills do you have that might help a team overcome an obstacle? Which events or traits fuel each character’s creativity in the movie? Is creativity always positive?


Dream Big: Engineering Our World

Grades 2+

This documentary highlights engineers from various backgrounds — many of whom are women — and the projects they’re designing, from earthquake-proof structures to footbridges in developing countries.

Teacher tips: Use the powerful stories about engineering and robotics clubs in schools to inspire your students to join (or create) their own. Have students research other engineering projects from around the world that are currently in the works, and discuss what kind of global impact they might have. Also be sure to check out the film’s education guide.

Discussion questions: How does engineering affect our everyday lives? How might engineers adapt as technology becomes more prevalent? Why do you think the movie highlights so many women engineers? Why is this type of diversity important?


Hidden Figures

Grades 4+

This inspiring true story of African American women at NASA in the 1950s and ’60s helps shine a light on the need for humans even as technology continues to automate.

Teacher tips: Build off the film’s education guide: Have students construct and solve their own mathematical equations to describe the orbits of planets, or use computer simulations to model Newton’s second law of motion. Talk about how technology makes these calculations easier.

Discussion questions: What are the positive and negative implications of technology taking over roles humans once held? What role did gender play in STEM fields in the 1950s and ’60s? How much have those roles changed today?


Underwater Dreams

Grades 4+

An underdog tale, this documentary tells the story of a robotics team from a lower-income high school that took on university teams — including MIT — in an underwater robotics competition.

Teacher tips: Introduce students to robots they can build and code like SpherolittleBits Invent, and Cue. Have students work in teams to focus on the design process and complete challenges. And while you’re at it, why not start or promote a robotics club at your school?

Discussion questions: What is it about the kids on this team that made them able to overcome such huge obstacles? What makes underwater robotics such a challenging problem to tackle? Besides through robotics clubs, what are some other ways to do STEM activities outside the classroom?


Apollo 13

Grades 6+

A classic and powerful take on the story of the doomed NASA spacecraft, this film highlights the technical issues astronauts faced (along with some of the do-it-yourself solutions they inspired) to land Apollo 13 on the moon.

Teacher tips: Use the rocket launch and reentry scenes to model physics concepts. Have students build or code their own rockets and create journals to document the kinds of small adjustments and iterations needed to create a successful launch. Tip: Pairs well with a game like Kerbal Space Program.

Discussion questions: How has technology changed since the 1960s? Where should NASA focus its efforts in space exploration today? What does the film say about the role of engineers and their ability to use common items to fix highly technical problems?



Grades 6+

While some of the film’s ideas veer into science fiction, there’s enough real science in this edge-of-your-seat thriller to make the heroes’ search for habitable planets worth your time.

Teacher tips: After taking a look at the educator’s guide and some TED-Ed lessons, have students talk about misconceptions and analyze the accuracy of some of the film’s scientific questions. Students can hold a debate around what’s a fact, what may be possible, and what’s simply unattainable.

Discussion questions: What technological issues are holding humans back from interstellar travel? If you were building your own robot companion for space travel, what qualities would you deem most important? What are some ways viewers can separate fact from fantasy in science fiction movies?


The Martian

Grades 6+

This sci-fi space thriller follows an astronaut who’s stuck on Mars and must problem-solve his way to safety using real scientific principles.

Teacher tips: Let students know it’s a movie about risk-taking and creativity and that, although the story is fictional, it’s rooted in scientific fact. Have students take a look at some of the main character’s creations in the movie: a sextant for navigation, his potato farm, or the water he makes from rocket fuel. Next, design a lesson where students are given a limited set of tools, a goal, and some constraints, then see what sort of innovative DIY projects they can launch.

Discussion questions: What is the hexadecimal system, and why is language so important in science and math? How important was it for the film’s main character to keep a log? Why do we not yet have the technology to go to Mars?

If You Build It

Grades 7+

Want to show students that they have the talent and ability to make a difference? Then check out this documentary that follows 10 high school students who design and build a new farmer’s market for their rural community.

Teacher tips: Kids will be inspired not only by the students’ abilities but by their actions. Harness that sentiment to get kids out into their own communities. Have your students interview neighbors, collect data, and embark on a cross-curricular project-based learning assignment to solve an issue. Teach your students the necessary skills to build something, and then set them free to create.

Discussion questions: Which engineering processes did you notice throughout the movie? Were some more successful than others? What obstacles might you face if you were to promote a change at your school?


The Imitation Game

Grades 7+

Cryptologists and mathematicians are front and center in this historical drama about the British government’s attempt to crack the German Enigma code during WWII.

Teacher tips: There’s a lack of Hollywood movies that incorporate math in meaningful ways. Take advantage of kids’ interest in this movie to host a code-breaking challenge event. Or, use cryptograms as an introduction to a matrix unit. If you provide Genius Hour time, let students dig in and explore a topic of their interest. You could also have kids research other examples where STEM skills have helped shape significant historical events.

Discussion questions: Would computers today be able to pass Turing’s test to determine intelligence? Why do we typically see more movies and stories about biologists or engineers instead of mathematicians?


Why This Tech Executive Says Her Plan to Disrupt Education Is Different


Students at Lumineer Academy in Williamstown, Australia. The school uses an alternative learning model based on technology businesses. CreditAsanka Brendon Ratnayake for The New York Times

MELBOURNE, Australia — At Lumineer Academy, a newly opened primary school in Williamstown, Australia, there is no homework. There are no classrooms, uniforms or traditional grades.

Instead, there are “creator spaces,” “blue-sky thinking” sessions and “pitch decks.”

If the school — furnished like a start-up with whiteboards and beanbag chairs — sounds like the idea of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, that’s because it is.

That entrepreneur is Susan Wu, 44, an American who has been called one of the “most influential women in technology” and who has advised or invested in companies that include Twitter, Reddit and Stripe.

Ms. Wu and her team believe they are starting an education revolution. They say they have created a new model for teaching children, called Luminaria, that promises to prepare them to become the architects of — rather than mere participants in — a future world.

“Our current school models were built 100-plus years ago for the Industrial Revolution,” said Ms. Wu. “What they cared about were homogeneous factories that produced a template of a kind of worker. The world has changed.”

Critics, however, see Lumineer Academy as another in a series of attempts by Silicon Valley to apply the same techniques used to churn out successful apps to instead turn out successful children.


Instead of classrooms there are “studios,” which contain no desks but often have beanbag chairs instead. CreditAsanka Brendon Ratnayake for The New York Times

In the United States, as more tech executives have tried their hands at opening schools, education experts have debated, and in some cases warned about, the effects of corporate money and influence pervading the classroom.

In recent years, schools and education programs have been founded by Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla; Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix; and Marc Benioff, the founder of Salesforce.

Despite glittering launches and promises to disrupt education, schools founded by tech executives have yet to demonstrate success. AltSchool, founded by the former Google executive Max Ventilla, announced last year that it would close several of its schools after a series of reported losses, despite raising $175 million from investors like Mark Zuckerberg, and charging tuition fees of around $28,000.

Ms. Wu is aware of the challenges her technology sector peers have faced, but she says her school’s model, team and location in Australia could set it apart.

Private education is much more common in Australia than in the United States. About a third of Australian children attend private schools — nearly three times the rate of American children — meaning there are fewer national sensitivities around unions, corporate influence and tuition. Like most independent Australian schools, Lumineer Academy is a nonprofit.

Ms. Wu says that she and her co-founders, Sophie Fenton and Amanda Tawhai, pack a one-two punch that combines her business acumen with their knowledge of education.

Ms. Fenton won Australian Teacher of the Year in 2013 and has written exams for the Victorian Certificate of Education — the final assessment required of students in the state of Victoria.


“Our current school models were built 100-plus years ago for the Industrial Revolution,” said Susan Wu, a former tech entrepreneur who founded the school. CreditAsanka Brendon Ratnayake for The New York Times

Though similar ventures by tech entrepreneurs have failed, Ms. Wu’s Silicon Valley peers said she was uniquely suited to founding a successful school.

“She brings new perspective to problems that have existed for a long time,” said Mike Curtis, vice president of engineering at Airbnb. “Almost any problem space — no matter how different it is from the last — she seems to be able to tackle.”

Lumineer Academy opened in January in a former customs house in a wealthy suburb of Melbourne. There are 130 students enrolled and tuition costs around 10,000 Australian dollars, or $8,000.

Unlike most Australian private schools, students at the academy do not wear a required uniform. Instead, students are encouraged to build their own wardrobes within a prescribed palette. (In nautical stripes and khakis, many children resemble those in a J. Crew catalog.)

Classrooms in the school have been rebranded “studios.” There are no desks, but rooms include couches, beanbag chairs and tables to stand at while working.

The Luminaria model claims to balance hard S.T.E.M. subjects, like computer programing, with soft skills like emotional intelligence and teamwork that are increasingly sought by employers. Ms. Wu said the model was based on a concept in physics known as first principles, in which ideas are reduced to their purest form, unencumbered by assumptions, analogies or biases.

Several recent studies have suggested that 30 to 50 percent of Australian teachers leave the profession within their first few years of work. Lumineer Academy has sought to capture some of them with a promise of freedom from strict curriculums.

“When I saw the job advertised, I thought, ‘This can’t be true,’ ” said Kim Staples, a 31-year-old teacher. “I was so frustrated in other systems, because they’re quite prescriptive.”

Ms. Staples said she would have stopped teaching if she hadn’t joined Ms. Wu’s school.

“I felt like I was too restricted,” she said. “I couldn’t give children the type of learning experiences that I knew was best for them.”

There is evidence of tech-world thinking throughout the school. In one studio, 8- and 9-year-olds worked on a project about socializing. The students outlined their thoughts using a multistep design process that could have been lifted straight from a start-up’s business plan: blue-sky thinking (thinking outside the box), scope (the work and resources required to get something done), MVP (minimum viable product), delivery and launch.

Outside observers say many of these tech-driven schools are giving new names to old pedagogical ideas.

“I was kind of impressed with the number of clichés and buzzwords that they packed into a short amount of marketing copy,” said Audrey Watters, whose blog, Hack Education, analyzes the intersection of education and tech. “In the case of Luminaria, they have everything, they have all the buzzwords: social and emotional learning, mind-sets, grit, S.T.E.M., mindfulness, authentic learning, global consciousness. I mean, pick two of those.”

Glenn Savage, an Australian education policy expert, said that it was difficult to see how the school’s lofty goals could fit within Australia’s “very structured” education system.

“It’s important that parents don’t work on the false assumption that sending students to a school that claims to do things radically different means that the students won’t be doing anything like students in other schools — because that’s just not the case,” he said.

One wall at the school displayed students’ work with the Asylum SeekerResource Center, a nonprofit organization that assists refugees hoping to resettle in Australia.


Student-made decorations. CreditAsanka Brendon Ratnayake for The New York Times

The students had created a “pitch deck” — tech jargon for a PowerPoint presentation — aimed at persuading the group to collaborate with them on a project (it worked). In a nearby “creator space,” students were working to build a profitable micro-farm. They have been assigned to grow and sell goods at the local farmers’ market by the end of the school year.

One student, Ines Morgan, 8, said she particularly liked a project in which her class observed an ant colony.

“Our hypothesis was, ‘What happens when an ant colony gets disrupted?’ ” she explained. “They lived in chaos for like a day or two, but then, a few days later, they stuck together and just all decided to rebuild again.”

The school’s website promises to remove the “stress and anxiety” students encounter at other schools.

But if students are shielded from emotional adversity in their early years, critics say, they may struggle to cope when they reach high school — where desks, traditional teaching methods and puberty await.

Ines, the 8-year-old ant colony disrupter, said she had seen “a little bit of bullying” but that it was dealt with as a collective.

When asked how the situation was resolved, another student, Noah Helu, 8, said, “Well, it’s like what Ines learned about the ant colony: Sticking together helped us stop the bullying.”

Explaining the News to Our Kids

With another horrific school shooting in the news, here’s a resource that may be helpful for parents.  Dave

Common Sense Media

Dramatic, disturbing news events can leave parents speechless. These age-based tips on how to talk to kids about the news — and listen, too — can help.By Caroline Knorr 

If it bleeds, it leads. The old newsroom adage about milking stories for sensationalism seems truer than ever today. And with technology doing the heavy lifting — sending updates, tweets, posts, and breaking news alerts directly to our kids’ phones — we parents are often playing catch-up. Whether it’s wall-to-wall coverage of the latest natural disaster, a horrific mass shooting, a suicide broadcast on social media, or a violent political rally, it’s nearly impossible to keep the news at bay until you’re able to figure out what to say. The bottom line is that elementary school-aged kids and some middle schoolers have trouble fully understanding news events. And though older teens are better able to understand current events, even they face challenges when it comes to sifting fact from opinion — or misinformation.

No matter how old your kids are, threatening or upsetting news can affect them emotionally. Many can feel worried, frightened, angry, or even guilty. And these anxious feelings can last long after the news event is over. So what can you do as a parent to help your kids deal with all this information?

Addressing News and Current Events: Tips for all kids

Consider your own reactions. Your kids will look to the way you handle the news to determine their own approach. If you stay calm and rational, they will, too.

Take action. Depending on the issue and kids’ ages, families can find ways to help those affected by the news. Kids can write postcards to politicians expressing their opinions; families can attend meetings or protests; kids can help assemble care packages or donate a portion of their allowance to a rescue/humanitarian effort. Check out websites that help kids do good.

Tips for kids under 7

Keep the news away. Turn off the TV and radio news at the top of the hour and half hour. Read the newspaper out of range of young eyes that can be frightened by the pictures (kids may respond strongly to pictures of other kids in jeopardy). Preschool kids don’t need to see or hear about something that will only scare them silly, especially because they can easily confuse facts with fantasies or fears.

Stress that your family is safe. At this age, kids are most concerned with your safety and separation from you. Try not to minimize or discount their concerns and fears, but reassure them by explaining all the protective measures that exist to keep them safe. If the news event happened far away, you can use the distance to reassure kids. For kids who live in areas where crime and violence is a very real threat, any news account of violence may trigger extra fear. If that happens, share a few age-appropriate tips for staying and feeling safe (being with an adult, keeping away from any police activity).

Be together. Though it’s important to listen and not belittle their fears, distraction and physical comfort can go a long way. Snuggling up and watching something cheery or doing something fun together may be more effective than logical explanations about probabilities.

Tips for kids 8–12

Carefully consider your child’s maturity and temperament. Many kids can handle a discussion of threatening events, but if your kids tend toward the sensitive side, be sure to keep them away from the TV news; repetitive images and stories can make dangers appear greater, more prevalent, and closer to home.

Be available for questions and conversation. At this age, many kids will see the morality of events in stark black-and-white terms and are in the process of developing their moral beliefs. You may have to explain the basics of prejudice, bias, and civil and religious strife. But be careful about making generalizations, since kids will take what you say to the bank. This is a good time to ask them what they know, since they’ll probably have gotten their information from friends, and you may have to correct facts.

Talk about — and filter — news coverage. You might explain that even news programs compete for viewers, which sometimes affects content decisions. If you let your kids use the Internet, go online with them. Some of the pictures posted are simply grisly. Monitor where your kids are going, and set your URLs to open to non-news-based portals.

Tips for teens

Check inSince, in many instances, teens will have absorbed the news independently of you, talking with them can offer great insights into their developing politics and their senses of justice and morality. It will also help you get a sense of what they already know or have learned about the situation from their own social networks. It will also give you the opportunity to throw your own insights into the mix (just don’t dismiss theirs, since that will shut down the conversation immediately).

Let teens express themselves. Many teens will feel passionately about events and may even personalize them if someone they know has been directly affected. They’ll also probably be aware that their own lives could be affected by violence. Try to address their concerns without dismissing or minimizing them. If you disagree with media portrayals, explain why so your teens can separate the mediums through which they absorb news from the messages conveyed.

Additional resources

For more information on how to talk to your kids about a recent tragedy, please visit the National Association of School Psychologists or the American Psychological Association. For more on how news can impact kids, check out News and America’s Kids: How Young People Perceive and Are Impacted by the News,

Marie-Louise Mares, Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, contributed to this article.

4 Habits of People Who Are Always Learning New Skills

Working in online learning, I’ve found that every year around this time there’s a burst of sign-ups from workers seeking new skills. Perhaps it’s a matter of New Year’s resolutions, or a reaction to seeing their friends and colleagues make big career changes each January.

Unfortunately, the initial commitment to learning all too often fizzles out. Studies have found that 40% to 80% of students drop out of online classes.

Those who give up miss out. In one survey of more than 50,000 learners who completed MOOCs on Coursera, 72% reported career benefits such as doing their current job more effectively, finding a new job, or receiving a raise.

Having worked in HR at a large banking corporation and in strategic HR consulting, I’ve seen the effects of learning and development on career mobility — and what leads people to let it fall by the wayside. Over time, working with users as well as learning experts, I’ve found that four crucial habits can make a tremendous difference.

Focus on emerging skills. With so many learning options available these days, people are often tempted to simply go to Google, type in some general search terms, and start one of the first courses that pops up. That’s a waste of time.

Job requirements are quickly evolving. To ensure relevance, you need to focus on learning the latest emerging skills. You can do this in a couple of ways.

First, track what skills the leaders in your industry are hiring for. Look at recent job postings from the top companies, and see which qualifications keep popping up. Second, reach out to people in your network or on LinkedIn who have the job you want. If you want to know what sales skills and technologies are becoming most important, talk to some high-level salespeople. Ask them what they’re having to learn to keep succeeding at their work and what skills they think someone needs to acquire in order to become a viable candidate.

You may feel intimidated about reaching out. But I’ve found that most of the time, people are happy to share this information. They want to see more and more capable candidates filling jobs and staying on top of trends.

As you get a sense of the most important skills to learn, ask these experts whether they can recommend specific online courses with practical value. Also take a close look at course descriptions to find content that will be useful on the job rather than provide mostly academic insight. For instance, you might seek out instructors who are leading experts in your industry or content created in conjunction with companies that you admire.

Get synchronous. In this era, micro-learning — engaging with online learning tools when and where it’s convenient — is becoming a much larger part of the training and development scene. This has its benefits, including freedom, convenience, and digestible content.

But there’s also a downside. These asynchronous experiences are often solitary. And without at least some real-time interaction, whether in person or online, many students lose motivation. Researchers have found that “the sense of isolation” for some online learners “may make the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful online learning environment.” They call for more synchronous experiences. Others have also identified interaction and collaboration as critical factors in fruitful learning.

Building Good Habits

In my work, I’ve consistently seen that when online students sign up for a live course, in which they interact with a professor and one another at a set time at least once a week, they stick with it longer and learn more. Often, these kinds of programs offer materials you can work on individually. But the camaraderie can serve as a huge motivator, as can the desire not to fall behind the group.

When a live course isn’t available, I encourage learners to find a “synchronous cohort” — a friend or acquaintance with similar learning goals. Make a pact to do online learning together weekly. You can learn a lot from hearing each other’s questions and explaining things to each other as you come to understand them, since the act of teaching can improve content understanding, recall, and application.

Implement learning immediately. Research shows that performing the tasks you’ve learned is crucial, because “enactment enhances memory by serving as an elaborative encoding strategy.”

This is part of the problem many engineers face when looking for jobs straight out of college: They’ve been stuck in “theory land,” with little experience putting what they’ve learned into practice. You can run into the same issue with online learning. For example, I could spend weeks watching videos on how to set up a distributed computing system. But if I don’t go to Amazon Web Services and deploy it — soon — I’ll forget much of what I learned.

So whatever field you’re studying, find opportunities to use your new skills. (In addition to increasing “stickiness,” this also gives you a chance to discover unforeseen challenges.) Depending on the skill, you might participate in a collaborative project at work, for instance, or set up your own project on a small scale at home. Or you could find an online simulation that is similar to the real experience.

Set a golden benchmark. Just like runners in a marathon, online learners need to have a clear goal in order to stay focused. A return on investment (in terms of time and money spent) is hard to gauge in the near term. But those who persevere generally have their eye on a larger prize — a new job, a promotion, or the chance to lead a project. I encourage people to determine a specific career objective and keep it front of mind as they learn.

Of course, that benchmark will change as you develop. Learning is a career-long process. After you achieve one big goal, set your sights on the next one. That’s how you make learning a part of your normal routine. The more you do that, the less likely you are to stop.

When Mindfulness Feels Like a Necessity


It’s quick and easy to implement, and has proven benefits including boosted working memory and reduced stress.
© Edutopia

Mindfulness is something I incorporate into each of my classes once a week, and it only takes four to seven minutes. After reviewing the benefits of mindfulness practices—like reduced stress, boosted working memory, and lowered emotional reactivity—it was no longer a nice-to-have, but rather a necessity.


Summit Preparatory Charter High School

Grades 9-12 | Redwood City, CA

388 | Charter, Suburban

Per Pupil Expenditures

$8,917 School • $9,658 District

Free / Reduced Lunch


60% Hispanic
25% White
6% Asian
3% Multiracial
2% Black
2% Filipino
1% Pacific Islander
Data is from the 2014-2015 academic year.


At the beginning of each weekly session, I welcome everyone into a circle. We leave an empty chair for those who are unable to join us that day. We put our feet flat on the ground, close our eyes, and start with three deep breaths in and out. I guide students to follow where the air from their breath goes. While students are focusing on their breath, I invite them to reflect. Sometimes we reflect on the theme we’re going to discuss in class, but not always. I always spend a minute having everyone, including myself, focus on how we’re showing up to the space. Someone could show up happy from a great start to their day, angry because of an argument they just had, or stressed from an upcoming exam. We always make sure to validate how we are showing up without judgment toward ourselves.

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I have found the following steps useful in introducing and facilitating a mindfulness practice:

  1. Let the research and purpose speak for themselves. I often lead with: “It is not strictly meditation, but rather a practice in supporting your mind to take care of yourself.” I then list the benefits.
  2. Offer an out and get visible buy-in. Students will often be hesitant. “It’s weird!” they may say. And that’s OK. When I first introduced this to students, I told them that if they could find a research-based practice that achieved the same goals, I would be happy to help them create a proposal for the group. I then asked the group to give a thumbs up if they could at least try it.
  3. Share how developing a mindfulness practice has personally benefited you.After I get my students’ buy-in, I tell them how mindfulness has helped me, and I give one or two anecdotes. For example, the last time I had to have a very difficult conversation with a personal friend, I felt my mind racing. I got to the coffee shop a few minutes early, put my phone away, and got into position—feet flat and hands flat on my knees. I took a few deep breaths, calmed myself, and made myself aware of how I was showing up. I was able to recognize why I was showing up that way, and I asked myself how I wanted to show up. I tried to keep my focus on only that and my breathing. I then visualized how I wanted to show up, took a few breaths in, and returned to the present moment. The conversation with my friend was incredible and uplifting. None of my dialogue was colored by the anxiety, stress, or self-consciousness that cluttered my mind leading up to that conversation.
  4. Give a reason for every direction the first few times you go through the practice. For example, I’ll begin by saying, “We’re all going to close our eyes. I’ll keep mine open to make sure that no one is being watched because that could be awkward and feel unsafe, and my job is to ensure your physical and emotional safety.”
  5. Balance giving directions with silent time to practice the task. I will often say, “Together, we take a deep breath in [followed by a collective breath], and a deep breath out.” I then give us 40 seconds or so of just focusing. For that 40 seconds, I am silent. Before starting, I say, “Now we are going to hold that focus for a little while. We just focus on where our air is entering and exiting our body.” Then every time I have a new direction or narration, I include myself again. It must be a balance between targeted narration and silent time to practice the task.
  6. Only directly address behaviors that are unsafe. Otherwise, like when a student laughs or tries to make silly sounds, I will often gently reinforce the mindfulness practice by saying, “And we’re taking a deep, calm breath in.” I do this in a very direct but soft tone that sounds like a parent calming a child down rather than reprimanding them.
  7. Allow for reflection and feedback. The first few times, I had my students turn to a partner and discuss how it was for them, offered space to give me critical feedback, and also offered them space to make meaning of their experience. Often, it sounds like, “OK, now turn around to your partner, give them a high five or ask if they want a hug, and discuss how that exercise was for you. Was it annoying? Fun? Interesting? Did you find yourself thinking about things you wished you hadn’t? Whatever it is, be ready to share something that came in your conversation with the whole class at the end of 90 seconds!”

Ultimately, it takes a strong trust with your students and a set routine. At the end of the day, teaching is not about guaranteeing that students will use what we teach them. It’s about ensuring that they know how to use it, and giving them the space to practice it. Like one of my students told me, mindfulness “doesn’t help me know what to do, but it helps me recognize that I need something.”

The Importance of Wait Time

Extending the Silence


Giving students several seconds to think after asking a question—and up to two minutes for some questions—improves their learning.


©Shutterstock.com/Monkey Business Images

How long do you think teachers pause, on average, after asking a question?

Several studies from the 1970s on have looked into the effect that the amount of time teachers pause after asking a question has on learners. In visiting many classrooms in the United States and other parts of the world, I’ve found that, with few exceptions, these studies are still accurate. For example, according to work done by Mary Budd Rowe in 1972 and Robert J. Stahl in 1994, pausing for three or more seconds showed a noticeable positive impact on learning. Yet the average length that teachers pause was found to be 0.9 seconds.


I’ve observed this phenomenon in many classrooms, and there is a real need to increase the time granted to students to process what they know and to make sense of what they do not understand.

In differentiating instruction, process and learning preference are the keys. Process is how learners make sense of ideas, compose their thinking, and prepare a thoughtful answer. Learning preference, in the case of questions posed to the whole class, refers to how some students prefer to silently process the content, keeping their own counsel (Internal Thinkers), while others prefer to talk or express their thinking with an audience as a sounding board (External Thinkers).

The External Thinkers, those go-to students who can be counted on to talk within the first three seconds, may be shaping their ideas as they talk—they haven’t had sufficient time to fully process but speak out anyway. Meanwhile, the Internal Thinkers have also had insufficient time to process, but don’t feel comfortable responding.

One solution is for teachers to pause for five to 15 seconds before calling on students. The silence for some may feel unbearably long. Yet consider that the fastest male and female 100-meter sprinters in the world run at or under 10 seconds. The world record is under 10 seconds, which goes by quickly. Why not offer a similar amount of time for students to consider their responses to questions that require deep thinking?


Provide wait time: Give students five to 15 seconds to formulate a response to a question for which they should know the answer. Not every learner processes thinking at the same speed. Quality should be measured in the content of the answer, not the speediness.

I count in my head to 15. Most times, I get responses by 10 to 12 seconds. If you don’t get responses within 15 seconds, you can call on students, instead of asking for volunteers.

Give think time: Give students 20 seconds to two minutes to make sense of questions that require analysis to synthesize concepts into a different construct or frame. You can aid this by encouraging journaling, silent reflection, or partner discussions. Giving such chunks of time honors the work being asked of students. Quick responses probably mean that the question did not stretch the learners’ understanding. After the allotted time, any student can be called on to share their response.

Teach reflection: Coach students on the value and practice of reflection. Educators and students may appear to be uncomfortable with silence, hence the typical one-second pause time. Silence may be equated with nothing happening.

In reality, when students are provided with structured ways to practice thinking and specific directions about what to accomplish within the silent time, they can become more productive during reflection. Think From the Middle is a collection of approaches for students to hone their thinking processes during reflection and collaborative communication.

Teach students how to manage a conversation: It’s a beautiful thing to witness students running thoughtful conversations around topics that combine curriculum and real-world connections. Establish a culture for students to engage in such conversations, and they’ll soon be doing most of the heavy lifting during the lesson.

One powerful example I’ve witnessed in Michigan and Texas uses a guide for student-led conversation prompts called Talk Moves. This list of conversation stems provides students with communication tools for participating in and sustaining discussions. I’ve witnessed their use in science classes using the Next Generation Science Standards, and they’re equally useful in all subject area courses.

Students choose the starter stem that best supports the topic to be discussed. Teachers use the Talk Moves to coach and guide students to different levels of complex thinking by directing them toward different sections of conversation prompts. The intent is for students to own the conversation, which empowers their ability to process concepts for understanding.


We want students to become independent learners who can navigate challenging material and situations. Students learn at different paces, which seems less about intelligence and more about the time barriers put in the path of learning. There may be a place for timed responses and answering questions under the pressure of a clock, yet there are no standards that say that students should master concepts in less than one second.

Most people need adequate time to process their thoughts if they are expected to contribute to a conversation. Life is not a 30-minute game show with rapid-fire questions that require low-level answers, plus commercial breaks. Even if it were, one would need time to develop and master the processing skills to compete.

Finding the Beauty of Math Outside of Class


Math trails help students explore, discover, enjoy, and celebrate math concepts and problems in real-world contexts.

©Shutterstock.com/Jon Bilous

A math trail is an activity that gets students out of the classroom so they can (re)discover the math all around us. Whether out on a field trip or on school grounds, students on a math trail are asked to solve or create problems about objects and landmarks they see; name shapes and composite solids; calculate areas and volumes; recognize properties, similarity, congruence, and symmetry; use number sense and estimation to evaluate large quantities and assess assumptions; and so on.

This is one of those creative, yet authentic activities that stimulate engagement and foster enthusiasm for mathematics—and so it can be particularly useful for students in middle and high school, when classroom math becomes more abstract.

A math trail can be tailored to engage students of any age and of all levels of ability and learning styles. Its scope and goals can be varied, and it can include specific topics or more general content. And best of all, it can make use of any locale—from shopping malls to neighborhood streets, from parks, museums, and zoos to city centers, to name a few. Any space that can be walked around safely can work.


My school has used a ready-made math trail designed by the Mathematics Association of America. Although it’s designed for Washington, DC, its general ideas can be applied in any city or town. It could be particularly appealing for teachers because it’s open-ended and can be tailored to the curricular and educational needs of the students. In addition, as schools from all over the country visit the nation’s capital, it provides a math activity that can be easily added to the many history, art, and civics lessons elicited by such a field trip.

Our math trail is loosely structured on purpose: As the whole Grade 7 takes part in this trail and as many chaperones are not math teachers, we make it clear that the purpose of the day is for the students to explore, discover, enjoy, and celebrate the beauty of math and its presence all around us. Using the MAA’s Field Guide and a map of the National Mall, each group spends the first hour of the day planning their route. How they spend their time is up to each group—this freedom is what the students like the best about the day.

Some students want to visit the newly renovated East Building of the National Gallery of Art—a treasure trove of 2D and 3D geometric ideas, patterns, and artifacts. Can we calculate or estimate the volume of its octagonal elevators or triangle-base stairwells? Even without measuring tape? Others can’t wait to ride the Mall carousel while thinking of the trigonometric function the ride’s motion describes.

Other students look at a more pressing problem: Considering the scale of the map, what is the shortest route to Shake Shack from the Sculpture Garden? Is that path unique? Is the distance the same in Euclidean geometry? Walking at a fast pace—say 4 mph—how long will it take to get there? Can we get our food and make it back to the bus on time?

Another group might estimate how many people visit the Air and Space Museum in a day. And how do we go about solving this problem?

©Shutterstock.com/Lissandra Melo

In Washington, DC, students can use their math skills to discuss architectural elements like the curves at the Hirshhorn Museum.

Another group will examine the shape of the Hirshhorn Museum complex. Why does it look so appealing?

Where do we see symmetry in the World War II Memorial? Where do Fibonacci numbers and/or fractals appear in the National Garden? What’s the scale of the Voyage model of the solar system along Jefferson Drive? Given that scale, can we estimate the distance between Mars and Saturn? Turning our thoughts back to Earth, how is the map of Washington, DC, structured? If transferred to Cartesian coordinates, what is the origin? The possibilities—in DC and in your town—are probably endless: Teachers can tweak all of these questions to fit other contexts.


Each group visits various sites and takes photos, and after we’re back at school the students research the mathematical significance of the symbols or objects they’ve chosen, write and/or solve the problems they posed, annotate their photos and post them on an electronic bulletin board or map of the Mall, and express what they’ve learned and enjoyed in other creative ways such as movies, kahoots, songs, game shows, etc. These projects are shared at a later time in assembly and affirm the fun mathematical times.

There are many excellent resources about math trails, including already created trails and virtual trails as well as clear directions on how to create your own. Math trails are cooperative—not competitive, as mathematics learning is often seen—and they offer the opportunity of doing and talking about math. Making and using connections among mathematical ideas, recognizing and applying mathematics in contexts outside of math class, communicating mathematical thinking to others clearly, and analyzing and evaluating the mathematical thinking and strategies of others are all basic tenets of the NCTM process standards.

The collaborative nature of a math trail makes it a great opportunity for bonding. After our first math trail, we understood better the potential of this activity and realized that it could be integrated in our seventh grade Advisory program, particularly at the beginning of the school year, when it can help facilitate the transition into middle school.