Featured #MSUrbanSTEM Sustainability Fellow: Tracy Barrientos

Sustainability Fellow: Tracy Barrientos

Bio: Tracy Barrientos currently teaches 7th grade Life Science at Dr. Jorge Prieto Math & Science Academy located in the Belmont-Craigin neighborhood of Chicago. She earned her Master’s in Education from University of Illinois-Chicago in 2001.  She loves rollerskating, camping with her family, and watching Top Chef and MythBusters! Goal in life: to reveal the scientist in every student!


Implementing Habits of Mind

“I’m stuck…”

“What if we don’t finish?”

“It’s not working right…”

“I give up.”

Not a day goes by where we haven’t heard the above declarations made by our students. We spend hours planning the perfect lesson accounting for diverse learning styles and abilities. We carefully choose our guiding questions for discourse, identify opportunities for vocabulary development and brainstorm possible pitfalls our students may encounter. However, no sooner do we launch the activity then we begin to hear students express frustration because they have run into a cognitive or physical roadblock.

Last year, upon my completion of the MSUrban STEM fellowship program, I felt invigorated by the knowledge and experience I had gained. My ImagineIt project, From Me to We to You: A Journey in Shared Inquiry, supplied me with the tools to redesign my life science course for my seventh graders into a stimulating experience where they could strengthen their STEM and inquiry skills. Having revised my units, I was able to include more time for engineering design to complement the 7th grade life science content and prepare my students for the demands of a constantly changing world.

Still, I knew I needed to address some of the students’ lack of persistence. I wondered, how could I teach them how to solve their own problems? How could I teach them to not give up when a task becomes challenging? The answer came in the form of a grant for a study group from the Chicago Foundation for Education. Our group, Mastering STEM Habits of Mind, met throughout the summer and fall in order to devise a plan to explicitly teach our students about the 16 habits of mind listed below.

  • Persisting
  • Managing impulsivity
  • Thinking flexibly
  • Listening with understanding and empathy
  • Thinking about thinking
  • Striving for accuracy
  • Questioning and posing problems
  • Applying past knowledge to new situations
  • Thinking about communicating with clarity and precision
  • Gathering data through all senses
  • Creating, Imagining, Innovating
  • Applying past knowledge to new situations
  • Taking responsible risks
  • Finding humor
  • Thinking interdependently
  • Remaining open to continuous learning

Our main resources were several of the books in the Habits of Mind: A Developmental Series (Costa & Kallick, 2000). Together we planned how to implement the teaching of these habits and developed rubrics to guide assessment. We also created anchor charts for each habit. What would students say or do in the midst of an activity? When the school year began, I chose to focus specifically upon the habits of persisting, thinking flexibly, and thinking interdependently. I introduced the engineering design process to each 7th grade class, gave them time to identify the problem, and brainstorm possible solutions or designs. One day a week from the beginning of the year has been dedicated to the engineering design process coupled with learning about the scientific habits of mind.

Week one, the first challenge, Rescue the Eggs! I chose this for the purpose of introducing them to problem solving as a group. Their task was to put five birds’ eggs (marbles) back into the nest (plastic cup) located 7 feet away. There were several constraints such as: they could only use tubes (paper towel and gift wrap rolls) touching end to end, they could not speak, and they could not touch the eggs. Although few groups succeeded, it encouraged them to work together right away. Afterwards, we reflected and created our first anchor chart for Thinking Interdependently. The following week I posed a second challenge – build an Index Card Tower. Each group worked to build the highest possible tower out of index cards. This second challenge emphasized design variation and flexibility. Many groups needed to change their plan midway through the process as their tower tumbled apart more than once. Upon completion, we reflected and created a second anchor chart for thinking flexibly.

By the time the third week of school began, my students were looking forward to their next challenge with huge anticipation. This time the challenge, Illumination, was designed to promote persistence. This particular challenge I had personally completed as an MSUrban STEM fellow last year. They needed to combine a small object brought from home, a working circuit and a small light bulb into a small poster – the idea being to illuminate the science behind their chosen object. The research of how their object was made, its materials, and function was the easy part. The building of their circuit proved to be the greater challenge. The classroom was abuzz with “It’s not working!”, “How do you do this?” and, “This is so frustrating!” It actually took two days for every group to illuminate their posters. I recall on that second day, I heard some groans when they entered the class and realized they were going to have to tackle the same challenge again. “Oh, yes!” I exclaimed, “We are not quitting until every bulb is lit!” And with that they spent the next 45 minutes laying out copper tape and figuring out how to connect the battery and bulb. I walked around the room that day completely happy and satisfied. As I moved from group to group I carefully doled out comments of praise and questioning where needed. The clock ticked away, and slowly one by one, groups lit up their posters, many with smiles of satisfaction, some breathing a sigh of relief. The reflection that day was rich. They had persisted! They had tasted success in spite of a challenging situation! And as the weeks continue to fly by, the challenges continue to be met. Today, instead of hearing declarations of defeat coming from my students, you are more likely to hear what is quickly becoming our catch phrase taken from the movie, Galaxy Quest, “Never give up; never surrender!”

Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick, editors. Book 1: Discovering and Exploring Habits of Mind. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, Virginia. 2000.

Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick, editors. Book 2: Activating and Engaging Habits of Mind. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, Virginia. 2000.