By RENEE WEBB
When seventh graders from St. Mary’s School in Remsen created different types of catapults as part of their STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) class, the lessons could have put a literal spin on the concept of the sky is the limit.
Several diocesan schools have found the STEM curriculum to be a way for students to do projects that spur research, creativity, analytical thinking and hands on implementation.
Melanie Swanson, 5th to 8th grade math and STEM class teacher at St. Mary’s, pointed out that STEM curriculum is focused on giving students the opportunity to become problem solvers and work with tools and materials they may never have before. For instance, when building the desk-top catapults, the students used handsaws and drills that opened discussions about safety with power tools.
“I believe that students build the strongest connections to material they are learning when it has real-world relevance – when they are engaged and believe that their work has a real purpose,” she said.
Tenee Jessen, 5th and 6th grade math/science teacher at Sacred Heart School in Spencer, noted this is her fifth year teaching and prior to that she came from a preschool background that was very project-based learning.
“I always wondered at the time why that approach wasn’t fostered throughout grade levels, as student exploration is so important,” she said. “I tried always tying that style to what I do in the classroom.”
Some of the projects the Sacred Heart students have worked on include creating 3-D towns that focus not only on area and volume but on the wants and needs of the community. With car races, they explore car designs, forces and motion, measurements and power sources.
A pipeline activity in fifth grade science ties in with their study of the earth, learning about the geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and biosphere as well as how they are all interconnected. Tying in with the ecosystems, they explore pollution and its effect on the environment.
“I have students research pipelines and the pros and cons of having them,” Jessen said. “I have students build a pipeline out of straws and cups. The goal of the activity is to design a structure that will have no leaks through the landscape. We test their designs by pouring black liquid through to represent oil. What the students soon and quickly find is that no single structure could stop a leak.”
In Remsen, Swanson pointed out 8th grade students have worked on creating Rube Goldberg Machines.
“This project was exciting to watch as a teacher, because it challenged my students to design, test and evaluate – and in some cases, go back and redesign – their project constantly,” she said.
Upcoming projects for the Remsen 5th graders will be researching differing types of bridges and then competing to see who can build the strongest bridges.
At St. Mary’s, Swanson noted that special STEM classes are offered to students in 5th through 8th grade in addition to the regular science classes. The STEM classes are one of four subject areas featured in a nine-week quarter as part of the Exploratory Program. The other three areas offered in the other quarters focus on arts, computers and discipleship.
“The Exploratory Program offers students the chance to see different areas of study available to them,” she explained. “Overall, it gives students a glance into different subject areas – or possible career paths – that they may be interested in.”
Jessen has taken summer courses through Iowa State University on STEM courses and inclusion in the classroom. She has incorporated the basis of design processing into connected subject areas and more specifically into science.
“The students connect the similarities in science inquiry and design process to understand that being an engineer is simply to solve problems within your community,” said Jessen, who also serves as the 6th grade teacher.
In solving problems, not only do they connect science, technology, engineering and math, but they add in an A for art as well as R for religion – creating STREAM.
“We can be deliberate in any community solution to root those choices from God,” stressed Jessen. “We use varying curriculum to identify issues, applying design processing to dissect the problem and create a solution.”
Working with others
One of the benefits of STEM projects, noted Swanson, is students get to work with others to design, text and solve problems.
“In most cases, these problems are not solved after the first attempt,” the St. Mary’s teacher said. “Students have to communicate and collaborate effectively to overcome the obstacles presented to them. These skills alone are very difficult for middle school students, but are very important skills for success in the future.”
While there is value to almost all learning or teaching techniques, the advantage of STEM is that it is focused on the process of learning, not just the outcome or the right answer.
“When students have ‘bought’ into the project, they genuinely care about what they are learning and are more motivated simply because they enjoy what they are learning,” Swanson said.
In Spencer, Jessen plans to have her sixth graders participate in a peer education project. She plans to have her students develop a lesson, presentation and STEM-based activity that will be presented to the younger grades.
“Not only will it prompt my students to find out and learn new information, but will make them in charge of creating an activity and connecting the learning,” said the Sacred Heart teacher, who said during the STEM afternoon the rest of the grade levels will be able to rotate around stations to participate in the lessons and activities. “It will be a complete afternoon dedicated to peer interaction, as well as fostering a love of science, technology, religion, engineering, art and math.”