It’s never too early to start STEM education
Hands-on, project-based learning introduces younger children to math and science concepts
STEM is fun,” Angie Foss said with good-natured exasperation as though she can’t believe she still has to convince anyone.
“I think historically STEM has been given such a boring stereotype,” said Foss, a former game designer turned associate dean of innovation and operation for the College of Engineering, Technology, and Aeronautics at Southern New Hampshire University.
“And I think now just by the nature of what we do it’s getting a better reputation. It’s not this gray, boring, dark thing. It’s this fun, colorful, amazing, mind-blowing way of experiencing things.”
That feeling and the exuberance with which Foss described STEM is the level of excitement educators are trying to elicit with all the changes made in the past several years to the math and science curriculum.
If a student is excited, they’re engaged. When they are engaged, they are learning and retaining the skills they need to be able to have the careers they want.
At its heart, the purpose of this push is to produce students that are STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) literate, if not proficient or better — even the ones that don’t plan on going into STEM fields.
“If you think about education over the last 20 years,” said Foss, “in some ways education hasn’t changed a ton. But the challenge is that our day-to-day lives have changed dramatically as have the jobs that are needed — even over the next five to 10 years. And a large percentage of those jobs are in STEM fields. There are just not enough graduates at various levels of education to fill those positions. …This is so important.”
To tackle this problem and get Granite State students on the road to college and career readiness in an engaging and fun way, teachers in school districts across the state are implementing collaborative project-based, hands-on learning opportunities both in and out of the classroom for their students.
What does STEM education look like for students in grades K-6?
That varies, depending on the district, said David Benedetto, the state director of STEM and computer science education for the New Hampshire Department of Education. While the state issues guidelines as to the expectations of learning and understanding in each subject for each grade level, it is individual school districts that make decisions as to what the curriculum will be. Furthermore, districts can choose not to adopt the state-endorsed standards.
At the state level in recent years, state Department of Education officials have been revamping the existing Math Common Core Standards, which went into effect in 2010, adopting the Next Generation Science Standards, and creating Computer Science Standards and a pathway for getting teachers certified and programs funded.
Benedetto said there hasn’t been that much movement in math, but that should change over the next few years. He also said that teachers have been able to take recommendations issued in 2016 by the Governor’s Task Force on K-12 Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Education and work them into the existing curriculum.
As for science, the state earlier this year endorsed the Next Generation Science Standards. According to the NGSS website, the new standards provide a constant science education through all grades. The NGSS describe — at each grade from kindergarten through fifth grade, at middle school and at high school — what each student should know and be able to do in the four domains of science: physical science; life science; earth and space science; and engineering, technology and science application.
What it looks like
For example, a second grade lesson on Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics, teaches science, but would also have the student practicing other disciplines along the way.
Consider the Ecosystem example. According to the standards, students who demonstrate understanding of this topic at the second grade level can plan and conduct an investigation to determine if plants need sunlight and water to grow, by testing only one variable at a time and developing a simple model that mimics the function of an animal in dispersing seeds or pollinating plants.
The core ideas for students include learning about interdependent relationships in ecosystems, that plants need water and light to grow, and that they depend on animals for pollination or moving their seeds around.
As they go, students will use science and engineering practices to learn about this topic. For this example that means developing a model to represent concrete events or design solutions as well as planning and carrying out investigations alone and collaboratively to answer questions or test solutions to problems.
Meanwhile, these students are also getting valuable language arts practice by reading books on the topic and producing reports, recording science observations, recalling information from experiences and gathering information from resources to answer a question.
And of course, they are also getting mathematics instruction by learning how to reason abstractly and quantitatively, modeling with mathematics, and using appropriate tools strategically.
While the vast majority of schools have chosen to adopt these standards, and actually did so three years before the state did, the curriculum they use in the classrooms can vary greatly from district to district.
But generally speaking, Benedetto said, many K-6 students have math every day, and while many use different math programs, most of them do incorporate STEM in some way.
Many schools also will have something like technology or another STEM-related area that’s taught to students on a rotating basis.
“It depends on the school how integrated those things are and how incorporative those are,” Benedetto said.
School districts around the state are also finding ways to introduce younger students to coding.
This is part of a larger effort to bring computer science programs into the schools. What this could look like, Benedetto said, is classes in coding available for all students K-12 as well as learning data analysis, statistics, and robotics, among other things.
There are actually several computer science offerings through NH’s Virtual Learning Academy (VLACS). These options are free and available for schools that don’t have the capacity to offer computer science.
Another program that’s been offered at various schools throughout the state is Hour of Code.
According to the website, “The Hour of Code started as a one-hour introduction to computer science, designed to demystify ‘code’, to show that anybody can learn the basics, and to broaden participation in the field of computer science.” Since then it’s become a worldwide phenomenon, supported by 400 partner organizations and more than 200,000 educators.
Outside of the classroom
“We are seeing a lot of project-based stuff and more schools incorporating coding in the lower grade levels, and you also see a lot of afterschool programs like LEGO leagues and robotics.”
Jim Harvey, a teacher at Rundlett Middle School in Concord, said he’s been using these sorts of methods, particularly LEGOs, in his classroom for more than 30 years.
“I always tell people that I have the best job in the world,” he said. “We teach STEM concepts so that students come away with skills problem-solving, creativity, collaboration and communication, while having a ton of fun. A lot of people miss that point — even teachers. [Teachers] come to my class and it’s like, ‘really?’ But the kids run down to the class.”
Over the years that classroom enthusiasm has evolved into afterschool and summer STEM enrichment programs, the latter of which has turned into LEtGO Your Mind, a business offering STEM day programs and summer camps in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont.
Harvey owns the business, but works with a team of teachers and engineers to put together and host structured day programs where kids can experiment with LEGO builds and learn the basics of design and engineering.
All of the programs are STEM-focused, mainly LEGO-based and designed for kids ages 4-14. The various programs involve working with LEGOs, motors, gears, simple machines, robotics, stop motion animation, and programming in Minecraft.
Harvey said they like to change up its summer camp programs each year. For 2018 they are working on a superhero theme. For the younger kids, projects include becoming a master superhero builder to create LEGO vehicles, structures and machines to beat the villains. They will do this by using STEM principles to engineer ways to protect themselves by constructing superhero cars, magnetic levitation trains and superhero lasers. For slightly older kids, ages 6 to 9, they, too, will get to be superhero master builders, but they will also get to work with stop-motion animation while the 9- to 14-year-olds pit their superheroes against some dastardly battlebots.
Melanie Plenda is a full-time freelance journalist and mother living in Keene.