Using mirrors, shoe boxes, flashlights and paper, students in teacher Tara Pollick’s fifth-grade STEM class set to work on solving a problem.
“We’re reading a book about Omar’s light,” Ferguson Township student Ronald Gilligan said. “His brother works for a tomb in Egypt, and we have to help him figure out how to reflect light into the tomb without damaging the hieroglyphics.”
Reading about this fictional character’s story and helping to imagine, plan and create a solution to his problem is one way elementary students are being introduced to science, technology, engineering and math with the new STEM is Elementary curriculum introduced this school year in the State College Area School District.
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“What we ultimately want is our students to be able to approach a problem and solve it in a systematic way,” Pollick said. “We really focus on the engineering design process, even with the tech pieces, so they are asking questions, imaging solutions, planning solutions creating their solution, improving and fostering empathy — another component we’re adding in.”
By experimenting with shining the flashlight through the pieces of paper with different-sized slits in the middle, the students learned about angles of reflection, and how to incorporate them into the lighting systems they are designing for the Egyptian tomb.
Evelyn Love said that through the experiment, she learned light goes through some, but not all things.
“It’s pretty cool,” Gilligan said about getting to take a regular STEM class. “I actually really like it a lot. I like how we get to use technology and robots. I think it’s pretty fun.”
The addition of STEM as a fifth class special, on a five-day rotation with art, music, library and health and physical education, was made possible in part by the extra 56 minutes added to the elementary school day this year.
The State College Area School board in December voted to approve the students day plan for 2018-19, which, among other things, included extending the elementary school day and pushing back the start time for middle and high school students by 30 minutes.
That decision, according to Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Education Vernon Bock, helped not only to add another special, but also to allow for more time to teach and learn the core curriculum, more recess and developmental play time, incorporation of a health component into gym class, and more time for teachers to plan lessons.
“One of the things we stressed in developing the extended day was we didn’t want to push more core learning in,” he said. “We wanted the time to be used so students could go deeper and have more time to wrestle with the concepts we were already teaching.”
Prior to the extended day decision, Bock said State College had one of the shortest elementary days in the state. Now, they are on par with average, he said.
The STEM special, according to Director of Elementary Curriculum Deirdre Bauer, was designed to complement the K-5 core curriculum by developing 21st-century skills such as problem-solving, creativity, collaboration, flexibility, technology literacy and communication.
“Students get to design and build solutions to problems using the Engineering Design Process,” she said. “They also learn how to use code to create programs and they learn how to program robots.”
The choice to add STEM as the fifth special was made based upon the results of a survey the district developed in collaboration with the Penn State Center for Evaluation and Education Policy Analysis, which came from focus group discussions with parents and teachers.
The results of the survey showed STEM as the favorite, with 47.5 percent of respondents ranking it as their first choice. An equal amount of respondents, 26.2 percent, ranked Spanish language and culture and personal development as their first choices, according to the district. The survey also showed 86.7 percent of respondents support or strongly support STEM.
Fifth-grader Grace Yang said she and her family were among those who voted for STEM.
“A lot of people wanted STEM, and when we found out it was going to be STEM, we were like, ‘Yes!’” she said. “I was excited because I like coding and robots.”
In developing the STEM is Elementary curriculum, Bock said it was important to include a cultural component, and to expose students to real-life issues kids like them might be dealing with in other parts of the world. For example, how to get water to a village in Africa.
“It’s exposure at many levels for our students,” Bock said. “One of the things we’re stressing through the design process is empathy, understanding how the person is going to use this product, how they’re going to feel about it, how they’re going to receive it and incorporating that into the process as well.”
While Pollick’s fifth-grade students are helping a boy in Egypt, her fourth-graders are helping design a water system for a girl in the Australian Outback, and through their chemical engineering unit, her second-graders are helping a girl with Down syndrome who lives in Canada with her brother.
In addition to helping kids better understand issues from other cultures, the literature and cultural component was also designed to show students that anyone, regardless of race, gender or learning disabilities, can be an engineer and engage in the engineering design process.
“Each of the Engineering is Elementary units is situated in a culture where the engineering problem is authentically portrayed for students to use the engineering design process to develop solutions,” Bauer said. “In addition, the engineers and characters portrayed in the stories represent diversity across cultures and gender.”
The students’ in Pollick’s class said they were excited to help Omar design a lighting system for the tomb, and also enjoy the opportunities they get to engage in coding and robotics.
Coding for elementary students, Pollick explained, is as simple as giving the Angry Bird directions on how to get through a puzzle and reach the pig. But another thing they teach in the class is that it’s OK to fail, and how to learn from mistakes and fix them — also known as “debugging.”
“We really want them to persevere and realize they are going to make mistakes, and that we just need to work through that,” Pollick said. “I was working with that with my third-graders this morning. It’s totally OK to make mistakes and have these errors, we just need to figure them out.”
As for Pollick’s fifth-graders, they were all pretty confident that they’d be able to figure out how to design a lighting system and help Omar.
“Yes!” they each answered emphatically when asked, as they left the classroom for lunch.