Fort Rucker | June 3, 2014
Fort Rucker Primary School (FRPS) celebrated a special night of STEM learning during the school’s Family STEM Night April 24. Throughout the year, FRPS integrates STEM concepts, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, into the student’s daily lessons and activities. The evening event gave parents the opportunity to join teachers and students as they designed and tested several STEM-inspired projects.
The core of STEM is problem-based learning. Over the last few weeks, students were presented with problems inspired by the narratives of children’s stories and asked to design a project that could solve them. For example, after reading “The Little Red Hen,” the students were asked to imagine a way that could help the hen complete an important task: travel from her farm to the wheat mill in order to make flour for bread.
After considering the problem together, the students decided to design an airplane to transport the hen and her wheat to a nearby farm. Importantly, the students had to “engineer” the airplane to make sure it could fly at least three meters.
Shaney Shaffer, FRPS education technologist and STEM committee member, said such challenges activate students’ science and math skills, while encouraging them to use technology to research their ideas. The process also stimulates students’ ability to “think like an engineer” as they test and refine their models.
“We talk about how engineers are not able to make something right away; they have to change it and tweak it as they need to,” Shaffer said.
Shaffer said students worked together in teams to brainstorm and build their problem-solving projects, which helped them practice effective collaboration and communication skills. Additionally, each team member was tasked with a specific job that only he or she could fulfill. Shaffer said giving children their own individual roles helps them feel like a valuable member of the group, and often challenges them to step out of their usual comfort zones.
Overall, these activities promote the development of “21stCentury Skills,” a major emphasis in STEM schools. Shaffer said these skills are very important for students to learn at a young age, as it is never too early to prepare them for the future.
“The reason STEM has been such a big component in a lot of schools is because that is where the jobs are heading these days,” Shaffer said. “The earlier you start, the better you become.”
FRPS Principal Dr. Debbie Deas said STEM-learning teaches students to be good problem solvers in other areas of their lives, as well.
“STEM-learning is a valuable problem solving skill, and problem solving is one of the main skills in the 21stcentury and the new jobs that are coming along, and really in everyday life—how you’re going to solve a problem,” Deas said.
Deas said STEM-learning also helps students see the power of their own ideas, which builds their confidence when it comes to tackling tough problems.
“I think it helps their confidence tremendously because it enables them… It teaches them that they can be a problem solver and they can figure something out,” Deas said.
STEM-based lessons and activities are very effective learning tools for young children, Deas said. Although the concepts may seem advanced, she said the students at FRPS often amaze her with their ingenuity.
Deas recalled watching two kindergarten students work together to design a paper airplane. After they carefully considered the placement of each crease, one student announced her plans to color the wings.
Deas was surprised to hear the other child’s response.
“If you color it, it might make it heavier and then it won’t be able to fly!”
The kindergarteners’ exchange illustrates how STEM learning encourages children to think, Deas said.
“It’s amazing how they begin to solve problems and the conclusions that they can reach, and the way that they can correct their project and move forward with it,” Deas said. “They were thinking of every little detail and how to be successful, and they were excited about it.”
The young students were very excited to bring their parents in on the engineering action during Family STEM Night. Deas, Shaffer, and several teachers at FRPS said they hoped the night would encourage families to continue classroom lessons at home.
“We consider our parents as partners in our education, in that they are teachers just as we are,” Deas said. “When they see what we are doing in school, they can reinforce that at home.”
But besides giving families a fun opportunity to spend time learning together, the Family STEM Night also gave parents a chance to see their children proudly take on the role of able problem-solvers.
The excitement children show while engaging in STEM activities is indeed one of the best measures of the method’s success, Deas said, and the evidence can be as simple as one little girl’s post-project announcement.
“I like being an engineer,” she smiled and said.