When Franklin Lakes elementary school teacher Stacia Mascharka enters a classroom ready to teach her Curiosity Corner lesson she’s greeted in a most unusual way.
“When I open the door the children start screaming in excitement,” she says. “They are just so eager to see what we’re doing next.”
And who can blame them when that day they may be programming robots, erecting bridges or even building tiny tree houses, all for the love of science.
“Kids are naturally curious and they just dive right in,” she says.
With the emergence of STEM programs (Science/Technology/ Engineering/Math) that combine these areas of learning to encourage problem solving, exploration and collaboration with hands-on activities and inquirybased learning, many local elementary schools are igniting a spark of interest
Jennifer Hoffman Waldwick elementary school enrichment teacher “IN HIGH SCHOOL, COLLEGE AND BEYOND, IT’S ESSENTIAL TO HAVE A SOLID BACKGROUND IN STEM.”
in science and technology in their students that not only captivates them in the classroom, but will benefit their educational futures, as well as open a world of professional opportunities.
According to the US Department of Education, STEM jobs in the United States will increase 14 percent from 2010 to 2020, yet only 16 percent of high school seniors are proficient in math and interested in STEM careers.
“In high school, college and beyond, it’s essential to have a solid background in STEM,” says Jennifer Hoffman, a Waldwick elementary school enrichment teacher. “This is our way of giving our youngest students that foundation so that they can be successful.”
While in the past science and math were often taught strictly out of textbooks, students are now encouraged to explore and experiment in more hands-on ways. Many teachers often use the 5E Instructional Model, where students learn to engage, explore, explain, extend/elaborate and evaluate, or a variation of that model, to help students better grasp concepts and challenge themselves.
Stacey Linzenbold, an instructional coach at Wyckoff’s Washington Elementary School, supports the development of the school’s Makerspace, located in the school’s media center, and helps teachers maintain a student-centered approach to learning.
Science lends itself to inquiry-based learning, Linzenbold says, “because there is rarely a ‘right’ answer or one way to get to the answer, there is a lot of trial and error and risk-taking, which all fosters independent thinking.”
Her first graders learn how sound is made, not by reading about it or watching a video, but by creating it.
“They make kazoos out of toilet paper rolls,” she says. “We offer them various materials to add to it like wax paper, saran wrap or tin foil and they test it and record how the instrument sounds and feels.”
Her fifth graders are programming Ozobots to follow explorer Magellan’s route of discovery.
The Makerspace area also includes marble runs, matchbox cars, Legos and Popsicle sticks, all meant to facilitate learning and creativity.
“We are focusing on student process. We want to know how they are thinking,” Linzenbold says. “When they develop their own way of approaching a problem and solve it themselves, you can see a light bulb go on. And that’s amazing to watch as a teacher.”
At Elisabeth Morrow School in Englewood, Lower School science teacher Kara Gustafsson teaches STEAM (adding Arts) in the ColLABrium, an open space classroom with flexible desks and seating for students to work together. The second graders work with a partner for a month to create Lego WeDos – an object or an animal – that they have to program with a computer to allow it to move and eat.
“It’s all about keeping them engaged,” Gustafsson says. “They use a logical sequence to solve a problem and then let their creativity come in.” Working closely with the 5E Model, she says, helps them stay focused and motivated.
For her first and second graders, Waldwick’s Jennifer Hoffman incorporates math into their science projects in the simplest of ways, by measuring with a ruler.
“Often in traditional math textbooks, rulers are used to measure something that already exists on paper, but when they’re building a pyramid or a nest for a bird, size becomes very important,” Hoffman says. “In designing their own project they’re thinking outside of the box.”
Ridgewood’s Willard Elementary School fifth grade teacher Kevin Blois runs a science unit on buoyancy every year; how displacement, size and shape affects an object’s ability to float or sink. His expectations for the students include experiments, producing a written observation with vocabulary words related to the topic and creating a scientific drawing that correlates with the experiment.
“You want to break them out of their one ‘go to’ way, to help them develop more avenues for trying without being afraid to fail, and realizing that there may be a thousand different ways to get from point A to point B,” says Blois.
Some of his students are then able to teach what they have learned to a second grade class.
“Paying it forward for them is very rewarding,” he says. “It’s a great motivator.”
Some benefits of this type of learning include using teamwork to overcome challenges, problem solving and the creativity that is fostered.
“They have wild ideas about how they want to solve a problem,” Mascharka says. “And through these projects they are encouraged to take risks and make mistakes and learn from those mistakes.”
While an eye towards future jobs is a motivating factor for developing these programs, even if students don’t gravitate towards science and technology careers the skills they’re learning will serve them well.
“It’s the critical thinking, the collaboration, even just persevering through tasks, that will take them far wherever they end up,” Hoffman says.
“We want to help them foster that confidence in themselves,” Blois adds. “And science is, I think, one of the best ways to do that because it’s so hands-on. They get their hands dirty and it puts them in the position to go towards their strengths and be successful.”
EDUCATION IN ACTION Commander Victor J. Glover Jr. a NASA astronaut, visits Anthony Wayne Middle school in Wayne to speak with the students about his experiences as an astronaut and the contributions of space exploration to the advancements of math, science and STEM education.
MODERN LEARNING Students at Janis Dismus Middle School in Englewood learn how to design computer programs as part of Hour of Code, a global movement that’s part of Computer Science Education Week.