lov­ing learn­ing


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,...

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.

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