STEM-ulating class: Students apply math and science skills to hands-on projects

Published Wednesday, September 27, 2017

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Design Ideas

DESIGN IDEAS – Slidell fourth graders (from left) Addison Prince, Riddik Davis and Mylee Fletcher work on their rocket in STEM class Monday afternoon. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

Slidell fourth graders created rockets Monday designed to deliver food to an island running out of supplies following a large storm.

Although the scenario is part of a project in the students’ STEM class, it rings of real life as rescue and recovery efforts have recently unfolded on TV in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

Fourth grade STEM teacher Karen Vanover, who previously taught sixth grade math through algebra I, said she’s used real-world scenarios for the class’ first projects.

“Planning for the class was hard at first because there’s no set curriculum,” she said. “I’ve tried to pull things that are current in the news and talked about jobs in STEM.”

As students worked in small groups Monday, constructing their rockets with not much more than paper and tape, they deliberated on where to place the Food Transportation Device (FTD), which holds a few raisins in this experiment. One group asked Vanover if they could place it inside the body of the rocket.

“I’m not going to say ‘no,’ but keep in mind (the body) goes on your launch device. What do y’all think?” she asked, encouraging them to brainstorm. “Some people have put the FTD on the top of the rocket or attached it to the side.”

Principal Taylor Williams said this is the first year the district has offered a STEM class, focusing on science, technology, engineering and math, for fourth and fifth graders. The age group was moved to the secondary campus this school year, which allowed for more flexibility in their schedule.

“We had two teachers whose strong suit is math and science, and it allowed us to create it in rotation,” she said. “We didn’t have to follow the bell schedule of the high school but weren’t forced to accommodate the schedules of the little kids.

“And anytime you have the chance to reiterate what they’re learning in math and science with hands-on technology, it’s a good thing.”

Williams said the teachers consult with each other regularly to make sure what is being taught in math is being reinforced in STEM. For example, Vanover teaches fourth grade STEM and fifth grade math. Her teaching partner, Katy Hunter, teaches fourth grade math and fifth grade STEM. The two plan together to make sure the curriculum coincides, and they also work with the science teachers.

“It takes a lot of planning and teamwork, but in a school our size, we can do that,” Williams said.

In the fifth grade class, students were designing bridges Monday and could make one of the following types – arch, beam, truss or cantilever. They were tasked with designing a bridge and creating a scale of measurement to compare it to a life-size bridge. This class has also made pencil towers, index card towers and catapults this year.

“… it teaches how to collaborate with a team productively and turn several ideas into one, even when they think their’s is the best,” Hunter said.

Fourth grader Kaydince Howard said her favorite project was making homemade slime, a stretchy, Play-Doh-like substance, while the fifth graders unanimously agreed the catapult was their most captivating assignment so far.

“The kids love it,” Williams said. “You can see the difference in that some kids may be struggling in math class, but when they get into STEM and can apply that knowledge, they have that light bulb moment where it all makes sense.”

In the future, the students hope to build a windmill, a house from popsicle sticks or something related to human anatomy.

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