Full S.T.E.A.M. ahead for Mendota students

Jowell Garcia, left, and Jayden Figueroa display a building challenge in which the students built a chimney for Santa out of mini marshmallows and toothpicks. (Photo contributed)

MENDOTA - Ask any Blackstone student what their favorite class is and the response will likely be S.T.E.A.M.! And Lincoln students would probably give the same answer.

What is this class that is so popular among students? S.T.E.A.M., an acronym for science, technology, engineering, art and math, is a new addition to the curriculum for kindergarten through 4th grade students in District 289. The S.T.E.A.M. class combines these five subject areas through various creative, hands-on projects.

The idea to add the S.T.E.A.M. class came about last summer when the district’s administrative team was looking at ways to improve the curriculum for elementary students. Blackstone Principal Stacy Kelly explained that they started researching S.T.E.M., and from there art was added to the mix, thus becoming S.T.E.A.M. “We researched what it could look like to combine all of those things,” Kelly said of the process. “We thought it would be a good opportunity for K-4 students in District 289.”

The S.T.E.A.M. class is taught at both schools by longtime teacher Amy Brewer. “We were very excited to give her this opportunity,” Kelly said of Brewer. “She’s done a phenomenal job.”

Part of the job for Brewer was to build the program from the ground up. She admitted that it was a bit overwhelming at first to consider classes for almost 700 students, some in grade levels she had never taught before, and having no set curriculum to follow. While there were many activities from which to choose, there was no specific S.T.E.A.M. curriculum for each grade level.

Brewer soon discovered that the lack of a set curriculum had some benefits. It allowed her to tailor her classes to fit the needs of classroom teachers. For instance, when the 4th grade teachers said their students could use more experience measuring angles using protractors, she was able to work on a project to help them get that experience. “They still learn all the math in math class but I can add support with projects and get them up and moving,” Brewer said. “There are so many things classroom teachers are required to do, I try to help out where I can.”

Students attend their S.T.E.A.M. class once a week and the projects they do are varied across all five subject areas, sometimes with a seasonal theme. Before Christmas break, Brewer provided students with mini marshmallows and toothpicks and had them build a chimney for Santa to come down. Instructions were minimal, limited to some discussion about measuring the chimney’s height. At that point, students were free to experiment and find out what worked and more importantly, what did not work. They were also free to work together. “The point is to mess around and experience what doesn’t work, to see what other people are doing and work together,” she explained. “I want them to build it themselves, not to feel taught. You need to be taught some things but it’s also fun to figure it out yourself.”  

Samuel Arteaga, left, Eion Grotti, Abriana Klein (behind puppet), and Devin Hernandez (in background) have some fun with puppets during their S.T.E.A.M. class at Blackstone. The students experimented with hand puppets, shadow puppets, finger puppets and a marionette along with puppets made from everyday things. (Photo contributed)

Another activity involved puppets, an art form that requires significant engineering skills and one which Brewer said many students are no longer exposed to. Students were able to make their own puppets or they could use a puppet that Brewer provided. A stage was created using an old computer desk and the students were able to use their imagination and make up little shows.

Volunteers have also been a big part of the S.T.E.A.M. program this year. Kelly said Brewer recruited help not only from parents but also from retirees in the community. “It’s hard sometimes for one person to do this type of class,” Kelly noted.

First graders Ember Castaneda, left, and Aliya Garcia play with kinetic sand during their S.T.E.A.M. class at Blackstone. Students were able to use molds to make shapes or just use their imagination. (Photo contributed)

Kindergarteners Herlinda Huizar, left, and Hannah Lopez play with kinetic sand during their S.T.E.A.M. class at Blackstone. Teacher Amy Brewer said giving students different materials and a magnifying lens helps them see how matter works. (Photo contributed)

Brewer explained that by having adult volunteers, students receive more individual attention than one person could give. “I could do it myself but we can offer so much more and do more involved projects when there are more adults - that has worked out well,” she acknowledged.

As for technology, both the Blackstone and Lincoln S.T.E.A.M. classrooms have a Chromebook cart in the room and Brewer said everybody has tried computer coding. Using the website code.org, lessons in coding are available for all ages, even kindergarten students.

But before jumping on the computer, Brewer does some coding lessons that require physical activity just to get that thinking process set up. In one lesson, students were asked to code the steps a gingerbread man would take to get through a maze and end up at his gingerbread house. To get started, they first took those steps themselves. She was also able to collaborate with the gym teacher to have students do similar activities that required even more physical movement. “We’re trying to get that thinking process for coding because the jobs the students are going to have aren’t even invented yet and will probably involve some coding,” she pointed out.

For many adults, computer coding is unfamiliar territory and Brewer was no different. But after taking an online class, she felt prepared to work with the students. “It starts out really basic,” she explained. “You just put things in order of how you want them done.”

For students, the computer code is already typed in a block, so they just move the block on the touch screen. Even though they are not typing the code, they have to use the same thinking process. Brewer said she had planned one lesson for her first graders, which they breezed right through, and ended up going through two lessons in one day. “It’s amazing what they can do,” she said. “You show them once and they just take off.”

In addition to all of the regular classroom activities, Brewer had an idea for a fun project that could involve the whole family the during winter months when there would be ample time for indoor activities. Calling it a “family challenge,” the first project was to be done during the month of January. The challenge was to create a musical instrument made only from items found around the house. Students were allowed to make the instrument with their family, with a friend or by themselves. Brewer said other than talking about what instruments are and giving them a date to bring their instruments to school, there were no instructions.

“Phenomenal” was the word Kelly used to describe the response to that project at Blackstone. “The kids loved it!”

Students made an impressive variety of instruments and those who did not have an instrument were still included in the fun. “I told them they could use their voice as their instrument and we sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to everybody and they played all at once,” Brewer chuckled. “We had 107 instruments, a washtub bass, a full set of chimes, it was unbelievable. They were really excited about it.”

Mrs. Wixom’s kindergarten class proudly shows their homemade musical instruments. The instruments were the result of a monthly family challenge created by S.T.E.A.M. teacher Amy Brewer. (Photo contributed)

At Lincoln, students also made instruments but rather than a show and tell/sing along, the instruments were put on display in the AP room and teachers were able to bring their classes to walk through and see the creations.

Because of the great response in January, Brewer decided to go ahead with a February challenge, which is designing something to wear. When students were concerned that they did not know how to sew, Brewer asked them what else they wear - sunglasses, hats, jewelry, flip flops. “Then it sank in, ohhhhh,” she laughed. “I said they could make one thing every week or they don’t have to make anything, it’s just for fun. We’ll see what they come up with to wear and then have some kind of fashion show.”

Currently, students do not receive a grade in S.T.E.A.M. class. That would require a set curriculum and assessments. Brewer said sometimes a grade is necessary to motivate a student but that has not been a problem in her class. “We’ll see. We have some figuring to do for year two,” she said. “It’s nice to have a place in their day when they can just try things, have fun, make a mistake.” 

Kelly agreed adding that it is the kids’ absolute favorite class and they would go every day if they could, but with one teacher for K-4 that is not possible. “But it’s really, really been a successful first year,” she emphasized. “We weren’t sure, not having the curriculum, then having the teacher develop it, get materials and find resources, but it’s more than we had hoped for this first year. We’re looking forward to the future with it.”

Brewer agreed. “We’re having a blast - it’s my dream job.”

And for students, Brewer’s enthusiasm combined with the district’s willingness to try something new, has helped to make S.T.E.A.M. their dream class.

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