STEM Gaining Steam
In Knox County SchoolsPosted by Josh Flory on 10/16/2018
Stephen Strange is a fourth-grade teacher at Bearden Elementary School, and on a recent afternoon he showed his class two pictures. One was an Arctic fox, standing in a frigid-looking environment, and the other was a cactus, soaking up the sun’s rays.
His students probably knew a lot about foxes and cacti, but on this day Strange wasn’t interested in answers. Instead, he told the students to come up with questions, and one by one they did just that.
Why are the cactus spikes brown, and the stem green? What is the fox looking for? How deep is the snow?
Compared to the traditional strategy of memorizing large amounts of material and regurgitating them for a test, a focus on the unknowns may seem backwards.
But Leslie Taylor, an instructional coach at Bearden Elementary, said a process of identifying problems, asking questions and brainstorming solutions is the way that actual science works. “It’s very much real life,” she added.
That kind of real-world approach is increasingly guiding Knox County’s effort to promote learning in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. The strategy is widely known as STEM instruction, although many schools integrate an Arts component and call it STEAM.
Andrea Berry, science supervisor for Knox County Schools, said the district works with local partners including STEM Scouts -- a Boy Scouts of America-affiliated program that has chapters in seven elementary schools -- and FIRST Robotics to support programming options.
The district is pushing to increase the number of state-designated STEM schools, following the lead of the L&N STEM Academy which received that designation last spring. In addition, five teachers from other KCS schools are part of a state-sponsored pilot program that aims to create “micro-credentialed” teachers with an expertise in STEM education.
Berry said STEM education is largely about preparing students for the skills that are needed in a rapidly changing world. “We’re trying to make sure our students have a collaborative, creative, problem-solving mindset in order to be successful,” she said.
One way to do that is by allowing students to work with their hands, rather than simply reading material in a book.
Green Magnet Academy is a STEAM-focused magnet elementary school that is open to any student in the district via magnet transfer, and has built a curriculum in which topics like engineering, design and code and robotics are integrated throughout the learning process.
Every six weeks, students spend a full day in the school’s Design Lab, which allows them to become engineers working through a design challenge from start to finish. There’s also a separate Coding and Robotics Lab which all students attend weekly, where they use a variety of hands-on materials, including a mechanized “Code-a-Pillar,” a segmented robotic caterpillar that moves according to the coding inputs provided by students.
The class works its way through a series of challenges, each one requiring the robot to move in a different shape or pattern. The students have to figure out what coding instructions to give the Code-a-Pillar and write the algorithm to produce the desired result. They then test their algorithm and re-work it if necessary.
Katie Barnhart, the K-5 Code & Robotics teacher, said kids love the Code-a-Pillars, partly because they “emote”, with blinking eyes, lights and a voice to say “hello.” “And they like that it’s tangible … that they can hold it in their hands and that it makes sense to them,” she said.
But the Code-a-Pillars are also paving the way for more complex and abstract kinds of design. Barnhart likes to emphasize to her students that a code which says “straight” doesn’t always mean the same direction, and that telling the robot to turn right depends from which side you’re looking.
Later the students will take the coding instructions and put them into an app, which allows them to control more abstract interactions involving characters on a computer screen.
Sandy Morris, a facilitator at Green Magnet, said research has shown that many children decide by the 3rd or 4th grade whether they’re good at math and science, or like those subjects. With that in mind, one goal of exposing younger students to coding, robotics and science is to give them confidence about their abilities in STEAM disciplines, especially girls and minority students who traditionally are under-represented in those fields.
To help promote student engagement, some schools schedule public gatherings focused on STEAM activities. Green Magnet will host STEAM Flings in November and April that allow parents to see student work and other displays that highlight student learning that happens during the year.
GMA also hosts a Family Engineering Night in partnership with UT's Center for Enhancing Education in Mathematics and Science, as their annual kickoff family engagement event.
On October 4, Bearden Elementary hosted a STEAM Night, featuring a gallery walk to display student projects, along with opportunities for guests to try out a variety of hands-on activities -- building towers out of cards, tinkering with robots and working with magnetic slime.
April Lamb, the STEM instructional coach for KCS, helped organize the Bearden event, and said it included a visit by Suzanne Parete-Koon, a research scientist from Oak Ridge National Laboratory and a Bearden Elementary parent.
Parete-Koon is a computational astrophysicist who has worked on ORNL’s Titan supercomputer, and had a version of that computer -- the “Tiny Titan” -- on hand at the event.
Lamb said her presence at Bearden helped students realize that a career field like rocket science is more accessible than it may seem.
“I think for these students specifically, it gives them the opportunity to see that people who have these big jobs that sound fancy and intimidating are regular people just like us,” she said. “She’s the mom of a child who goes to school there, and she just has followed the right educational path and followed her passions to get her to this point.”