If you had two sheets of newspaper and ten inches of tape, how tall a structure could you build with them?
That’s the sort of question Rutgers Prep lower and middle school students are asked every week in JoAnn Miller’s STEAM class. Along with the IDEAS program for Kindergarten through Grade 2, it is revolutionizing the way our school educates its younger students.
STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics. The program began three years ago, the brainchild of Lower School teacher Leslee Atiram. It involves students in grades 1 through 8, with the lower school students (grades 1-5) attending sessions twice each week. Each grade level works on a different project whose theme relates to what they’re learning in their regular classes. Whether it’s calculating how many drops of water will fit on the surface of a penny (Grade 1) or building a fully functional wind-powered vehicle (Grade 6), every project is designed to include lots of teamwork, problem solving, observation, experimentation – and creative, hands-on fun.
Take, for example, the fifth grade’s recently completed project. They were studying ancient Egyptian civilization, so Miller challenged them to work in groups to build a model funerary boat, of the sort that carried deceased pharaohs to their tombs along the Nile. The students’ boats had to be decorated in a historically accurate style (remember, “art” is the “A” in STEAM) and, of course, they had to actually float (that’s engineering, the “E”). To make the boats, students designed and tested a variety of designs and materials to determine which specifications, weights, and length-to-width-to-height ratios worked best (the “S,” the “T,” and the “M”). Each group also composed a brief written report documenting what they attempted and what they accomplished – this gives them experience writing lab reports, a crucial part of their upcoming high school and college level science classes. Fifth grader Isabella I. gave the project a rave review: “I loved it… I really like making things and inventing things, and it’s fun getting to know the people you’re working with.”
The second graders, who were learning about different types of communities, were asked to design and build a “storm proof community” that could withstand anything that Mother Nature threw at it. The students decided what kinds of buildings they wanted in their community, studied basic engineering principles, and then started building. “They used cardboard, glue, tape, paper,” says Miller, “things you could find around.” Once they were finished, it was time for the storms to hit: In this case, catastrophic floods were simulated by squirting water onto the models, while a hair dryer provided hurricane-force winds. The students had great fun simulating the storms, and great pride in seeing their designs survive them intact.
Part of the program’s philosophy is to emphasize hands-on learning over-reliance on electronic devices. This helps the younger students develop their fine motor skills, and reminds the older ones that not all useful technology comes with a screen. Younger students experiment with Play-Doh and eye droppers, older ones move on to model cars and even simple robotics. They often use the school’s new 3D printers to create their materials.
The STEAM class also promotes a culture of cooperation: “We work on team building, the words we use in a group, how we come to an agreement, all those skills,” Miller says. “I try to get them to understand how to communicate. You can immediately tell who the leaders are, who the creative types are, who can think of a different material to use.’”
Not all of the students’ efforts succeed, and teaching them to learn from failure is also an important part of the program. “We try to focus on the growth mindset,” Miller says. “It’s frustrating for them when things don’t work, but I think they’ve gotten very good at this. You can see the difference in the kids who’ve had STEAM – they’re very resilient, they know they can just try something else. That’s a huge skill that they can carry over into other things.”
Rutgers Prep’s youngest students also get to explore and experiment in Erin Varga’s IDEAS (Innovation, Design, Engineering, Application, and Skills) classes. Students from Kindergarten through Grade 2 meet once a week to learn the basics of technology and apply their knowledge in fun, challenging ways. As in the STEAM program, the content relates to what students are working on in their other classes. This could involve researching different kinds of mammals, playing online vocabulary puzzles and math games, or practicing their keyboarding technique. The students learn skills that will be useful across the board: They use the “library links” page on their Chromebooks to explore different information sites and learn safe search methods. The second graders also work on note-taking and sentence-building.
The IDEAS class introduces students to the skill of coding through Ms. Varga’s two most popular classroom assistants, the robots Dash and Dot. These mechanical TAs give students a chance to immediately see and enjoy the results of their work. The children enter coded commands on an iPad and then watch the robots roll around the floor obeying their instructions. Varga is thrilled to see the little ones embrace technology so eagerly: “I never would have thought Kindergartners would be coding robots, but that is where we are right now!”
It’s clear that the STEAM and IDEAS programs have tapped into something vital, and are giving Rutgers Prep students the chance to grow, learn and dream. And isn’t that what it’s all about?
(Oh, and in case you were wondering – using only two sheets of newspaper and ten inches of tape, one of our STEAM groups built a self-supported structure that was fully 59 inches high. Nice work, kids!)