Just who’s putting all this steam into STEM in Los Angeles Schools?
Take a straw poll, and you’ll hear credit for the classroom technology boom assigned to a variety of individuals. Topping the list are the scores of ever-inventive teachers, principals and heads of school who are willing to experiment and generous parents and donors offering their time, expertise and funds.
Finally, there are the students who – with their instructors’ guidance – are discovering and embracing exciting new ways to confront real-world situations. The science lab of yesteryear has become something of a relic, replaced (make that enhanced) by the infusion of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) and sometimes Arts (STEAM) through every element of the curriculum.
The acronym is relatively new, and many teachers admit that they came to STEM from other educational fields and are learning the tools as quickly as new technologies develop.
Try to imagine a classroom or an academic subject where elements of STEM would be out of place and you can find a teacher and a room full of students with a handful of creative ways to disprove your assumption. If given the proper tools, teachers insist, everyone is a builder, a designer, a maker. In fact, with design-based thinking and research becoming the focus of so much STEM learning, some programs even place a number 2 after STEM to connote Science, Technology Engineering, Math and Maker (STEM2).
Getting Students Building
To Wendy Amster, dean of educational technology at The Willows School in Culver City, the tools and the buzzwords might have changed and a single-room computer lab might have given way to laptops in every student backpack. But the maker component has long been a curriculum constant.
“We want the kids to use the laptops for creating. It’s not just about consumption or playing games,” says Amster, now in her 16th year at Willows, which serves students in kindergarten to eighth grade. “It’s about making them aware of citizenship and the positive role they can play online. I always felt like we were a little bit ahead. Even before the maker movement became big, we had purchased a lot of that equipment and were integrating it into our classrooms.”
Taking STEM off the screen is also a focus at St. Paul’s First Lutheran Church and Preschool in North Hollywood. “The big thing, the overall objective, is that kids should be able to make something with their hands, which is something a lot of kids never have the opportunity to do,” says Al Mindock, a middle-school science teacher at St. Paul’s. “And they have to get creative with their thinking, not just rely on their teachers as the sole source of information.”
Science projects at St. Paul’s incorporate a group-learning challenge. Last year, the students had to build a glider plane using a semiconductor. The premise of the assignment was that they had been awarded a government contract and had to work within a scheduled budget and assign different tasks to different departments.
“They had a really good experience,” Mindock says. “Some of their parents would teach them how to use tools, and they got the chance to step out and feel confident about becoming leaders. Everybody has a role to play, and they all work together to celebrate every science project. They learn that they will be valuable in the workplace if they can solve problems.”
Engagement at All Ages
At many L.A.-area schools, the STEM push starts as young as pre-K. Kids can be tinkering, observing and building before they are even able to read. As they move into middle school, projects require more skill and sophistication.
At Willows, for example, the younger students are working with the Peter Reynolds-designed software Animation-ish, which guides users from freestyle drawing to creating flip books and, later, to designing dream houses. LEGO bricks, the foundation for modeling and robotics, remain popular across all levels of elementary school.
The more project-based and hands-on an activity is, the more likely students will be to embrace it. Rachel Tobin, a science teacher at St. James Episcopal School in L.A., which serves preschool to grade six, helped introduce the concept of living organisms by having her second-grade class create gummy worms, bring them to life via a chemical reaction involving baking soda, and then chop them up. The students squealed with delight as the candy they had animated continued to wriggle around. The St. James third graders got their hands dirty as well, making and selling slime as part of a fundraiser.
“For the sixth graders, when we would talk about DNA and genetics, they would get all excited,” says Tobin. “We would extract the DNA from strawberries and learn about Punnett squares and dominant versus recessive genes.”
As he prepares for a day of instruction in the art of toy-hacking robotics one recent morning, Sam Patterson, maker and STEAM coordinator at Echo Horizon School in Culver City, discusses the need to get his kids thinking about taking something apart rather than building from a kit. “It’s all about engagement,” says Patterson. “How do we get kids to care about what we’re doing? By starting with something they know, like a toy.”
Before coming to Echo Horizon, Patterson worked at a technology-based school in the Bay Area. Before that, he logged 12 years as a high school English teacher. Moving into science and technology provided him with a welcome break from reading countless essays, although Patterson contends that the technology classroom provides as much of an opportunity for reading and writing as an English class.
“Nonfiction text is one of the most important forms of consumption in our environment. Just look at YouTube,” Patterson says. “If I were to go back into the high school classroom, I would have them make two- to three-minute videos. Video composition is writing.”
At the Innovation Lab at Valley Beth Shalom’s day school in Encino, the students use STEM tools for cultural projects including virtual trips and tours of Israel. The school began providing laptops for each student several years ago and used donated funds to open a full-scale innovation lab in January. Possibilities for its students have positively exploded. Using Google Cardboard, LED lights and green screens, the students enrich their cultural studies.
“Design thinking is a big piece of what drove us to get where we were,” says Zed Kelly, the school’s director of education technology. “Right now, a lot of what’s going on is the tinkering and the coding and the kind of demystifying of technology and creating things, whereas before it might have been more focused on learning how to use certain types of applications. It’s almost as if the technology is just simply a tool.”
As the name suggests, in the STEM3 Academy at The Help Group, STEM is not just a component of the specialized education. It’s the focus. Entering its third full year, STEM3 (called Stem Cubed) bills itself as the first school in the nation to offer a STEM program targeting students with social challenges and learning and developmental disabilities. The academy is set to launch a full K-12 school in Culver City.
“Technology has affected everybody’s lives and livelihood,” says Ellis Crasnow, Ph.D., director of the academy. “We have large portion of special-needs kids on the autism spectrum and they have significant natural abilities which lend themselves to STEM pursuits.”
In February, the STEM3 students were invited to participate in Engineering Week at Raytheon. Competing against more than 20 other high schools on an engineering challenge, the students programmed an Arduino programmable circuit board with an ultra sensor to locate Pokemon in a Pokemon Go game. They won the competition, and Crasnow expects many more victories in the years to come.
“People with special needs have had relatively poor outcomes post-high school,” says Crasnow, citing Department of Labor statistics that say 80 to 90 percent are unemployed or underemployed. “That’s a bad number we’re chasing. To me, that’s an absolutely unthinkable outcome for any child. It’s the motivation for our school to do what it’s doing.”
And it’s these real-world outcomes that make all the difference. Bells and whistles and bots may get the students excited, but they won’t be of much use without practical and real-world applications. At Mirman School in Bel-Air, the goal of the design-based STEM curriculum is to get students to think about real-world problems and figure out ways to solve them.
One student noticed the amount of filament going to waste from the school’s 3D printers, and created a way to melt it down so it could be reused for other projects. Another student, who had scoliosis, designed an adjustable body brace. Other Mirman students have created car-copters and even a prostheses for a dog that was missing its two front legs.
“The best way for students to realize what problems are in front of them is if they have opportunity to take what they have on the road to apply to some real solutions,” says Jeffrey Flagg, Mirman’s STEM director. “As students think about the problems around them, they start to decide, ‘Maybe I need to learn a little programming to conquer this particular passion project.’ If that problem means that much to a student, they will learn that skill.”
Evan Henerson is a local journalist and regular contributor to L.A. Parent.