Practical learning: It’s elementary

STEM teaching comes to Blue Ridge Elementary in a ‘real life’ format.

STEM teacher Janifer Sams explains the finer points of research to, from left,  Jesse Jones, Jaqueline Villagomez, Devin Milan and Daniel Vega.

STEM teacher Janifer Sams explains the finer points of research to, from left, Jesse Jones, Jaqueline Villagomez, Devin Milan and Daniel Vega. Photo by Greg Lehman.

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WALLA WALLA — The young scientists looked crestfallen, the wheels just having fallen off their test vehicle.

The experimental design seemed simple enough — hang washers from the front of a K’Nex car and off the end of a desk to see how different weights affected the car’s velocity. But the car’s disintegration was just the latest in a string of mishaps plaguing the researchers’ experiment.

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Blue Ridge Elementary School teacher Janifer Sams.

However, it also proved to be a teachable moment for Blue Ridge Elementary teacher Janifer Sams.

Having discerned that the vehicle wasn’t built to match the elaborate technical drawing in the students’ handbook, Sams feigned indignation.

“Where’s the materials manager?” the stern instructor asked.

The materials manager responded he hadn’t been at school when the car was constructed.

“You weren’t even here?” Sams asked. “We’re really going to have to dock your pay now.”

The team of researchers clad in white lab coats quickly rebuilt their vehicle, having learned that it needed to be built to strict specifications if they wanted consistent results.

But now they were behind, and later — when Sams gave the class a five-minute deadline — they were forced to scramble to complete the experiment.

“Remember, if you don’t make deadline,” Sams boomed from the front of the classroom, “you don’t get the job.”

They barely finished in time, conducting their final tests as Sams counted down from 10.

The fifth-graders got the jobs at the Sams and Garcia Foundation — or was it S&G Incorporated? — Sams’ and fellow teacher Kristen Garcia’s fictional company.

After going over the experiment, the students put away their materials, took off their lab coats and in a matter of minutes were chattering over lunch, the picture of average 11- and 12-year-olds.

A week later, they’ll be wearing their lab coats again and taking their experiment up a notch, using the same cars but adding weight to the car to see how increasing its mass affects the experiment. The week after that, they will take the investigation a step further, and so on until the conclusion of the three-month unit.

This is what STEM looks like at Blue Ridge.

What is STEM?

STEM is an acronym that stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The term has been floating around for almost two decades but has gained increased buzz in recent years, especially after President Barack Obama talked about STEM education extensively in his second inaugural address earlier this year.

Proponents of placing a higher priority on STEM education posit that as the global economy continues its rapid march into the digital era — and away from all things analog — demand will increase for graduates with degrees in a field under the STEM umbrella.

Thus, educators must broaden students’ interest in STEM subjects, open more doors for students who may otherwise be pushed away from continuing their education, and increase the quality of their education so they are prepared for the work force.

Schools have long taught math and science, but proponents advocate a more integrated approach, said Georgia Boatman, regional science coordinator for Education District 123, which serves 23 different school districts in Southeastern Washington.

“The big difference is this notion that in the STEM professions,” Boatman said, “those things (science, technology, engineering and math) work together in an authentic way. Yet in schools we haven’t made the connection that you need to use math when you’re doing science, and you need science when you’re doing engineering.”

In real terms, this means making sure that activities and lessons can cover more than one discipline at a time.

For example, a writing assignment could include scientific concepts, or a science experiment could utilize the same skills students are building in math.

“Usually that included some sort of problem-based challenge,” Boatman said. “You put your science, engineering and math skills together to address a human need.”

‘Real life’ learning

Blue Ridge Elementary is not your ordinary school: It is built into the side of a hill.

But what makes Blue Ridge different is more than just skin, or dirt, deep. Of the school’s 328 students 92 percent are on food assistance for low-income families, and close to 70 percent of the students are of Hispanic heritage, compared to 36 percent for Walla Walla Public Schools as a whole.

“That brings with it a lot of challenges,” said Kim Doepker, Blue Ridge’s principal. “We have students who may have not gotten dinner the night before, or who may have other issues that maybe some students don’t have.

“Everything we do, and everything we implement,” Doepker said, “is so that when our students leave we have leveled the playing field so that they have the same abilities, opportunities and skills as students from any other elementary school.”

When Doepker was named principal of Blue Ridge in 2009, the school was on the state’s list of poorly performing schools and had just 9 percent of its students passing the state’s standardized Measurements of Student Progress test.

The school enacted several drastic changes as a result, including a class platooning system in which students have different teachers for different topics, similar to how middle and high schools function. It also has a dual-language program, in which students learn some subjects in English and some in Spanish regardless of their native language.

These changes have been successful, with MSP passage rates skyrocketing from single digits to the mid-80s, although last year the portion of students passing the MSP did dip down to 66 percent.

Now, with more stringent standards coming down the pipeline in the Common Core Standards, Blue Ridge is taking the lead in integrating STEM principles into its curriculum, with the goal of introducing all five grade levels to STEM within four years, beginning this year with fourth and fifth grades.

After their first STEM activity on Sept. 23, the aforementioned K’Nex car experiment, the teachers said they were already seeing increased buy-in from students.

“I think that a lot of these kids think, you know, we’re just doing this fun activity,” Sams said. “I want kids to realize this could be a real-life — this is completely STEM right here — that this is a real-life situation, that I have given you these tasks, these are the things you need to do, and you have this amount of time.”

A STEM-centric program at Blue Ridge also means increased time spent on science topics, Sams said. Students in Sams’ and Garcias’ classes receive about an hour and 20 minutes of science instruction each day.

“Other schools, as a whole, don’t usually have science every day and if they do, the time is limited,” she said.

The teachers have also made plans for business leaders in the community to give class presentations to highlight that what students are learning applies to the real world.

The integrated nature of STEM activities came into sharp focus during Sams’ and Garcia’s K’Nex experiment.

The experiment checked off most of the STEM boxes, focusing heavily on science, with students learning about the basics of force; engineering, with students making technical drawings of their test vehicles; and technology, with students using stopwatches to measure their cars’ speed.

And after several runs, Sams asked her students to round their times to the nearest second.

One student said to herself, “Oh, this is the math part.”

“Yes!” Sams excitedly exclaimed. “This is the math part.”

Ben Wentz can be reached at benwentz@wwub.com or 526-8315.

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