“This is what science classes are like here,” Bonnie Yost told me Tuesday evening at a STEM night for families, as we stood in the completely full cafeteria of an elementary school in southern Baltimore County. “This is exactly what happens when I teach science: it gets loud.”
Ms Yost, or “Ms Bonnie” to her students, is a fourth-grade teacher and the STEM coordinator at Lansdowne Elementary School in Baltimore. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math, fields that some groups claim have a shortage of college degree seekers or qualified job applicants. Schools at all levels are responding to that perceived 21st-century demand by encouraging students, especially girls, to get excited about these subjects.
Lansdowne Elementary serves close to 500 students in a poor part of the county—more than three-fourths of the students qualify for free or reduced-price meals—but for the public schools in Baltimore County, that doesn’t matter.
One way to build the index card tower
Students at Lansdowne get the same quality teachers and educational support as those at any school in a more affluent neighborhood. It doesn’t always happen that way, I realize, but if this event provides any evidence to support that operational goal of public schools, it’s happening that way here in this community.
The line of people for this STEM event stretched out the door, and they weren’t coming for the free pizza, either; it was science and the chance to participate in their children’s education that brought more than 200 parents to the school.
First they gathered in the cafeteria. Ms Yost gave them all a problem, an engineering question that parents and their kids, working together, would have to answer:
How do you build a tower, at least two feet high, to support the weight of a Play-Doh figure, using nothing but index cards and a maximum of 12 inches of masking tape?
Once they understood the task, they got to work brainstorming about, designing, and finally building the towers.
Ms Yost floated around the room, from table to table, as families strategized. One student and her mom built a tower with enough height but couldn’t figure out how to place the little man made out of Play-Doh on top. “Wait!” the fourth grader exclaimed, picking up another index card from the table. “We can put this on top.”
Sure enough, after adding a few pieces of tape to secure the new floor for the Play-Doh man, she was able to place the figure carefully on top without knocking the tower down.
“STEM is really about problem solving,” Brooke Wagner, the assistant principal at the school, said as we watched family members try and fail, try and fail, in the loud but controlled pseudo-chaos of a family engineering project. “Kids especially love the hands-on activities. They love exploring and investigating how things work.”
Ms Wagner said the school is one of 10 “lighthouse” schools in Baltimore County, which means every first through third grader gets a laptop computer of their own. That gives them the opportunity to explore and investigate on their own, using the latest technology available.
Elementary students are natural scientists and engineers
That technology may be better off in the hands of elementary students than graduate students or even corporate leaders, if Peter Skillman’s 2010 TED Talk about the Marshmallow Challenge is any indication. He has for years presented several different groups with an engineering challenge similar to the one given to families at Lansdowne. They had to work in small teams to build a bridge out of spaghetti and tape that could support the weight of a marshmallow.
Usually, when he presents the challenge to graduate students in business, he said he doesn’t see as many “ta-dah moments” as when he presents it to first graders.
“But why?” he asks. He has a theory: Kids don’t spend their time trying to be “CEO of Spaghetti Inc,” for one thing. But there’s more: Business students, he contends, are trained to create a single right plan and then narrowly focus on just that plan.
Kindergartners, on the other hand, as I saw with elementary school families Tuesday night, build a little structure and put the Play-Doh man on top. It falls down a few times, but that doesn’t get kids all frustrated. Rather, they play around with the design and add a few more index cards.
My personal theory about why this paradox occurs is that students who think they want to major in business don’t take or don’t study too hard in classes that focus on science or engineering. If they had, they would have grown more comfortable with trying, failing, and regrouping—which, as it turns out, would have served their businesses quite well.
This trial-and-error approach is fundamental to the methods of science and engineering, and it’s second nature to most elementary school students. Graduate students in business, Mr Skillman found, become vested in the design first, and when it doesn’t work—and things don’t usually work the first time around—it’s a catastrophe and they can’t regroup.
But as young scientists and engineers showed Tuesday night, success comes more quickly to those who don’t become too attached to a single solution strategy. It comes more readily to those who adapt their design based on what worked and what didn’t. It’s the same in science as we put our hypotheses to the test, in engineering as we build models for bridges, and probably in life all around.
A science fair lines the hallways at Lansdowne
And speaking of putting our hypotheses to the test, the hallways were filled with poster presentations by fourth- and fifth-grade students. They investigated questions like
- Which nail polish dries the fastest?
- How does listening to different types of music affect your memory?
- Does the brand of popcorn affect how many kernels are left unpopped?
Science fair projects were completed in teams
After asking the question, they researched the subject and developed a hypothesis, which they then tested using experiments. Running the experiments, of course, required them to identify the independent and dependent variables, a list of needed materials, and a way to collect and report on the data.
Fourth- and fifth-grade students completed the science fair-like projects at school in teams of between two and four students, Ms Yost said. The winners from the school will go on to present their projects at the county science fair on May 8 and 9.
Do you want high school graduates to be ready for college in the STEM disciplines? Then get your middle schoolers ready for high school classes in STEM subjects, and get your elementary students ready for middle school science. And not just ready, but excited and crazy loud for science, technology, and engineering projects.
Third graders’ projects involved keeping an egg safe in a crashing car.
‘Reptile Man’ brings turtles, snakes, lizards, and alligators
The big hit of the evening was Reptile Man, who went by the name “Mr Michael.” His assistant was Mr David. The two educators showed students an American alligator, an alligator snapping turtle, a Mexican bearded lizard, and a Mexican milk snake. They also brought a surprise reptile that drew ooh’s and ah’s from students.
One of the snakes they brought was born in August. “Chapstick” could curl up on a quarter when he was born, Mr Michael told the crowd gathered in the gym. On Tuesday, Chapstick came to the school in Mr David’s shirt pocket.
Snakes are most beautiful right after shedding their skin, Mr Michael said.
“He doesn’t live in a pocket,” Mr Michael said. “He doesn’t know what a pocket is.”
Reptiles, he pointed out, are most comfortable when they’re hidden—in a wooden box, in a shirt pocket, under a rock, or wherever. “They hide for two reasons,” he explained. “Either they’re hiding so they can catch their food, or they’re hiding so they don’t become food.”