STEM Program Provides Hands-On Approach to Learning

November 30, 2018

When was the last time you overheard a first grader mention Sir Isaac Newton and his Laws of Motion? Or when was the last time a third grader demonstrated Newton’s cradle with a basic understanding of the conservation of energy and kinetic energy? If it’s been a while, then head over to the Palmer School to witness students of all ages soaking up new information through the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) program.

Palmer School introduced its new STEM program to the curriculum this year and as a result, kindergartners to high school seniors are being exposed to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in new and practical ways. STEM programs are shown to help develop communication, critical thinking, problem solving, and data analysis skills in students as well as creating a solid foundation for understanding the ever-evolving technological world in which we live.

Lisa Rooker, the STEM teacher, taught middle school science in the public school system for 28 years. She was intrigued by the challenge of teaching the STEM objectives to the academic spectrum of students in elementary school through high school, but she was unsure of the younger students’ ability to grasp the concepts. Much to her joy and surprise, it has proven to be easier than she anticipated. She teaches the same concepts to all of the students, but simplifies the content for the younger students and enriches the content for the older students.

“The young kids love it,” she said. “After learning about Newton’s Laws and having hands-on time with Newton’s Cradle, one of the children brought me a book about Sir Isaac Newton and asked me to read it to the class. They are making connections about scientific laws and how they affect and contribute to the world around us.”

As students brainstorm and collaborate together, their critical thinking skills are honed and they develop practical problem-solving practices. They ask themselves exploratory questions such as “How or why does this process work?” They also learn to reassess situations based on trial and error, prompting more exploratory questions such as “Why didn’t this work?” and “What can we change to make this more effective?”

The students learn about the STEM objectives using a very hands-on approach. They utilize a Promethean Interactive Board, Lego Mindstorm kits and iPads to deepen their understanding of science, technology and computer programming. The students are learning about robotics with Legos and can even control the robotic pieces through online software. Students also learn the basics of writing and utilizing software code through the use of Sphero Balls.

“Overall, we want the students to have a positive attitude toward science,” Rooker said. “The STEM background will allow our students to pursue interests in these fields and have greater career opportunities down the road.”

Recently the students learned about Newton’s Third Law of Motion: for every action, there is an equal or opposite action. Simply stated, the law might seem difficult to understand or vaguely applicable. The students created balloon racers using Matchbox race cars, straws, balloons and CDs for wheels. Newton’s Third Law came to life before their eyes and they understood the concept in a tangible, meaningful way.

Students have also learned the principles behind other hands-on experiments and projects; building bridges out of popsicle sticks and using hot glue and masking tape to withstand the weight of one hundred pennies. They also created towers out of marshmallows and skewers demonstrating the engineering principles that pertain to seismic plates and activity. 

“The students come into class brimming with new ideas and ways they have seen science and technology at work around them,” she said. “I often hear things like, ‘I saw this story on the news and it reminded me of…’ The students are so enthusiastic about the practical applications of the STEM program. They are more aware of the world around them. They have taken these concepts and are running full speed ahead.”

Next up, Potential Kinetic Energy and a trip to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. If your memory of non-Newtonian fluids and the effects of polymers feels a little fuzzy, ask one of our students for an explanation and some practical application in the world today. You’ll be amazed at what you hear.