July 23, 2017

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School STEM Programs Designed by the Experts

Students with Tom Collins, Head of Science/STEAM at the British International School of Chicago, Lincoln Park. Photo courtesy of the British International School of Chicago, Lincoln Park

Students with Tom Collins, Head of Science/STEAM at the British International School of Chicago, Lincoln Park.
Photo courtesy of the British International School of Chicago, Lincoln Park

Modern librarianship and science education go together like bread and butter,” says Rebecca Oxley, librarian and tech teacher at Robert Goddard Montessori in Seabrook, MD. “There’s no reason why we can’t be as involved as we want to be with science and technology education.”

Rose Park Magnet Math and Science School eighth graders in Nashville, TN, redesign a tennis racket in Tinkercad. Courtesy of Rose Park Math & Science Magnet School

Rose Park Magnet Math and Science School eighth graders in Nashville, TN, redesign a tennis racket in Tinkercad.
Courtesy of Rose Park Math & Science Magnet School

As school librarians dive deeper into STEM and STEAM initiatives, educators at all levels agree that a library maker space can be an ideal base for these explorations. “It’s a flexible space whereas a classroom might not be quite as flexible,” says Robin Coutras, librarian at Rose Park Magnet Math and Science Middle school in Nashville, TN. “We’ve got all of the resources—print and electronic—to support any research that the students may be doing.”

Universities, engineering firms, and other organizations are providing widespread support for librarians wanting to host these types of programs. While some have developed STEM curricula specifically for K–12 schools, others partner with K–12 educators to develop custom curricula. In many cases, university faculty or students come into schools to deliver the programs themselves. Here’s a sampling of such STEM and STEAM initiatives that have met with success at schools.

HackHealth is a STEM program developed by the University of Maryland specifically for librarians in K–12 schools. It’s designed as an afterschool program for disadvantaged youth aged 11 to 13. Oxley has implemented the program twice, first at a middle school and now at a K–8 school.

Students in the program conduct scientific inquiry into health maintenance, disease prevention, or disease management—following their personal interests. Oxley began by asking her school’s health and science teachers to recommend students who might be interested in participating. For eight to 12 weeks, the students came to the library after school. There, Oxley “taught them about information- seeking, evaluation, and making different decisions. That culminated in them undertaking a personal research project,” she says. The kids chose their own research topics, such as diabetes or leukemia, sometimes because a student’s family member had the disease and the child wanted to learn more. At the end of the program, they gave presentations on their topic for an audience of family members.

The HackHealth program is freely available through the University of Maryland site. Any school librarian can implement the curriculum on their own by visiting the site and purchasing a few inexpensive materials, Oxley says.

“HackHealth…was designed by a school with a very reputable MLS program and school librarianship concentration,” she adds. “It was [created] with librarians in mind, allowing us to champion ourselves, what the library stands for, and what the librarian’s mission is, specifically.”

Brainstorming HackHealth librarians from the University of Maryland. Courtesy of the University of Maryland

Brainstorming HackHealth librarians from the University of Maryland.
Courtesy of the University of Maryland

Coding and visiting scientists

Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN, offers numerous STEM opportunities for K–12 schools through the Vanderbilt Center for Science Outreach (CSO), a partnership organization for enhancing STEM literacy, and through initiatives such as Code Ignite, a student service organization for promoting interest in computer science and programming.

Coutras runs two after-school coding clubs in the library at Rose Park School. Vanderbilt undergraduates from Code Ignite visit the school for an hour each week to teach kids game design and animation using Scratch (scratch.mit.edu), the simplified programming language designed for kids by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The six-week clubs have been so popular that Coutras is planning to run them again. “It’s really exciting to watch the fifth and sixth graders designing their animations or thinking up their games,” she says. “From there, I hope they’ll have the tools to go beyond Scratch into a different [programming] language.”

Rose Park School has also partnered with Vanderbilt to bring a scientist, either a graduate student or a post-doctoral fellow, to the school, through the university’s Scientist in the Classroom program. “That person stays here full time, working with us all throughout the building,” says executive principal Robert Blankenship. The scientist also coaches the school’s VEX Robotics team. Rose Park teachers collaborate with Vanderbilt scientists to develop curriculum.

Rose Park also has STEM partnerships with Fisk University and Belmont University. Blankenship adds that schools “don’t have to wait on a university to step up.” Educators can reach out to universities to initiate those connections themselves.

Problem-solving and space challenges

Some schools have partnered with universities to offer customized STEM programs. Nord Anglia Education—an organization that operates 43 schools around the world—is working with MIT to offer STEAM programs for students. The program is being piloted at 13 of Nord Anglia’s schools.

As part of the collaboration, MIT creates STEAM challenges for students at participating schools. This year, it’s called the Curiosity Challenge. Students work in mixed-grade teams from kindergarten through fifth grade, with the oldest students taking on leadership roles.

The first part of the challenge “was basically getting children to be curious and ask questions, so they could see how their questions might lead to further questions,” said Tom Collins, head of STEAM at Nord Anglia’s British International School of Chicago, Lincoln Park, IL. The second part gets the students looking at data. They identify a problem in their city, contact local experts while working with MIT professors to find data that illuminates their concern, and present their data graphically. The third segment is still in the planning stage, but Collins says it will involve students “applying STEAM skills to a building or construction project.”

The school’s librarian, Caroline Marhin, supports the program by showcasing relevant STEAM books and resources. “The library is a fantastic place for children to go and…apply [research to] projects they’re completing,” she says.

Developed by the aerospace company Lockheed Martin, Generation Beyond is a free online curriculum created in partnership with Discovery Education. It offers lesson plans, educator guides, and related activities. In December 2016, the program held its first Generation Beyond Student Video Challenge. Competing students designed a habitation module for humans traveling to Mars and explained their design in a short video presentation.

Students at Schuyler (NE) Elementary School participated in the Generation Beyond Challenge under the guidance of their science teacher, McKayla Arlt. To prepare for the challenge, Arlt’s students had to research Mars, space, space travel, and habitats.

“Throughout this process, we’ve basically had to become scientists to find all of this information, and then become builders and create a structure that would be perfect in space and on Mars,” Arlt says. Her students have designed habitat domes and pods, including everything from the air-conditioning unit and the water filtration system to the beds to the oxygen supply. They also created a rover that could be driven manually or remote-controlled. “They’ve definitely become a lot more interested in space,” adds Arlt.

Engineering is Elementary (EiE) is a STEM program developed by the National Center for Technological Literacy (NCTL) at the Museum of Science, Boston. The program offers 20 stand-alone units covering life science, earth and space science, and physical science for grades one to five.

The program is designed for use in a classroom but is well suited for libraries because each of the units is based on a fiction book. Each story “introduces basic engineering content and related science topics and highlights engineering activities that children will do in the unit,” according to the site. In addition, “Each story focuses on a child character from a different racial or ethnic background or country.”

Emily Hardee, STEM coordinator at Brentwood Magnet Elementary School of Engineering in Raleigh, NC, has used all 20 of the EiE units. The books “build background for the students as entry points into cultures or countries to understand how different students live across the world,” Hardee says.

The units each follow the EiE engineering design process, which include the steps ask, imagine, plan, create, and improve. As children work through the unit, they progress through each step to design a solution to the problem posed in the original story. “The student in the storybook is usually an elementary-ish-aged student, and the kids can relate to that,” Hardee says. “It really gives them a foundation to get more involved in the challenge going forward.”

Brentwood School students in Raleigh, NC, role-play as traffic engineers (left) and develop a budget and persuasive letter for an oil spill cleanup (right).

Brentwood School students in Raleigh, NC, role-play as traffic engineers (left) and
develop a budget and persuasive letter for an oil spill cleanup (right).
Photos courtesy of Brentwood Magnet Elementary School of Engineering

Additional programs

GEMS Education—a private company based in Dubai with campuses in more than a dozen countries, including one in Chicago—has partnered with Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab (Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment Lab) to develop a STEM-based learning lab and to integrate robotics programs into the school’s curricula.

The Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics and Computing (CEISMC) at Georgia Institute of Technology offers numerous K–12 outreach programs.

Novel Engineering is an integrated literacy and engineering program developed by Tufts University. The initiative offers professional development for educators who want to implement Novel Engineering in their school.

The New York University Tandon School of Engineering offers STEM programs for students and collaborates with teachers to develop STEM programs through its K12 STEM Education. Currently, students and teachers travel to the center to participate in the programs. However, director Ben Esner says that he would like to “work in partnership with schools to see the curriculum reused and repurposed in the school environment.”

Esner emphasizes that public schools have a critical role to play in democratizing access to STEM education for kids. “Having a library with space to do these activities and to implement these curricula—ours or someone else’s—is critically important.”

Leila Meyer is a freelance education and technology writer based in British Columbia.

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