STEM summer school helps kids engage more, principal says

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) was the focus of Elkhart’s summer school for the first time this year. 

Posted on July 5, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.

There’s only one way to find out how strong a popsicle stick bridge is — you gotta break it.

Students at Elkhart Community Schools’ first-ever STEM-focused summer school did just that on Thursday, July 3 — bridges they built over the four week summer school were weighed down with bags of bolts until they snapped. 

Encouraging kids to try, fail and try again is part of a new tactic area schools — and schools across the nation — are exploring.

Commonly referred to as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), this way of learning by doing is supposed to keep kids engaged and help them think for themselves.

And according to Mary Daly Principal Josh Nice, it’s working. 

"The kids have engaged beyond what we’ve seen in other summer schools," he said Thursday, watching school employees set up for the end of summer school program in the school’s gym. "It’s because (STEM) is so hands-on."

The STEM part of this year’s summer school, attended by about 160 students from several Elkhart elementary schools, featured a curriculum from the Boston Museum of Science called "Engineering is Elementary."

But teachers adapted that curriculum to fit Elkhart students, adding in more writing prompts to help kids expand on the experiments. 

"We are really excited at what we've seen the students do," said Harold Walt, academic dean at Mary Daly. "We saw students come in going ’Oh, do we have to write, do I really have to fill that whole page?’ to at the end of the program, they wanted more time (to write more)."

In addition to testing bridges, students also built straw rockets, marble roller coasters and towers out of Styrofoam cups and plates during Thursday’s event. 

They showed their parents and visitors what they had been learning during an event on Thursday.

Dev Wagner, 9, was part of a three-man team of fourth grade boys that tested magnet strength. 

He raised an eyebrow when a visitor to his table reached for the largest magnet available. 

After the large magnet proved weaker than a smaller one, he proudly informed the visitor that "just because a magnet is bigger, doesn't mean it’s stronger."

Another group of girls demonstrated that a 10-inch tall structure made from paper index cards could, in fact, hold a small stuffed animal for 10 seconds if the tower was designed just right. 

"These kids are talking about science at home — first graders are using big words and they are fully understanding them and using them correctly, and then they are going out to see that in the world," Walt said. "The reason that we looked at STEM was ... science brings out a natural creativity and curiosity in students. And whether you are young or old, curiosity is really what drives you to learn.“

Follow reporter Lydia Sheaks on Twitter at @LydiaSheaks


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