Geneva Baker, chairwoman of the science department at Casa Grande Middle School, said training she’s had in science, technology, engineering and math have changed the way she teaches.
“Rather than teaching a concept in a vacuum, I now create authentic, problem-based lessons where the students apply the knowledge rather than just memorize it,” Baker said.
“Science becomes the problem-generating component and language arts, math and engineering are the tools with which to solve the problem,” she said.
CGMS math teacher Kelly Powers said STEM training has made her think about what real world examples she encounters. Then, she asks herself, “how can I apply that to the curriculum that we are working with and bring that piece of reality into our classroom?”
Sixth-grade math standards, for example, include a lot of geometry. So Powers invited civil engineers to visit her class and talk about designing houses and how rooms relate to one another. Compound shapes, like the rooms in a house, are a sixth-grade math standard.
The engineers talked about the areas in a house, the perimeter of a lot and the orientation of the house on the lot. The kids developed floor plans and presented them for critiques on the engineers’ next visit.
Powers said community members have generously volunteered their time to help with STEM projects.
She uses STEM with all of her general and advanced math classes. Kids have genetically engineered superheroes, “which is all about probability,” Powers said. They wrote newspaper articles about their superheroes. They designed public art pieces, which meant investigating animals, metals, the density of metals, multiplying and dividing with decimals, creating drawings and models of their proposals and presenting them.
All STEM projects relate to grade-level standards and involve some kind of public presentations.
The kids are more engaged in the projects, Powers said, because they see the purpose.
“If I have provided them with a true problem-based experience, they don’t ask me: ‘Why are we learning this?’ They are too focused on solving the problem put in front of them.”
Powers and Baker started participating in Pinal County’s Next Generation STEM Leaders program a couple of years ago. Ten Casa Grande Elementary School District teachers are involved with the program.
Baker recently showed the Casa Grande Elementary School District Governing Board a video of a project her sixth-graders did with materials provided by the Helios Foundation, which sponsors the program.
The students had to design a roller coaster, she said, but first they had to learn how the different parts of a roller coaster work, understand the laws of motion and learn how simple machines work. Then they built a working roller coaster to scale with plastic K’NEX pieces.
These were sixth-graders, she said. “And the questions and the solutions that they had were just beyond what normal sixth-graders have. They were talking about potential versus kinetic energy. They were talking about ‘Why can’t I get my little car going through the little loop?’” And they solved the problems themselves.
“It was great to see these kids really working on these problems,” Baker said.
After seeing the video, board member Brent Billingsley, director of development services for the city of Maricopa, said he benefited from good science and math teachers while an elementary student in Casa Grande, and he cannot overstate the importance of science, technology, engineering and math and the need for kids to get excited about it.
“Those are growth fields in the future of this country,” he said, “and it’s really fun being involved in the actual building of this nation” whether it’s designing streets or designing cars.
Board member Judee Jackson, a retired executive with Arizona Public Service Co., said it is exciting to see so many girls involved with STEM.
“When we see a big employer like APS willing to put this kind of money toward sponsorships, we know that’s where their workforce of the future will be,” she said. “We certainly want our kids to compete for those jobs and be successful. So good for you guys!”
Later in the meeting, the board authorized application for a Helios STEM school pilot project grant for McCartney Ranch School.
It also approved an intergovernmental agreement with Arizona State University and the Mesa Unified, Higley Unified and Tempe Elementary school districts for a mathematics and science partnerships program grant, to train 10 more district teachers.