One goal of STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is to engage students in hands-on STEM concepts, entice the love of learning, and possibly fuel their passion to pursue these fields. The Mt. Vernon Community School Corporation (MVCSC) has heard the call loud and clear from STEM-related industries needing a larger workforce pool. MVCSC has added three STEM teachers this year, is developing a “Makerspace” at the high school, and is pursuing becoming a STEM certified district from the IDOE.
Mrs. Kathy Tingwald and Mrs. Amy Lovell were previous MVCSC elementary teachers who jumped at the chance to move into the STEM teaching positions. They both completed STEM certification training before this school year which reinforced various teaching skills, including how to ask guiding questions while letting students complete the project on their own. Each class in grades 3 - 5 rotates once a week through their STEM class. Each of them serves one elementary and share classes at a third school, so all three elementary schools have the same opportunities. Tingwald and Lovell say that the STEM class is the highlight of the day for students.
The STEM teachers pull their elementary curriculum from four modules in “Project Lead the Way” (PLTW): one computer science, one biomedical, and two engineering. PLTW sends supplies for these fun and engaging activities and provides structured teaching lessons for the project. For example, their project on flight had the students discussing relevant topics such as thrust, balanced and unbalanced forces, drag and lift, prior to constructing a plane.
Tingwald stated, “The students should not be afraid to fail on challenging STEM projects because that is all part of learning. It is fun to give them a challenge and let the students create, brainstorm and troubleshoot their activity.”
Each elementary school now has a robotics club that started last month. A grant was written to TechPoint Foundation for Youth, an organization that is funded by Googenheim Life and Annuity Company, among other organizations. Through this grant, the three Mt. Vernon elementary schools received a robot for each club. These clubs will compete against others in a structured competition in February. Club leaders/staff are trained to let the students figure out how to build and develop the robot on their own, without adult assistance.
Lovell stated, ‘It is fun to see how the students think about how they could make their project better with additional supplies or further changes. Some students who normally are reserved in class do not hesitate to try things in our STEM classes, and actually, thrive in this environment.”
A third teacher, Ms. Brenda Shoenlein, was hired to teach 8th Grade Robotics. The first part of the school year, her class focused on engineering projects and began with a catapult. Students learned how to make the objects fly better by analyzing the results in regards to weight, drag, tension changes, and aerodynamics. The class has moved into more challenging projects, such as building robots and the science behind fidget spinners.
Mt. Vernon High School is currently developing a “Makerspace” for students to build physical modules for various classes. The maker movement is about teaching and learning that is focused on student centered inquiry. “There are essential elements of educating young people to become innovators: the value of hands-on projects where students have to solve a real-world problem and demonstrate mastery; the importance of learning to draw on academic content from multiple disciplines to solve a problem; and learning to work in teams,” (Wagner & Compton, 2012).
For example, an English or Social Studies class might request a visual project to go with their paper. The Makerspace is a collaborative room that inspires do-it-yourself projects. The rooms are frequently loaded with various art supplies (pipe cleaners, tongue depressors, markers, string, glue, hammers, nails, among many others.) The room also will offer a 3D printer for students to create modules, and possibly a sewing machine or woodworking tools. At the core, these STEM-inspired rooms build critical thinking skills and foster entrepreneurship.
The Mt. Vernon Education Foundation (MVEF) is even supporting MVCSC's STEM initiatives by funding a variety of projects and materials, including robotics clubs' mats. Last year, they funded a teacher-requested grant for the Indy Art Lab to teach elementary students how to build a robot. The students learned basic circuitry lessons, as well as an introduction to robotics. In addition, the MVEF has recently provided some new whiteboard tables that support a collaborative and innovative environment, which is frequently needed with STEM projects.
All these efforts are a mindful approach to pursuing a district-wide STEM certification from the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE). A rigorous process starts with a self-evaluation, application, and rubric to measure implementation. The IDOE states, “Schools are chosen to receive certification based on their commitment to teaching the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and math throughout the entire school. STEM Certified Schools exemplify a highly non-traditional approach to education, employing a great deal of inquiry, project based learning, community engagement, entrepreneurship, student centered classrooms, integration into humanities and related arts, and out of school STEM activities. STEM Certified Schools accomplish this while following educational policies set by the state and excelling under the system of accountability.” Steps are being made in all grade levels’ curriculum to instill STEM initiatives for the benefit of Mt. Vernon students.
Collectively, this district-wide enhancement of STEM initiatives will inspire a love of learning and help develop skills the workforce is craving. MVCSC seeks to provide engaging project based learning opportunities that inspire students to pursue and achieve success in their field of choice.