Making STEM learning fun at Clemens Crossing

The gymnasium at Clemens Crossing Elementary School in Columbia was filled with the sounds of children having fun last week — but it wasn't a physical education class or a field day that had students so excited. Rather, they were learning about science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.

For many, the day of STEM did feel like learning at all.

"It feels like I'm playing," said fifth-grader Robert Finegar, deeply engrossed in putting together K'Nex pieces to form a robot. "But we're learning math and science and actual, real things."

Robert was at the robotics station in the Columbia school's gym, as part of Clemens Crossing's first-ever STEM Museum day from Mobile Ed Productions a company that provides educational school assemblies, sponsored by the school's PTA.

"We want kids to be interested in STEM because that's where a lot of jobs in the future are going to be," said Lisa Armes, the PTA's cultural arts liaison. "We want to expose the kids in the beginning years to these concepts, and if they develop an interest, they can chose to tailor their education to those interests."

Each grade cycled through the gym throughout the day Thursday, Nov. 7, which each student participating in activities at each of the 16 stations like robotics, generators, geometric shapes, archways, gears and 3D printing, among others.

"'STEM' is the new, popular buzzword and we throw it around a lot, but this helps kids understand that STEM is not so different from what they already know," said Clemens Crossing fifth-grade team leader Angie Haube. "They've been doing things like this since they were toddlers, but they didn't know it. It puts the educational lens on something that's very natural for kids anyway."

Engineering, for example, is just playing with LEGOS or building blocks, Haube said. Fun activities like the STEM Museum let students make the "natural connection" because what they've been doing for fun and what they're learning in school, she said.

At the gear station, Haube took the chance to give her students an impromptu math lesson. As the students were trying to fit together colorful gears of various sizes, trying to get them all to spin at once, Haube pointed out how while one large, green gear only spun once, the little red gear fitted next to it spun several more times. It was a lesson in ratios.

In another corner, students work together to create an archway out of big foam blocks for a lesson in engineering. In yet another corner, students roll coffee cans covered in various surfaces (sandpaper, foil, artificial grass) down ramps of corresponding materials to see what combinations create the fastest movement — a lesson in friction.

"This is a lot more fun that I thought it was going to be," said fifth-grader Lucas Michel.

Later in the year, Haube said, as STEM topics come up in the classroom, she can remind students that they already know about geometry, structures, engineering and the conversation of energy — whether they realize it or not.

"It makes the connection for them," she said. "It's a big deal."

The students are also learning less tangible lessons, said assistant principal Debra Anoff: lessons like teamwork, collaboration and communication that are crucial to careers one day.

If students are having fun and are excited about what they're learning, it means they're learning more, Anoff said.

"You know, years from know, you might remember that one of your favorite experiences was building that big archway in elementary school," she said. "You think, that's what you really liked doing, so you look into careers that excite you the way the archway did. We're planting and watering the seeds here."

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