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Family STEM night a first for William Winchester Elementary

Families gathered Wednesday evening at William Winchester Elementary School to engage in a number of activities for the school's first STEM Family Night. The event was organized by fifth-grade teacher Mara Reinartz to spark students' interest in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The night began with a presentation about STEM from Reinartz and was followed by activities for students and their parents, an open house where professionals working in STEM-related fields provided information about their careers, and a teacher-led presentation on connections between science and literature, Reinartz said.

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First-grader Cecilia Amendola worked against the clock with her father, Christian Amendola, as part of a family design challenge. Families were provided materials to build a pom-pom blaster, used to launch pom-poms, under a time limit of 20 minutes. Groups who were able to shoot their pom-poms the farthest and highest won the challenge.

The genesis of the Family STEM Night at William Winchester is a STEM graduate-level certification program accredited by the Maryland State Department of Education and offered at McDaniel College, said Bryan Shumaker, STEM coordinator for Carroll County Public Schools.

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"We talked about one of the issues being that the kids going to school now are not getting as excited about STEM education and STEM-related careers, and how can we spark that interest, not only in the students but in their families," Reinartz said. "According to a lot of research, there's going to be an abundance of these careers in these areas with potentially higher starting pay rates."

Reinartz said she wants to activate interest in STEM-related fields in students at a younger age, and teach them the skills they will need to be successful in those areas. It's also imperative to impress upon parents the opportunities in those areas available to their children, she said.

"It's important not only to get the kids to buy in, but you want the parents to buy in that all these skills — collaboration, communication, questioning — that all these skills are important life skills that we want to encourage throughout their schooling, not just when they're younger," Reinartz said. "We want to encourage families that these are skills we have to keep working on."

Shumaker said other school system teachers, mainly those enrolled in the STEM certification program, have organized similar events at their schools. In 2008, a STEM initiative was created in Maryland, the result of recommendations of a task force created by then-Gov. Martin O'Malley.

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"Over the course of time since STEM has become relevant, we've made a major focus to embedding STEM across the curriculum in multiple courses K-12," Shumaker said.

Retired William Winchester art teacher Karen Mettille brought her granddaughters Kaitlynn Mettille, a fifth-grader at William Winchester, and Kayla Mettille, a seventh-grader at nearby Westminster East Middle School.

"This allows them to make connections and explore. Rather than learning memorization, they're learning to be creative," Mettille said. "Creative play has always been so much better for learning, and what they're doing tonight makes it fun."

Third-grader Kylie Coder, who skipped her dance lesson to attend the event because of her love of math, was accompanied by her mother, Audrey Coder.

Coder said that although she does not share her daughter's love of math, she was happy to see her daughter having such a great time. "I think it's important for them to get hands-on experience in different areas," she said.

Allen Davis, who brought his son, second-grader Braden Davis, to the STEM night, said Braden wanted to check out the new activity at school.

"I think it's an important knowledge base that they need to get into. There's sort of been a departure of the years from some of these topics and we really need to do more of it in the schools," said Davis, who works in the facility management business. "I'd like to see them do more to spark an interest, so they can consider those things for their careers and see if they have an interest."

Reinartz said the school plans to hold the event again next year.

"This is our first try at this; we called it our first annual, so we'll probably give it another try again next year," Reinartz said.

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