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At Centennial Lane, STEM units make final weeks a learning experience

The last week of school for students is often filled with anticipation, usually for a summer filled with anything but academics.

But at Centennial Lane Elementary School in Ellicott City, the only anticipation felt by fourth-graders Piper Berry and Natalie Keane was over a science project — a small boat made out of Styrofoam, craft sticks, rubber bands and a propeller.

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Piper and Natalie held the record among their classmates for how far they got their boat to go along a halved, six-foot PVC pipe filled with water — 83 inches.

The project was one of several interdisciplinary problem-solving units students in the first- through fourth-grade were undertaking the last two weeks of school.

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The units focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, but for students the lessons meant building boats, race cars, airplanes or bridges.

"It's cool because we get to build our own boat and watch it do something," Piper said.

The two girls also had to troubleshoot — when the rubber band, held at the lowest part of the boat's mast, would only power the boat to 69 inches, Natalie said just by simply moving the band higher up, making it longer and more tense, the boat was able to travel an entire foot farther.

That tactile learning experience is exactly the point, said Principal Brad Herling.

"It's a performance task, as opposed to a pencil-and-paper task," Herling said. "Whenever you can create a performance task, you find the kids are more engaged, and sometimes more successful ... We find students who are not as good at writing or reading have that performance aptitude; it's a different kind of intelligence. They can see the vision — they can look at a block of Styrofoam and see a race car in there. We see a lot of success with students we don't always see success with."

Herling first encountered the units in 2001, when he was a principal at Clarksville Elementary School. That school and Elkridge Elementary, were pilot schools for the program, Herling said.

More than 10 years later, the units still are a vital part of Clarksville's curriculum, and Herling brought them with him when he became Centennial's principal two years ago.

The units incorporate math — the students are given $10 in play money to budget and buy supplies to improve their projects — and language arts as well, Herling said. The units follow the engineering design process, Herling said: ask, imagine, plan, create and improve.

Improving the design of their race car presented a small challenge for third-graders Emily Harris and Marie Walters: they couldn't get their wheels to spin because they glued their axles directly onto their Styrofoam car.

"But then we glued on a plastic straw and put the axle inside so now it can turn," Marie said.

Now, Emily said, their race car could travel down a wooden ramp in less than a second.

The units are a good end-of-the-year activity, Herling said, because they allow students to take everything they learned throughout the year and put it all together.

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The hands-on component is a welcome relief as well, said Robert Clark, third-grade team leader.

"You might get a student who's into books and very good academically, but then you also get the kids that do so much better when they're learning with their hands," Clark said. "This targets those kids, who are problem-solvers but might not be able to put it down on paper. This is a way for them to show off their talents in the classroom. It makes them shine."

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