On a recent Saturday at the Lyons Center, some 150 kids spent the morning with their hands in sheep hearts. All but the youngest participants dissected the specimens under the supervision of 50 medical professionals. Later, the students—kindergartners through high school seniors—each built their own grade-appropriate mechanical heart model to take home, a souvenir of their brief foray into science and engineering.
The STEM Saturday class was the brainchild of Calvin Mackie, Ph.D., a former Tulane Engineering professor who founded the organization STEM NOLA to expose, inspire and engage kids—especially those in underserved communities—to the opportunities in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Two years ago, STEM NOLA partnered with the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission (NORDC) to host events like the sheep heart dissection at NORDC facilities across the city once a month.
Dr. Mackie sees STEM education as a “pipeline” issue. “As kids get closer to high school, they’re less likely to participate in STEM,” he says, “so you have to start really young. We don’t know who the genius is. The LSU quarterback didn’t throw his first pass in ninth grade. Tiger Woods didn’t start playing golf in high school. We have to inspire and engage kids from an early age.”
The term STEM is more than an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math; it represents an interdisciplinary and applied approach to those subjects. Rather than each subject being taught separately and independently, STEM integrates them into the learning environment and shows students how the scientific method can be applied to everyday life. Learning is collaborative and project-based. And there’s been a movement to add Art to the mix, making it STEAM; proponents of that believe that a
rts education is crucial to creativity, and creativity is an essential component of innovation and STEM.
There’s a reason for recent emphasis on STEM and STEAM in elementary and secondary classrooms:
The U.S. Department of Education has found that only one-quarter of high school students are interested in a STEM career, and only 16 percent have the necessary proficiency in mathematics; more than half of those will lose interest by the time they graduate from high school. Even among those who do go on to pursue a college major in a STEM field, only roughly 50 percent will choose to work in a related career.
For some students, there are added hurdles. Dr. Mackie talks about economic barriers; his STEM Saturdays are free for those who receive free school lunches, and the $60 fee is halved for those who qualify for reduced lunches at school. There are social barriers, too.
“I introduce all of our volunteers—the college students, the professors, the women, the dreadlocked men. It helps eliminate the stereotypes. Parents and kids can look around and see that anyone of them can become scientist, can become an engineer.”
Kim Harper DiMarco, the Elementary School Principal at Ursuline Academy, also sees a cultural barrier to women, explaining that STEAM is especially important for girls.
“They haven’t had as many opportunities in science and engineering and math,” she says. “We want them to be leaders in these areas, and we have a purposeful focus.”
That focus includes integrating two and three-week STEM and STEAM units within the curriculum, like the recent intergalactic unit that saw middle schoolers measuring out the distances of planets from the sun. The theme of the unit carried throughout all of the classes.
“In French class, they’re working on making up their own alien languages, working on the elements of a language,” explains Kim. “In Social Studies, they’re researching space travel or a space event in history. In math, they’re using their iPads and charts to measure weight and time. In art, they’re painting stellar environments. In music, they’re listening to, and learning, scores from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and other space movies.” It’s these connections between the disciplines, says Kim, that really bring the STEAM lessons home.
At The Louise S. McGehee School, even the youngest students—two and three year olds at Little Gate—experience STEAM, through its TinkerLab.
“They’re very open about using new materials and taking risks,” says Mimi Odem, director of Lower School Admissions. Students from the two-year-old classes to Kindergarten work side-by-side with teachers to gain a sense of mastery and pride in their abilities. The TinkerLab includes a design den, a maker space, a grit room, and an idea lab for students to create, discover, analyze, design, build and test their own solution. Tinkering is all about hands-on experiences, persisting through failure, and unstructured time to explore and invent.
A recent project for kindergartners through second graders involved the arts—literature—and engineering. After reading Tomie dePaola’s Strega Noma, in which a magic pot of pasta overflows and nearly buries a town, students were asked what invention they could have used to save the town. They designed a dam—and then constructed a model with popsicle sticks and dumped spaghetti noodles on it to test it.
Mimi says that “Whatever [the students are] interested in, that’s what we’re going to explore. They’re natural-born tinkerers; they’d do it for eight hours of they could.” It’s in Middle School, however, that girls tend to lose interest in STEM fields, says Margaret Ann Minihan, Head of Technology and Information Services at McGehee.
“We believe they’re pushed out. At another school, it might be uncool to like math or science or engineering,” Margaret Ann explains. “But because they’re exposed to it, because we’re intentional with it… we’re keeping it interesting. [STEM] is something that they want—they just don’t know that they want it yet.”
Middle school students have lab time twice in a seven-day rotation, where they have specific projects as well as time to work on independent interests. Particularly exciting is the Sixth Grade track, where
students delve into space and engineering and take a week-long fieldtrip to space camp Huntsville, Ala.
Three years ago. St. Martin’s Episcopal launched its Innovation & Design program. “We reach across the entire school, with real-world problem solving,” says Garrett Mason, director of the program.
Garrett talks about the school’s 3-D printers, which have helped students with several projects. First graders used computer software to design beehives and then printed out their works; third and fourth graders designed Christmas ornaments and then printed those in 3-D. Other projects include programming with the Crayola animation studio; building with Legos; robotics; and computer coding. Lower schoolers participate in the school’s STEAM Lab; middle and upper schoolers participate in the Idea Lab.
In November, St. Martin’s broke ground on its new
Gibbs Family Center for Innovation + Design, which will open this coming fall. Garrett is beyond excited.
“It’ll have three times the space we currently have in the Idea Lab. The tables, the walls—they’re all writeable surfaces.”
Archbishop Chapelle also has a brand-new STEM center, with state-of-the-art science labs, slated for opening this spring. The school’s STEM-focused courses include Science Principles, Environmental Science, Biology II (Anatomy and Physiology), Probability & Statistics, Robotics, Robotics Engineering, and Web Design.
While most schools won’t be unveiling new STEM centers or TinkerLabs anytime soon, it doesn’t mean that students can’t become immersed in and inspired by the related coursework. The nonprofit organization Children at Risk
released its rankings in 2014 of our state’s top public STEM high schools, based on a set of math and science specific indicators that capture both performance and engagement in these areas. Ben Franklin High School and Haynes Academy School for Advanced Studies ranked first and second, respectively, with Lusher and New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics H.S. also falling within the state’s Top 10 schools.
A few months ago, Dr. Mackie took his STEM NOLA to Patrick F. Taylor Science and Technology Academy, where he staged a mini rocket day for 70 members of the school’s Tinker and Robotics Clubs. There were solid rockets, stomp rockets, air-compressed paper rockets and high-powered air-compressed rockets. Students experienced first-hand Newton’s Laws of Motion.
“Schools want to grade you,” says Dr. Mackie. “STEM tells you whether it’s right or wrong. It works, or it doesn’t. And you learn from that.”
by Leslie Penkunas