STEM program pushes students to seek solutions | ParkRecord.com

STEM program pushes students to seek solutions

Every Friday, Paula Krueger watches the students’ faces light up as one question bubbles to the surface: "What kind of engineer do we get to be today?"

Krueger is the PACE (Program for Academic Challenge and Enrichment) specialist at Jeremy Ranch Elementary School. For the last two years, PACE specialists in the Park City School District have been putting on STEM Fridays, in which they take an entire grade level out of class for one period every Friday for three to six weeks and help students solve a complex, hands-on problem based on science, technology, engineering and math concepts.

This year, projects have included building balloon-powered rocket cars, creating systems to light up hieroglyphs in an Egyptian pyramid and designing magnetic levitation trains. Students prepare by getting the textbook knowledge they’ll need to tackle the projects in the classroom, then they get the chance to dive into the problems during STEM Fridays.

Krueger said the program is teaching students at an early age how to collaborate, communicate and — most importantly — be diligent in finding solutions to problems.

"What I see in the kids is this creativity where they’re much more open-minded to different solutions," she said. "The sooner we start that kind of thinking in them, the better. We want them to think about what problems are going to need to be solved during their lifetime, and having this bank of strategies and knowing how to approach a problem with the necessary skills is going to be huge — not even the specific skills but more of just, ‘How do we attack a problem and come back until we get a solution that works?’"

Another primary, but less-anticipated, benefit of the program is that it allows students who don’t typically thrive in the classroom to prove their worth. Krueger even sees it as a way to help close the Park City School District’s achievement gap.

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"Different kids come out being the experts, and different kids bring a bank of strategies to the table," she said. "It just turns the tables a little bit, so kids really learn to value each other for their strengths and their ability to solve problems, instead of who they perceive to be the smartest. It evens out the playing field."

Krueger’s observation isn’t unique among those involved with STEM Fridays. DeEtte Earl, the PACE specialist at Parley’s Park Elementary has witnessed the same phenomenon. She said she is often surprised by which students turn out to be the best at designing, building and problem solving.

"It builds the self-confidence for a lot of these students," she said. "I had a second grader just a couple weeks ago who doesn’t even know his letters — he’s just struggling so much academically — but he built the best rocket race car in the class. It went the fastest, had the best design. And the kids were celebrating what he had accomplished. They were so impressed with him. It was his moment to shine."

Earl said that watching the students progress over the course of the multi-week lessons is telling. They start out shy and unsure of themselves before blossoming.

"In the beginning, they all kind of hold back, like there’s only one right answer," Earl said. "As we continue throughout the design process, they start taking more risks and asking more questions. They lose their inhibition and start looking at other alternatives or multiple designs. That’s huge to get them thinking creatively."

As valuable as they are from an education perspective, STEM Fridays have also proven to be fun for the students. Each week, they are eager to get involved.

"They really look forward to it," Krueger said. "They’ll always ask when I’m coming back to their grade level again. They love it. You never have a behavior problem because everybody is so into it. They’re all doing something."