Ursuline’s STEM enhancements a hit with grades K-4

By Alicia Brannan, Guest Column

St. Angela reminds us: “If, according to times and circumstances, the need arises to make new rules or do something differently, do it prudently and with good advice.”

As Ursuline Academy continues an almost 300-year-old tradition of educating women, we must remain at the forefront of innovation in order to best prepare our girls to meet the needs of a fast-paced, changing world.

This has become especially important in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), as our girls inherit a future of jobs that do not yet exist, using technology that has not yet been invented, to solve problems that we don’t yet know are problems.

The 2016-17 school year brought with it the successful launch of Project Lead the Way (PLTW), an organization that develops STEM programs focused on preparing students in kindergarten through fourth grade to pursue degrees and careers in STEM-related fields.

PLTW quickly became a popular program with our young students, with questions such as, “When is it time for science?” and “When do we go to the lab?” heard on a daily basis.

As the program was integrated into our curriculum, PLTW fostered enthusiasm and energy for hands-on, project-based lessons. Students looked forward to going to the lab each week, and the girls grew more confident in their thoughts and ideas and more adept at combining ideas into one solution. Students began to think in more complex ways, problem-solving to bring new information and understanding to the classroom.

Students also learned how to compromise, collaborate, share ideas and assign tasks so that all students participate equally.

Units and activities varied for each grade level, but each unit introduced a real-life problem that girls had to solve. Becoming more aware of science all around them, third graders were overheard saying, “There’s an axle on that float!” A kindergarten student said, “Those cups can make music like a drum!”

Critical thinking skills and ideas quickly spilled over into other subject areas, as did the problem-solving and collaborative strategies. Girls loved being called engineers and scientists!

When learning about the sun’s UV rays, a favorite first-grade activity included making “UV bracelets” with special beads that only change color when they’re in direct sunlight. Some students experimented with animal adaptations by building different “beaks” out of spoons, clothespins and tweezers to see how various beaks would pick up materials differently.

During a unit on forces and interactions, third-grade students designed and built a complex machine which would be capable of rescuing a tiger from a moat. Second-grade students designed and built a cooler from different materials to keep popsicles in  their solid frozen state.

As we anticipate year two, elementary administration is working to create additional space and time in the weekly schedule to include more PLTW modules. Faculty is collaborating to make more cross-curricular connections between STEM projects.

What books can students read that may supplement a PLTW unit? How can we more closely tie in the arts? How can we best use our technology daily? PLTW has proven to be a wonderful, engaging science program and we look forward to continuing it in year two.

Alicia Brannan is an Ursuline lower school teacher.

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