Seattle's science experiment: A STEM school for the early grades

Nov 26, 2012

Many jobs of the future will be in fields that go by the shorthand “STEM”: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. But these are precisely the subjects where many American students are falling short. Educators are responding by creating STEM-focused schools, and in Seattle officials are breaking ground by pushing that emphasis back into younger classes, all the way to kindergarten.

Principal Shannon McKinney is in charge of figuring out how to build one of the first STEM elementary schools in the Northwest. K-5 STEM at Boren, as it’s awkwardly named, is in West Seattle, but any elementary student in the district can apply for a spot here.

As the school wraps up its first semester, McKinney and her team are still working out what a STEM education for Seattle’s youngest learners should look like.

“We have that visions in our minds of kids coming home and telling their families, man, we did this experiment using  pulleys and ramps and it just was so exciting! Just think if you had a whole school like that,” McKinney says.

K-5 STEM is designed around project-based learning. That means a unit might focus on one subject – say, local rivers – and then build all the learning around that, such as biology and math, but also literacy and history.

Capitalizing on their skills

The very idea of the earliest learners understanding the scientific method might seem like a stretch. But Andrew Shouse of the University of Washington’s Institute for Science and Mathematics Education says we shouldn’t underestimate those kids.

“I’m actually really excited by the idea. We know a lot from research on learning that young children can in fact engage in sophisticated reasoning and problem solving in STEM fields, but we haven’t really given that a go in practice,” Shouse says.

An elementary school doesn’t solve everything: Seattle Public Schools doesn’t have a science-themed middle school for these students to transition into.

But Shouse says we need to capitalize on those abilities early on, or else risk letting students sour on the STEM disciplines. And once they’re turned off, he says they rarely come back.

Engineering for second-graders

So ho exactly do you teach, say, engineering to a 7-year-old? Second-and-third grade teacher Ronen Gluck says it’s not as outlandish as it sounds. Watch a kid play with Legos some time – they’re born scientists, natural engineers.

In his classroom, students prepare to build towers out of drinking straws and twist-ties. Bonus points go to the highest tower, the most stable, and the one that uses the most equilateral triangles.

The students sketch out their plans on a whiteboard and then try and recreate them in 3-D.

“Let’s put a square next to the triangle, then it wouldn’t fall over,” offers one student.

“This is the hardest thing ever!” declares another.

It’s surprisingly difficult to attach straws with twist-ties. Gluck says that’s on purpose: This activity is carefully planned to get kids familiar with design, materials, geometry – this is an engineering task, not arts and crafts.

Still a work in progress

Teachers will eventually use special science and engineering kits geared toward the early grades. There will be labs and iPads. But that’s still a ways off. Even as students adjust to a new style of class work, teachers and the school district are facing their own learning curve.

“Right now we are not a STEM school yet. We are still waiting on various aspects of our curriculum. We are still waiting on some aspects of our technology. There are a lot of things up that are in the air, but we are dealing with the challenges facing us on a case-by-case basis,” Gluck says.

 K-5 STEM at Boren faces the same kind of resource pressures as any school. When a little extra dough comes in, principal Shannon McKinney has to decide whether to spend it on training and equipment or on hiring a hall monitor. You can’t create a fancy high-tech school if you don’t have enough adults to supervise bathroom breaks.

So, anyone expecting a full-fledged STEM school to blossom in its first year here might be disappointed.

“When are we going to become who we say we are? People have got to be patient with us. To become a project-based learning school, it takes a long time,” McKinney says.  

But, with enough time, money and brains, they hope to create a model to nurture curious and analytical young minds that will, eventually, be ready for the culture and economy they will inherit.