STEM grants pump up school programs

Outreach aimed at engaging more students

By Howard Buck, Columbian staff writer

Published:

Updated: March 7, 2011, 10:19 PM

 

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A new, statewide nonprofit group has doled out an initial round of seed money designed to help STEM learning blossom forth in school classrooms across Washington.

Among the first recipients unveiled Monday: Burton Elementary School in east Vancouver and La Center Middle School.

Burton received an $8,676 grant to allow more than 50 fifth-graders build and program small, LEGO-component robotics units, folded into the broader study of wind and solar power technologies.

La Center Middle School won a $10,560 grant for a SeaPerch robotics program to let teachers train students on how to build an underwater Remotely Operated Vehicle.

Washington STEM — that’s short for science, technology, engineering and mathematics — is bankrolled by big hitters such as Microsoft, the Boeing Co. and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The 501c(3) group will give $2.4 million in an initial round of grants to 15 teachers, schools and programs, with a target of $100 million total in the next 10 years.

Its goal is to generate more interactive STEM lessons to engage many more young students, teachers and families, and to underscore the ripe opportunity for STEM studies and lucrative careers in the years ahead.

That’s the big picture.

The immediate, close-up hook for children was on display in Rooms 108-109 of Burton Elementary early Monday.

A pair of fifth-graders under team teachers Tony Ayala and Jeff Reed showed off what a 10-member, after-school robotics team has produced this year: A nimble, Tonka truck-sized device zigzagged a precise route across the carpet, while a small guitar emitted electronic tones.

Ayala, who wrote the STEM grant application, has already ordered a dozen more LEGO robotics kits for the Evergreen district school.

Half are from the Mindstorms NXT Technology that includes the three-wheel robot and guitar. The rest come from a LEGO Green City Challenge package that incorporates wind- and solar-powered units and drills for testing of wind speeds and artificial vs. natural light, all with the help of robotics.

“It’s age-appropriate, and it’s something fun,” said Ayala, who teaches mostly math and science. With the new equipment, he envisions four-pupil teams in the joint classes to tackle separate projects that jibe with sustainable energy lessons in Reed’s social studies curriculum.

“We need to get these opportunities to all of our kids. It just opens their eyes” to the myriad options that exist, or will exist, Ayala said.

It’s real-to-life, Reed noted. Youngsters see wind turbines rising along the Columbia River Gorge, a strong push for solar and other alternative energy sources and, of course, are saturated with robotics in today’s games and movies.

“Our competition is Xbox. We have to make everything authentic,” Reed said.

Authenticity and “hands-on” shouldn’t be a problem for La Center’s STEM-funded project.

Science teachers Kristy Schneider and Laurie Cripe plan to conduct ROV tests in a local swimming pool and, later, equip the underwater “rovers” with a camera and/or plankton nets to explore the nearby La Center bottomland aquatic area often probed by school students.

“We’re really excited. That’s a lot of money for us,” Schneider said.

The SeaPerch robotics will be used in an existing after-school Young Astronauts Program that has drawn 35 to 45 students, she said. She believes the new gear can help sustain STEM interest, especially among a large group of sixth-grade girls.

Schneider has helped to solder parts together — “we’ve lost all our shop classes,” she noted. Like the Burton teachers, she plans to invite STEM professionals to come work directly with participants.

“It’s to expose kids to many different careers,” and to new skills, she said.

In that vein, Washington STEM awarded $593,259 to the statewide MESA (Math Engineering and Science Achievement) program that includes the ongoing Southwest Washington campaign designed to expose more female and minority group students during the middle-school “transition” years.

Washington STEM leaders say they’ll follow a “catalytic investment strategy” to spread the gospel of STEM-related learning and teaching. The idea is to fuel interest and excitement among teachers, parents, community and business members.

To that end, grant-winning teachers were handed a camera and blogging instructions to keep other educators apprised of their new work.

Howard Buck: 360-735-4515 or howard.buck@columbian.com.