Science, technology, engineering and math skills are reaching well down into the primary grades.

Schools taking STEM education to next level

In the decade since it has become an educational acronym, STEM curriculum — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — has become a dominant focus in many elementary and secondary schools, whether public, charter or private. In the latter, however, the STEM model often has gone further, inciting some fundamental changes in the entire educational model.

At Alexander Dawson School in Lafayette, adoption of some of the core elements of STEM education has led to a “maker” philosophy, in which students of diverse skills work on simulated commercial products in a profoundly engaging fashion.

“Our philosophy is to get them to go for it — to develop something and see what they need to know to make it work,” said Erik Nickerson, Dawson’s director of learning innovation. “That’s the theme in the maker philosophy at Dawson.”

Robotics and coding skills reach well down into the primary grades at Dawson, and Nickerson (who is primarily responsible for education in grades 9 through 12) is working with his fellow instructors to make sure there is steady progression in STEM skills. By the time students are in high school, they get steady feedback from local engineers and scientists, as well as working with real data, such as applying artificial intelligence to a national cancer model.

Students in lower grades are introduced to the Lego MindStorm and other small robots, and by the time students are in middle school they can enter national competitions in robotics. High school students often are using STEM skills in ways that reinforce standard curriculums; for instance, geometry students could be required to code in the Pythagorean Theorem in a meaningful application — thus reinforcing the usefulness of the math — or working directly with the school’s solar and wind-turbine units.

“We’re working more now on the lower grades — trying to get all of our kids doing some hands-on stuff, and not just robotics,” said Head of School George P. Moore. “I think kids have a natural curiosity of how things work. They like building or creating whether you are doing it in art or three dimensions.

“You can get more kids into applying themselves, particularly when they see older kids doing similar things with more technological skills.”

At Mountain Peak School in Longmont, president Tom Buckett said coding was an early focus that came from school parents, a large number of whom are employed in high-tech industries.

“We’ve tried to keep up in technology curve in a number of ways. A recent addition has been coding all the way down to kindergarten,” said Buckett, noting the coding is age appropriate. Then again, first graders at Mountain Peak are also doing their first biology dissections, as well.

Every student works through a week of code every December, and although the applications can make things fun — for instance, using characters from the film “Frozen” — there have been some children who forge ahead into more technological aspects with little instruction. All students also are required to participate in the annual science fair as well.

“We’re more into individualized curriculums. We want to meet every child where they are, whether they are two or three levels ahead or behind,” Buckett said. The school strives to be affordable and effective, he said, with class sizes limited to 15 students or less.

Music, arts and physical education aren’t forgotten either, said Buckett, who teaches every daily PE class.

Principal Susan Rajala said small classrooms also are a focus at Broomfield Academy, which teaches academic preschool through middle school. While there is not an actual STEM model employed at the school, that doesn’t mean math and science are not a primary focal points.

“With our small classroom sizes, we can work with individuals and encourage them to go deeper in exploring science, math and engineering,” she said.

Other private schools that don’t officially identify with the STEM model also take science, math and technology seriously. Such appears to be the case with the Shining Mountain Waldorf School in Boulder. The preschool-through-12th grade school is based on an age-appropriate, encouraging-learning system developed by Rudolf Steiner in Germany in 1919, and the high school list of math and science courses is considerable. Calculus and physics are required for graduation.

Another interesting aspect of STEM models around Boulder County is the number of schools embracing a maker environment. That is absolutely the case at the Friends School in Boulder — named by the students, and not a Quaker environment — which is expanding from its traditional academic preschool and K-5 format to expand into middle school this year.

The 700-square-foot makerspace includes 3-D printers, robotics equipment and probably laser cutters this year — most of it donated — but also enough cardboard, glue and tape to keep more instinctive designers happy. One of the projects students have been involved with in this space is looking back at the 2013 floods and modeling what type of flood mitigation space might have helped, said Shelby Pawlina, the middle-school director responsible for bringing the school’s first-ever sixth-grade class online this year.

Looking to engage this initial middle-school class in science, engineering and math, Pawlina said, has the entire school engaged in how to best prepare and engage students in earlier grades. The school’s Integrated curriculum allows students having voice and choice in subject matter, with teachers responding on how to make those topics relevant to materials in math, science and technology, as well as how to involve students of varying degrees of ability.

“In most schools, math is still segregated by ability, but we’re also having integrated math that’s related to problem solving,” she said. “We don’t want to have kids segregated all the time, especially when they are talking through how to solve the problem.

“Kids bring different skill sets to problem solving, and that helps to stimulate (cooperative) thinking.”

Friends School also has technology experts drop in, helping with courses such as elementary programming skills. The school also has video and video-editing equipment and brings in specialists to help with such topics as video blogging.

At Boulder Country Day School in Gunbarrel, a preschool through middle school, STEM expert Phil Mayhoffer said working through the entire curriculum was an important element he was tasked when he came about a year ago.

“I’ve worked closely with the staff introducing coding concepts even in preschool,” Mayhoffer said. “We’re working with a number of different problem-solving techniques, including IB (International Baccalaureate) design,” he said. “I see STEM as a way to combine areas to solve real-world problems.”

Country Day’s middle school requires each student to take a trimester-long programming class, which is now in its third year as a required class. Students work through computational and algorithmic problems using primarily non-language specific programming.

Working with science teachers has led to studies involving the sound wave characteristics of musical instruments and also a study on how to develop more advanced and cheaper human prosthetics. This year’s major project at the eighth-grade level is in designing disaster-proof buildings. It is in projects such as this, Mayhoffer said, that he hopes to build a fundamental appreciation of mathematics.

“When I’m able to weave math into the projects seamless rather than by traditional means, it might just spark the interest of a student (otherwise disinclined),” Mayhoffer said. “It’s kind of changing the mindset of teaching math itself. It’s a toolset you use to achieve what you want.”

In the decade since it has become an educational acronym, STEM curriculum — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — has become a dominant focus in many elementary and secondary schools, whether public, charter or private. In the latter, however, the STEM model often has gone further, inciting some fundamental changes in the entire educational model.

At Alexander Dawson School in Lafayette, adoption of some of the core elements of STEM education has led to a “maker” philosophy, in which students of diverse skills work on simulated commercial products in a profoundly engaging fashion.

“Our philosophy is to get them to go for it — to develop something and see what they need to know to make it work,” said Erik Nickerson, Dawson’s director of learning innovation. “That’s the theme in the maker philosophy at Dawson.”

Robotics and coding skills reach well down into the primary grades at Dawson, and Nickerson (who is primarily responsible for education in grades 9 through 12) is working with his fellow instructors to make sure there is steady progression in STEM skills. By the time students are in high school, they get steady feedback from local engineers and scientists, as well as working with real data, such as applying artificial intelligence to a national cancer model.

Students in lower grades are introduced to the Lego MindStorm and other small robots, and by the time students are in middle school they can enter national competitions in robotics. High school students often are using STEM skills…