STEAM subjects and early learners

After the 3rd-graders at PS 132 in Williamsburg make predictions, Cindy Gue, an Miller Photography

What type of beam is the strongest: rectangular, triangular, C-Beam or I-Beam? After the 3rd-graders at PS 132 in Williamsburg make predictions, Cindy Gue, an educator with the Salvadori Center, tests which beam can bear the most weight. This hands-on approach to learning math and science is part of the Salvadori Center’s curriculum. It’s learning by doing, which makes knowledge memorable and gives students a deeper understanding of the world around them.

A 3rd-grader tests out the weight-bearing strength of a triangular column under Miller Photography

A 3rd-grader tests out the weight-bearing strength of a triangular column under the watchful eye of UFT Vice President for Elementary Schools Karen Alford (center) and Gue.

We all know that STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — are the foundation for many of the new jobs that will keep our economy afloat into the 21st century. Educators are working hard to find ways to ensure that our students have the skills and knowledge necessary for these new jobs and industries. 

In support of that goal, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams invested nearly $14 million — virtually his entire capital budget — for STEM education this past fall for projects like mobile labs, hydroponic classrooms and interactive smartboards at schools throughout the borough. And the Department of Education will have a free STEM enrichment program for 2nd- to 5th-graders across the city this summer.

But did you know that elementary education is actually the ideal time to introduce students to STEM? By adding art into the equation (called STEAM or STEM + Art), we can broaden the ways we introduce our youngest learners to the concepts at the heart of these disciplines in a hands-on way that is thoroughly engaging, exciting and challenging. 

I recently observed an exemplary program in action with 3rd-graders at PS 132 in Williamsburg. Working with educators from the Salvadori Center, students were making predictions about which type of beam was sturdier — circular, triangular, rectangular or I-beam — based on their shape. They had to fold paper into its proper shape, and each group had a type of beam to make. Then they measured how much weight each could withstand by placing books on top. 

As you can imagine, the importance of this finding can be found around us every day in every skyscraper and large building. Do you know the answer?* 

You should have seen the children’s faces! Students held their breath, covered their mouths with their hands and watched eagerly. They were learning math and science, using their fine motor skills (which at this age, were much better in girls), collaborating and having fun, all at the same time. 

Heather deKoning, a visual arts teacher who was among the educators who wrote the grant that brought the Salvadori program to the school, said the whole range of students at her school — English language learners, struggling students and gifted and talented students — as well as parents and educators loved this program. 

“Students learned to function as a team, which is very real world,” she said. “Weeks later, I gave students a quiz on what they had learned, and they retained all the information.”

The construction exercise linked up with what the students were working on in math, while other aspects of the program linked up with social studies, deKoning said. Second-graders studied “My Community” and learned about residential and commercial buildings, facades and mixed use. Third-graders studied skyscrapers, 4th-graders learned about bridges and constructed truss and arch bridges, and 5th-graders studied landmarks, monuments and memorials. 

In all grades, students made scientific inquiries, conducted experiments and gained a deeper understanding of our world. The beauty of it is math and science, which can seem abstract and conceptual, when taught in this way are instead relatable, relevant and intriguing — and just as appealing to girls as to boys. 

Salvadori is just one of many innovative programs educators can make use of these days to introduce students to STEM. At PS 188 in Coney Island, Brooklyn, 4th-grade teacher Barbara Pincar is enthusiastic about the Bricks 4 Kidz program, which incorporates science, math and engineering. 

“It’s a Lego-based program, where kids get to create small mechanical working items,” she said. “When I asked students what they like the best in school, they all screamed, ‘Bricks 4 Kidz!’”

Students working in pairs make helicopters and conveyor belts. The projects are tied to the appropriate grade-level curriculum. Pincar said that since the instructions are both visual and written, it’s perfect for English language learners. “I have a student who just came from Russia and doesn’t speak any English, and she is putting together the mechanical assignment with no problems,” she said.

Across the country, educators at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education collaborated with teachers to create a pilot program called Speedometry, a free 4th-grade curriculum that comes with 40 Hot Wheels cars and 100 feet of track. 

The STEM disciplines are a fascinating way of seeing and engaging with the world. I should know: I’m a chemistry major myself! Early childhood, when the boundaries between subjects are blurred, is the perfect time to introduce children to a world of inquiry and wonder. Who knows — these STEM programs may instill in them all — girls as well as boys —a lifelong love of STEM subjects. 

You can learn more about these three programs at the Salvadori, Bricks 4 Kids and Hotwheels websites.

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