A group of fourth- and fifth-grade students at Carter & MacRae Elementary School in Lancaster, Pa., was tasked with solving a problem: A local baker who uses a 12-foot-deep oven was having trouble baking his small, round rolls. Oftentimes, as he pushed them in or pulled them out of the oven, a few rolled off the tray, leaving him scrambling for a way to grab them before they burned in the back of the oven.
This is just one of the many problem-solving activities that members of the after-school STEAM Team program have tackled. The Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics program, which is in its second year, is a collaboration between the School District of Lancaster, Millersville University, and the local business community.
To solve the problem the students built a mock-up of the oven in their school library and, with the help of a group of mentor students from a nearby university, brainstormed solutions for the baker. They discussed options, built prototypes of tools that might help save the rolls, and then evaluated their solutions in a written report.
A Critical Program for Disadvantaged Students
District leaders say programs like STEAM Team are especially critical for schools like theirs, which have high percentages of minority students and English-language learners, as well as a high population of homeless and migrant students.
“Children from disadvantaged families, as all of you know, often lack these opportunities to learn about careers and open those horizons to thinking about the future,” said Sharon Brusic, a Millersville University professor, during a presentation at the PASA-PSBA School Leadership Conference in October 2015.
“We also know that families are struggling, and they don’t have time to do some of the things we would like to see them do,” she said. “And we all know that getting kids involved in active learning is important to get them to really grasp the concepts.”
The STEAM Team program promotes four key skills:
- Career Exploration: Helping students make connections to specific STEAM-related career opportunities.
- Problem Solving: Utilizing higher-level thinking skills to solve real-world problems.
- Critical Thinking: Encouraging students to probe further and think about issues at a deeper level.
- Teamwork: Building students’ social and communication skills by working face-to-face with peers and college-age mentors.
Adding the “A” in STEAM
One of the most unique aspects of the program, and the part that distinguishes it from other Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) programs, is the additional focus on the arts.
“Students who study the arts are more likely to display originality and creativity in other subjects,” said Barry Kornhaiser, artistic director at Millersville University. “That’s because the arts represent a form of thinking and a way of knowing that is based in human imagination.”
Benefitting Students of All Ages
The program is of obvious benefit for the elementary students. Perhaps more surprising, though, is the depth with which the program has benefitted the Millersville University undergraduates who act as mentors for the younger children.
The college students are part of a Learning by Doing course taught by Brusic, which aims to better prepare first-year students in the department of applied engineering, safety, and technology. Some of her students plan to become K-12 STEM teachers, but many others enter the course undecided in their career plans.
However, upon completing the course and mentoring the elementary students, many of the Millersville students report that their experience helped them determine or reinforce the direction of their own careers.
Currently, the program serves 16 fourth and fifth graders, but school leaders hope to expand the offerings to other grade levels in the coming years. The roadblocks to the expansion for a program like this are not surprising: time, particularly from business and university partners, as well as money.
School and business leaders remain committed, though, to finding a way to transition the program from that of a purely volunteer format to one that is more sustainable and more easily spread to other grades and schools.
Is your district employing programs to engage disadvantaged students? Let us know in the comments!