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Starling Elementary implements county's first STEM program for elementary students

S.T.E.M. teacher Jessica Douglas talks about her second grade S.T.E.M. class at Starling Elementary School in Grayson Wednesday. Starling Elementary is the only elementary school in the county to have S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering and math) classes for all grades.


S.T.E.M. teacher Jessica Douglas instructs second grader Julian Samuels during a S.T.E.M. class as the students construct a small house during a project at Starling Elementary School in Grayson Wednesday. Starling Elementary is the only elementary school in the county to have S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering and math) classes for all grades. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)

S.T.E.M. teacher Jessica Douglas instructs second grader Julian Samuels during a S.T.E.M. class as the students construct a small house during a project at Starling Elementary School in Grayson Wednesday. Starling Elementary is the only elementary school in the county to have S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering and math) classes for all grades. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)

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S.T.E.M. classes at Starling Elementary

S.T.E.M. teacher Jessica Douglas talks about her second grade S.T.E.M. class at Starling Elementary School in Grayson Wednesday. Starling Elementary is the only elementary school in the county to have S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering and math) classes for all grades.

S.T.E.M. teacher Jessica Douglas talks about her second grade S.T.E.M. class at Starling Elementary School in Grayson Wednesday. Starling Elementary is the only elementary school in the county to have S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering and math) classes for all grades.

GRAYSON — Building a tower for Rapunzel, Giana Muller said she enjoyed this project, especially because it wasn’t just playing with Play-Doh.

“You get to build and you get to use tools like rulers and paper, and get to build with your friends,” said Muller, a first-grader at Starling Elementary. “You get to play, but you don’t get to play with Play-Doh; (you) actually play rough and build towers.”

Muller and the rest of her classmates in teacher Jessica Douglas’ classroom on Friday morning worked to build their own towers for Rapunzel. Douglas, who teaches STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math, gave the students specifications for the project where Rapunzel could live in a sturdy tower that is between 12 inches and 36 inches tall.

The students later will write a letter to Rapunzel and explain why she should select their project.

The class, which started this school year, is the first STEM special offered to elementary school students from first through fifth grade in Gwinnett County Public Schools. The STEM special replaces a math special the students were in last year. Some elementary schools offer STEM classes for fourth- and fifth-graders, but Starling is the only school that offers it to all students, Douglas said.

Douglas said the district’s director of science, Jonathon Wetherington, has made offering STEM in more schools a priority, and offered teachers more training about how to improve STEM in their classroom. Wetherington said the district is partnering with local schools to develop plans and programs that best fit each school.

“It’s much different than your typical science class where I give them every single step of the way,” Douglas said. “I give them a scenario, I give them some criteria, and then they go through the engineering and design process where they draw out a plan, they create it, they test it, improve it and do it again.”

In second grade, students build a popsicle catapult, and are asked how to design a catapult that will launch a marshmallow that will hit a target. In third grade, they work on a “Three Little Pigs” project to build a house that will not be blown down by the “Big Bad Wolf.” In fourth grade, students are asked to build an air rocket. Fifth graders use illustration software to develop a digital story.

“We really do feel that elementary is the chance to hook the students,” Wetherington said. “Particularly females to show the variety of options that exist in STEM fields. Encourage them to continue to think critically, apply concepts to real world concepts and make those career connections.”

The class also incorporates using team work and getting through problem-solving issues. If a group runs into a disagreement, Douglas said she encourages them to vote or do rock-paper-scissors.

“If they know something is going wrong, what do they do to fix it,” Douglas said. “It’s really about problem-solving and just challenging themselves. What would you do next time? They’re very creative, (and say) ‘I would do this next time, I would add this next time,’ thinking for themselves.”

Douglas also aims to connect projects with careers, and displays career examples, averages salaries, and famous people who have worked in those fields. Douglas reminds her students that if they enjoy a particular project, they could do that for a job someday, and then makes a connection with career clusters through the school’s guidance counselors.

The STEM concept is also a parent favorite. Students are familiar with the rotation of three straight days of STEM before they return again in 18 days.

Parents have told Douglas, “The only thing I ever hear from my child is when they go to STEM, that’s it.”