Thursday, August 14, 2014

Summer STEM Academy

It seems so long ago, but at the beginning of the summer I was part of our school district's two-week Summer STEM Academy. I facilitated the program and worked with 11 children entering grades 4-8 and also worked with the program's assistant, my daughter, who will be a senior in high school this year. My daughter and I have been running this program for three summers now, but this summer the focus changed from "technology" to STEM. In the past, there was a bit more of a focus on learning components of Microsoft Office and movie development, although there was the option for participants to choose their own areas of interest, which participants took full advantage of. This summer, however, with a bit of a change in the program, we added more hands-on electronic and engineering and connected some of the other science, math and technology pieces as they naturally occur in the projects that the children were doing, such as computer programming.

As in past summers, each child, my high school daughter, and I all took on the role of teacher and learner at different points. We didn't shy away from a task because it was hard or because we didn't understand the next step. In fact, at one point, as the children were working on their "K'nex bridge challenge," I overheard one child say, "This is really hard but really fun."  Each day I had to insist that the children take their break (recess) and also had to insist that they leave at the end of our day. And, each new day, at least one child would return excited to explain what he or she had worked on at home - not because it was required, but because the child wanted to.  

In this environment, age didn't matter. It didn't matter if you were a boy or girl. It didn't matter if you attending the same school. What did matter is whether you had something to offer - could you help one another, discuss the projects, work together? Could you share your trouble or what you learned? That was what mattered.  

It's a great experience to be in such a different learning environment, even for such a short time. While the traditional school year can't be the same, there are definitely moments that we can capture, such as in choice days or science workshops. And when children are given challenges and support, from the teacher and each other, they might find interests they didn't know they had, they might develop friendships they might not otherwise exist, and they might decide that learning is not something that is limited to school hours and a defined, teacher directed in-school task.

You can find out more about our Summer STEM Academy on our school website. There are some great resources and photos. Check it out here.

And here are quick some highlights from our STEM Academy:

1.  Using index cards to make a tower that would hold a hippo (to keep him safe from a crocodile) as a way to understand an engineering design process - resources from Engineering is Elementary.
2. Making paper circuits with copper tape, LEDs, and batteries.
3. Traditional and programmable K'nex engineering projects including a motorized elevator and a computer controlled bascule bridge - our hardest project!
4. Stop motion animation
5. A Rube Goldberg contraption that ended with an interaction with a computer where a motion in front of the computer's camera caused a program to initiate in Scratch (computer programming designed for children)
6. Several children began using Scratch for the first time.
7. Several children created their own web sites using Weebly; some took photos and included them on their sites, using photography techniques learned by our high school assistant, Angela Molishus; some developed blogs and started discussions; others embedded their Scratch projects onto their sites as another way to share their work.
8. Squishy circuits

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