FEATURES The Vinton Messenger

W.E.Cundiff Elementary students use inquiry-based STEM learning

VINTON–Many people first encountered terms like “polygon, line segment, or ray” or concepts like “congruence, rotation, translation, and reflection” in a geometry course, probably in high school.

Nowadays fourth graders, like those in Lindsay Seiler’s class at W.E. Cundiff (WEC), not only know those terms, but know how to prove they know them by applying them through inquiry-based learning projects.

Teachers serve as facilitators, not instructors,  during STEM activities. W.E. Cundiff Elementary teacher Lindsay Seiler (center) has been trained in STEM techniques through Children's Engineering conferences and extensive inservices by Roanoke County Public Schools.
Teachers serve as facilitators, not instructors, during STEM activities. W.E. Cundiff Elementary teacher Lindsay Seiler (center) has been trained in STEM techniques through Children’s Engineering conferences and extensive inservices by Roanoke County Public Schools.

While making Valentine cards in February is not unusual in elementary school, these students were assigned to work in teams to “design and create a Valentine’s Day Card from geometric representations.”

In the scenario that the students were given, Hallmark had hired their team  to “create a product, using at least four different types of polygons, at least two figures that were not polygons, 3 sets of congruent figures (one showing a translation, one a rotation, and one a reflection), sets of perpendicular, intersecting, and parallel line segments, up to 100 angles, 2 points, 1 ray, a moveable part showing the difference between a polygon and non-polygon;  and it also had to include a “pop-up.”  There was a cost factor involved: the card had to cost no more than $35 to create, based on the fact that teams would be “charged” fifty cents for each line segment their cards contained.

Students in teacher Lindsey Seiler's fourth grade class at W.E. Cundiff Elementary used STEM inquiry-based learning  and what they had learned about geometry to create Valentine cards.One group used a Duck Dynasty theme.
Students in teacher Lindsey Seiler’s fourth grade class at W.E. Cundiff Elementary used STEM inquiry-based learning and what they had learned about geometry to create Valentine cards.One group used a Duck Dynasty theme.

To complete the assignment they were allowed to use “materials” that included white paper, construction paper, 2 paper fasteners, glue, 4 craft sticks, some tissue paper, 5 pom poms, 4 eyes, 3 pipe cleaners, and some stickers. There were patterns they could trace, pencils, rulers, scissors, and markers available as “tools.” They were advised that the project should be mostly complete in about two hours.

Most adults confronted with this jaw-dropping assignment would have been stymied; the fourth graders didn’t hesitate for a moment.

Students engaged in STEM learning activities work in groups to complete design challenges.
Students engaged in STEM learning activities work in groups to complete design challenges.

They have learned a procedure for carrying out projects such as these since the early elementary grades thanks to education’s new emphasis on the STEM (Science, Techonology, Engineering, and Math) approach to learning. This was the sixth such project for Seiler’s class this school year.

Students are first presented with a “design brief” that identifies the problem or “challenge” they have been given to solve, identifies the criteria they must follow, and the materials and tools they are permitted to use.

Working as a group, students then re-state (in writing) the problem, brainstorm possible solutions (through sketches and writing), create the solution they have decided is best (again through drawings and notes), test their solution (by checking off the criteria), and finally evaluate to see how they could have done things better or differently in meeting the challenge.

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The theory behind this educational concept is that “problem-based learning allows students to learn through authentic investigations when given real-life problems to solve or scenarios to explore.” Once the teacher has presented the design challenge he or she takes a step back and serves as a facilitator or coach, not as the director, of the project.

In most cases, the instructor’s job has already been done in teaching the basic concepts needed for the task before students received the challenge. The necessary Standards of Learning (SOL’s) were mastered before students reached this point, which is often a culminating activity for a unit of study.

Once the projects were finished, the teacher assumed her normal role again and assessed each group’s completed work with a rubric.

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The nationwide movement for STEM learning was born in the business world where companies increasingly found that new employees were lacking in collaboration, communication, and problem solving skills.

Seiler, W.E.Cundiff Principal Sherry Bryant, and another teacher were trained on incorporating the strategy at their school at a state conference in Children’s Engineering and came back to share what they had learned with the rest of the staff.  They have also received about two years of in-services provided by Roanoke County Schools to learn the teaching techniques and the mindset involved. Another group of seven teachers and assistant principal Dana Stevens will be attending a conference this spring.

“STEM projects enable students to see how the information they learn is important by applying facts they have learned to solve problems,” said Bryant. “These activities allow for a balance between the SOL’s and application of information. You have to live this to understand it.”

Seiler circulated constantly through the classroom as teams were at work, reminding them of the criteria, perhaps asking a pointed question if a team seemed “stuck,” encouraging them, if they had reached a roadblock.

About twenty students stayed fully engaged during the Valentine Card activity. They seemed to assign themselves or their teammates roles based on talents and interests; they used the math terminology articulately throughout the morning, and frequently referred back to their list of criteria.

Seiler finds these projects useful as another means of assessing student learning and mastery.

“It’s pretty apparent which students have mastered a concept and which haven’t as you hear their discussions and see what they create,” said Seiler. “It helps me know what I might need to re-teach and to whom.”

One group of boys had settled on a “Duck Dynasty” theme for their Valentine and produced a card covered in polygons of brown and green in a camouflage pattern. In checking their criteria, they realized that each line segment was going to “cost” fifty cents which would have exceeded their budget. They quickly adapted and began trimming the square shapes into curved shapes to meet the requirements.

Seiler says that one more benefit of STEM-type learning is that students learn that every project isn’t successful.” All grade levels, all skill levels, and all subject areas can use STEM techniques.

The Children’s Engineering website, www.childrensengineering.com, says that “preparing the students of today to become productive citizens of the future, requires our educational system to promote life-long learners who are able to work together to solve realistic problems, as compared to memorization of facts in isolation.

Seiler has been teaching for six years, five of those at Cundiff.  She grew up in the Roanoke Valley and was a member of the first graduating class of Hidden Valley High School.

She says she was first introduced to Children’s Engineering at an in-service at WEC. She will be presenting at the state conference this spring on how schools can begin their own STEM programs.

Seiler says STEM learning is so effective because it “incorporates the four C’s of 21st Century Learning to come up with a solution. The students must learn to collaborate and effectively communicate ideas. They must also use critical thinking skills, and creativity to complete the challenge. Students learn that there is more than one way to approach a task and must apply their problem-solving skills when they encounter a road block. STEM and Children’s Engineering allow students to take ownership of their own learning, which is imperative for educational success in the future.”

“Our elementary teachers have done an excellent job introducing design challenges to our students,” said Dr. Lorraine Lange, Superintendent of Roanoke County Schools. “Our teachers are preparing students to be innovative, which is what they will face in the future.”

Families are being invited to a PTA STEM night at WEC in March so they can experience first-hand this type of learning.