by Elizabeth Kunkee
Many parents, like myself, see Middle School electives as a chance to encourage our children to engage in a non-academic subject that will enhance their joy in life. Band, Film, Wheel, Drama, Art…But what about science electives? Is the STEM class and the FabLab class a chance for “science kids” to double up on Math and Science, or is it a class that fosters creativity and is more similar to the arts? My daughter Leah took Girls STEM last year and is now in FabLab. Here are a few of my observations, from my perspective as a parent and an engineer.
In September of 2014, a distinct change came over our family dinners. The year before, in sixth grade, Leah would tell us stories about what she was learning in History. In seventh grade, the excitement was STEM. She’d quiz us by telling us the STEM challenge, and asked us how we would solve it. After getting our answers, she would tell us how each of the teams in her class of 25 tackled the problem. She applied for Girls STEM because she had heard it was fun, and it was living up to its promise.
I wondered what benefits this class was offering. Nothing like it had appeared in my Junior High or High School education, and Leah herself commented on how different it was from all the other science classes she had taken. In STEM, she was encouraged to form a team of 2 or 3 girls, evaluate a problem to be solved, and then join in a competition to design and build a contraption that would address the problem.
The problem solving strategies that my daughter talked about using in her STEM class are familiar from my engineering workplace. On her first project, they were challenged to build a support structure for a pile of heavy books. Instead of simply seeing which team had the strongest structure and declaring a winner, the girls were encouraged to think about the results. They tried again and again, each time getting better results.
On the second project, Leah’s team of three girls asked for two kits of catapult materials; and two girls built one design, while the third girl built a different design. In engineering, we call this “parallel paths for risk reduction”. What I saw was that collaboration techniques that are effective in the engineering world were being discovered and tried out by these 7th graders. With each week’s project, these girls were building confidence in their ability to teach themselves how to solve challenges, and gaining experience by taking in the ideas of other students and then melding them with their own.
As an engineer, I had to wonder, why is it that 12 year old Leah had lived her life in a family where her parents and older brother delight in using math and science to figure things out, yet she remained ho-hum about science; and then, when she got to STEM class, all of a sudden she found that technology and science were fun? Maybe part of the answer is that in STEM, the kids group themselves into self-selected teams, and Leah was in a group of three girls who eat lunch together and enjoy each other’s company.
Another story sheds some light on how the students approach math. One day in STEM class, the students were given a worksheet and were asked to calculate their rocket’s speed and such. She tells me that the teams spontaneously broke up and they all worked on their papers separately, just like in math class. Leah said she did not know how to set up the problem and asked two fellow students for help but was rebuffed. Even though collaboration is encouraged in STEM, when the girls got a math-intensive worksheet, they worked separately.
This year, 8th grade Leah is taking FabLab as her elective. At first she did not want to apply, saying that she didn’t think that many girls took the class. After we met with the teacher and saw the technology gizmos the FabLab students would get to work with, Leah decided to apply for the class. Several months later, she appears to be enjoying it. But because she is an 8th grader, I hear many fewer stories from school…
The technology electives at MBMS, that are largely funded by MBEF, have given Leah a chance to apply her creativity, helped build up her can-do spirit, and have strengthened her social network. The STEM classes have also led her to become more interested in her traditional Math and Science classes, they’ve made school more fun, and they have helped her find a community of girls that like making things and solving problems.
Elizabeth Kunkee is an engineer focused on Innovation at Northrop Grumman, and she also serves on the MBEF Teachers Driving Innovation Grants Panel.