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Success Stemming From Design

Science. Technology. Engineering. Mathematics. Academic disciplines known commonly as STEM are increasingly being elevated in the news as essential to the future success of our students and society.

With the demand for STEM-related employment rising, and the belief that the recent decline of the U.S. economy and industry in the global market is the result of a skills shortage among American workers, both the White House and Department of Education are positioning early STEM education as a key to elevating the United States’ competitive position socially and economically.

But it’s more than just adding extra science, technology, engineering and math classes into the mix.

“Having an integrated STEM curriculum is important for two main reasons,” said Assistant Head of School for Academic Affairs Derrick Willard. “First, it builds process skills in students for how to solve open-ended problems, and second, it builds interest and motivation for students to pursue STEM careers in the future.”

Much more like the authentic problem solving adults do regularly in their jobs and lives, STEM projects and courses are interdisciplinary by their nature, said Willard, ones the students “must navigate using design-thinking — or engineering design process — skills and could lead to multiple, feasible solutions.” 

With many of Ashley McClelland’s Middle School engineering class projects, there’s often no pre-conceived notion of what the final product should look like.

“The most unique aspect of teaching this course is seeing the diversity of thinking, ideas and solution processes,” she said. “I give the same task to five groups of students, and they will generate five totally different completed projects every time.”

Such critical thinking and problem solving skills would well serve any student in any discipline or career, said Willard, as would the collaborative process and teamwork often involved in tackling the assignments. The “ability to work in a team structure” was the number one skill employers sought in graduates, according to a 2014 Forbes magazine article.

“STEM is the engagement of students in collaboration to achieve a goal,” said Lower School Head Kay Montross. “The challenges stimulate thinking and often incorporate creative planning (design thinking), building, testing, deconstructing, rebuilding — creating a sense of perseverance with intention, or ‘failing up.’”

It’s all part of an intentional plan to meet increasing STEM interest from families while preparing students for a future “that is technology driven,” as specified in Dr. Glyn Cowlishaw’s Head of School Strategic Vision 2014-18 document.

“By having STEM integrated into the curriculum, especially in the lower grades, all students can identify themselves as scientist, engineer, builder, techie, mathematician or inventor,” said Willard. “I want every student to see this as a possible future, not just those who are passionate about STEM fields at an early age.”

But the increased emphasis on STEM does not come at the expense of the arts or humanities.

“No school should undertake STEM initiatives at the expense of the arts,” said Willard. “Personally, I much prefer the term STEAM — the A for arts in all forms, including the humanities.”

“We do not want to graduate students with a fixed mindset that they are not creative,” he added. “We want all our graduates to feel empowered to generate unique solutions when faced with unusual problems.”

Lower School Stem
Working Together to Construct Results

For 4th-grade students, a new STEM project involves combining their studies of math and electricity to create movie theaters.

“We had completed our study of long division and wanted to continue to challenge our students in this area, and show them how what they learned in math is applicable in the real world, in real-life situations,” said teacher Leigh Cook.

“They enjoyed the fact that what they were learning in math was also related to what we were studying in science,” she said.

For their “Movie Marathon: A Long Division Math Project,” the students worked in small groups to complete preliminary plans for their theaters — requirements included that each theater must have four rooms, two of which must light up.

The project created opportunities for children to explore different kinds of thinking and creating with limited resources and materials, said Lower School Head Kay Montross.

“It exposes them to deeper thinking and application of knowledge to accomplish a goal,” she said.

The students utilized Google Earth to find suitable theater locations around Charlotte, sketched out possible designs and themes and discussed potential names. They then employed their math skills to complete the design particulars both inside and out — costs of seats, doors, film projectors, movie posters, even restrooms.

“Each of these items had a long division problem attached to it so that they had to work with their cooperative groups to figure  it out,” said Cook.

After the background work was completed, the students used all recycled materials to build models of their theaters, and they created circuits to light the two rooms.

In addition to employing math and science, the students take away much from such a project, said Leigh —working cooperatively, listening to and accepting others’ ideas, learning to compromise and “mesh their ideas with those of their peers so that there is balance and fairness.”

“They also learned how to be patient and how to use their words to communicate their thoughts in a constructive way,” she said.

“Collaboration is the key to any great team,” said Montross. “Learning how to collaborate and feelings of accomplishment takes each child to new levels of understanding and creativity.”

It’s one of 4th grade’s many projects throughout the year that infuse STEM with collaboration — challenging projects that often require cooperative work and compromise to achieve common goals.

Being able to work well with others is a life lesson the 4th-grade teachers work daily to instill in their students, said Cook.

“We feel strongly about our students being able to get along with others — to appreciate the differences that others bring to the group — and appreciating how others think and solve problems,” said Cook. “We believe that with our guidance and their self-reflection that they become more understanding, more empathetic and more accepting people.”

Middle School STEM
Engineering Skillsets and Results

In the 6th-grade Intro to Engineering class, students get hands-on experience in developing their creative problem-solving and project-based skills while learning basic engineering principles.

“The entire curriculum is a series of progressively more complex design challenges in which problems — some real-world, some fictional — are presented, and then students work to create and construct solutions for those problems,” said teacher Ashley McClelland.

The students work collaboratively in small groups to complete the challenges, often with intentionally vague guidelines to encourage their creativity and imagination.

“I give the same task to five groups of students, and they will generate five totally different completed projects every time,” said McClelland, who enjoys watching the diversity of thinking, ideas and solution processes.

“There is no pre-conceived idea of what the final product ‘should’ look like,” she said.

Working in the small groups offers the students opportunities to practice important skills, said McClelland, such as “verbalizing their ideas, considering different perspectives, compromising, delegating tasks, troubleshooting when things don’t go as planned and time management.”

“Collaborating leads to students learning a lot from each other as they share their individual knowledge and skills,” she said. “Many are able to discover their leadership qualities in an authentic leadership scenario.”

     The close-knit collaboration often fosters camaraderie, and allowed 6th-grader Ashley Horwitz to bond with her classmates.

“I liked how we switched table groups with each project because I got a wide variety of opinions, and I got to meet and work with more people in the class,” she said.

The method also helps strengthen students’ confidence. “There is something extremely rewarding in building something that started in your imagination and became something tangible,” said McClelland.

The course has become so popular since it began three years ago that it is being expanded next year, as is the 7th- and 8th-grade Engineering the Future course.

“The courses have evolved with the increased interest in not only our curriculum, but the expanded interest in Science Olympiad and eCYBERMISSION,” said Middle School Head Sam Caudill. 

     Involvement with eCYBERMISSION, a U.S. Army-sponsored educational science fair, has produced nationally-competitive teams and a Middle School national championship team in 2014.

One of the 6th-graders’ many projects involves the construction of miniature solar cars, a component of a larger unit on alternative energy. 

“We begin by presenting the problem of dwindling fossil fuel reserves,” said McClelland. “Student groups then begin by researching alternative energies and do a brainstorm of products that could be made to generate energy without the use of fossil fuels.”

The next few days are spent specifically 

on solar energy — designing and building solar ovens, learning about energy conversion and how solar cells convert radiant energy into electrical energy, and exploring methods to increase solar panel efficiency.

The unit ends with the building and testing of solar cars, each powered by a solar panel. 

“The solar cars are unique in that they are the only challenge with a set of directions to follow while building,” said McClelland. “Students have to find a balance between constructing precisely according to the instructions while still incorporating some of their own design modifications.”

Part of being a STEM educator, said McClelland, means “engaging students in the world around them, teaching them to ask good questions and then how to find answers to their questions, and fostering a lifelong love of learning.”

“The design thinking process used often in engineering is a new way to think for most Middle Schoolers, so using STEM as an avenue to introduce this new process and the skills that go along with it is a nice fit,” she said.

Upper School STEM
Visualizing Solutions to Real-World Challenges

While many schools teach Computer-Aided Design (CAD), PDS implements the Upper School CAD with 3D Printing course in a two-tier approach.

The first part introduces students to the process of visualization and translating ideas to fruition.

“We start off with a sketch, and then we teach them how to further extrapolate pertinent data in an orthographic drawing that will be later used to make the CAD file,” said teacher Matt Ricket.

Next they learn to refine that multi-view drawing with that of an isometric view, showing the object in a 3-dimensional view before employing an AutoCAD program, said Ricket.

The second part involves introducing the students to a real-world challenge they must try to solve. Ricket said this is done in a manner similar to “a design or architectural project driven by the engineering design process” — which involves a series of steps that lead to the development of a new product or system — utilized by NASA, Apple, Microsoft and others.

“The goal is to give the students real-world experience and to work in a group and develop a solution to a problem,” said Ricket. “Learning problem-solving skills — and helping students develop into creative, critical thinkers — is at the core of any true STEM curriculum.”

The fall 2015 semester class partnered with Reggie Clark ’87, former linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Jacksonville Jaguars, to help facilitate the ideation and development of his proposed High Performance Healthcare Center of Charlotte (HPHCC).

The concept was for the HPHCC to function as a three-part facility featuring a medical center, high performance training center and a family/community center.

Partnering with PDS and the class on the project was a “no brainer,” said Clark, because “PDS is not your average school.”

“At Providence Day, anything is possible,” he said. “It also made sense that with the project being the future of health care, who better to get involved than the kids?”

The 16 students approached it all like a design firm working to complete a project for a client — they operated in teams and held meetings with Clark, during which they collected information, set project parameters and shared findings from brainstorming sessions as well as concept development, selection and refinement.

The students gave their final presentation — complete with a scale model of the HPHCC and style boards showing their design direction — in December to Clark and guests that included members of the PDS administration and community, local organizations, the National Football League Players Association and other NFL alumni.

“The class completed in three short months what would take a design or architecture firm twice as much time to complete,” said Ricket. 

The students went above and beyond, said Clark.

“What they did has enabled me to move the project forward and actually hand it over to some really important people, who have put their strategic teams on it,” he said.

Ricket suspected the students had a very fulfilling experience for an elective class.

“They can now say they worked on a team that helped the HPCC get off of the ground and, with any luck, will come to fruition,” he said.

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