The Free Press, Mankato, MN

November 25, 2012

St. Peter introduces STEM to elementary schools

By Amanda Dyslin
Free Press Staff Writer

ST PETER — Little kid fantasies of destroying machines and electronics — for creative purposes, of course — have been coming true in Dan Chies’ fourth-grade STEM class at North Intermediate in St. Peter.

The St. Peter school district donated old, defunct machinery to Chies’ class — things like old radios and televisions. And, as he put it, the parts have been flyin’ as the students were charged with making their own inventions.

Karen Coblentz, North Intermediate School principal, said the STEM programming for third through sixth grade is new this year, serving as a feeder into STEM curriculum already in place at the middle and high school levels.

The idea is to introduce students early to science, technology, engineering and math concepts, and show them how they relate to any number of careers.

“Science and technology is where schools are going now,” Chies said. “And it’s where the nation is going. The U.S. is behind in science and engineering. It’s pretty crucial to start this now.”

Obviously, STEM classes at the elementary level look much different than in high school and college. The concepts being introduced are basic, but still get the students to start thinking critically, Chies said.

Chies meets with each class for one hour once a week.

“I try to (teach) things that last weeks, so they’re improving to the next week,” he said.

Chies looks at the science standards from the Department of Education and looks for areas to infuse technology and engineering concepts. Examples might include building a rollercoaster, or other “fix, build and create” type projects, he said, often asking himself, “How can I make this a hands-on lesson?”

Recently, third-graders started a three-week unit on careers in STEM. They had to brainstorm various kinds of jobs, and then think of how they relate to science, technology, engineering or math.

A chef, for example, relates to math because he or she may have to count calories, just as a dentist may have to count teeth.

“Then they can really make those connections,” he said.

The sixth grade has been working with Lego robotics kits.

“The first lesson for that was ‘just make stuff.’ Make a car, make a two-wheel vehicle, make your gears work,” he said.

As the lessons advance, the students are given special challenges, such as making two gears work together, or making a particular gear work in a specific way.

“They’re really building this knowledge on their own,” he said. “They’re exploring on their own.”