You’ve probably heard of Extreme Sports, but maybe not of Extreme STEM, or X-STEM. The day of my visit to Glenallen Elementary School, United States public X-STEM schools in Montgomery County in Maryland, a group of first graders wears lab-coats and hard hats as they embark on a construction challenge. Another group of students from fifth grade has been challenged to produce renewable energy. Over the past weeks they have researched, designed and built windmills to lift and empty the contents of a cup. They now test their windmills in front of an electric fan. The Wind Team quickly takes the lead as it takes them only 6.9 seconds to lift and empty the cup, but in the end they are beaten by another team’s windmill, which requires only 3.6 seconds to complete the task.
STEM, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, with a real world connection. That is what the teachers strive to achieve this year after transforming Glenallen into a STEM Academy and a X-STEM school over the summer.”The aim is to get students passionate about STEM” the school principal Peter Moran tells me.
“Why is the water polluted?” Zulay Joa asks her group of fifth graders that have detected high acidity in the pond of their make-believe Greentown.”Mrs STEM, I think it’s the medicine factory making the water dirty” says one student, while another suggests that the acidity may be caused by the town’s farm. Zulay explains that after the students have formulated and tested their different hypotheses to determine the source of the pollution, each team will get an imaginary budget of US$20 million to purchase string, sponges and other materials they need for clean-up and prevention in their miniature town model.
”We want them to see that STEM is crucial to making our society work. When the students get to solve real life problems they realize that math and science are meaningful” explains Zulay. But perhaps one of the students explains the approach best:”It’s cool. Instead of seeing pictures of stuff, we get to do it.”
The main challenge to this type of inquiry-based STEM education is immersion. The curriculum requirements of most school systems make immersion almost impossible. You simply cannot do a meaningful science project in 45 or 60 minute segments once or twice a week that are prescribed by most education systems. What Peter and his team have managed to do is to make immersion possible within the constraints of such a piecemeal curriculum. They expand the time spent on STEM projects by working across subject areas. The homeroom science lessons follow the curriculum, but are complemented by hands-on science activities during the special subject periods, and related statistics, problems during math class. Inspired by Paraguay’s Landfill Harmonic Orchestra, the students are even doing STEM during music class where they are designing and producing instruments from recyclable materials.
The next issue to tackle is the STEM gender challenge.”Over the last few years when we built this school, there was not even one woman in the team of architects and engineers. To break that gender imbalance, we have to get girls jazzed about STEM” says Peter Moran. To increase the number of girls who are prepared to pursue STEM careers, he has reached an agreement with a nearby middle school to enlist girls who are strong in STEM as mentors and role models for girls at Glenallen Elementary School. Once he has that program up and running, I hope to be invited back for another visit.
What is Extreme STEM?
The X-STEM School Program of the USA Science and Engineering Festival certifies extreme STEM schools throughout the United States. To qualify as an X-STEM school, the institution must provide student leadership opportunities to promote STEM in their school and community, including the creation of a school STEM Team and the development of a mission statement. The X-STEM schools also develop plans to implement STEM programs and participate in coordination and support meetings organized by the USA Science and Engineering Festival.