Los Altos School District boosts STEM delivery in elementary schools

Photos By Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier
Gardner Bullis School kindergartners use Bee-Bot robots as tools to learn the basics of programming in their school’s new Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics laboratory.

It’s not unusual to see kindergartners in Los Altos School District classrooms this year learning the basics of robot programming.

Supported by funding from the Los Altos Educational Foundation, the school district hired a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) teacher for each elementary school campus.

Content and classroom-to-classroom needs drive the program, still in its early stages. The main focus of the STEM teachers this year is to assist in physical science instruction, introduce computational-thinking activities and host Making/Tinkering lunch clubs.

“The idea now is to have a STEM teacher who is really helping in a co-teaching situation to provide cross-disciplinary lessons where students have to use design challenges to solve real-world problems using science, technology, engineering and math,” said Alyssa Gallagher, district director of strategic initiatives and community partnerships.

Kindergartners through second-graders use Bee-Bot robots and iPad applications as the basis for their computational thinking. Third- and fourth-graders use LEGO WeDo, a more advanced robotics tool, and scratch programming to advance toward 3D design in fifth grade and computer science in sixth grade.

“It is really like learning a foreign language,” Gallagher said. “Programming is essentially learning to think in logical patterns – it is teaching students how to use language and technology to create.”

The STEM teachers have expressed excitement to be a part of the program.

“It is a lot of hands-on learning,” said Grace Choi, STEM teacher at Loyola School. “It is teaching concepts through different means and materials. Parents and teachers are excited, and I feel so blessed to be on this bandwagon and enjoying the ride.”

Many students attend the weekly Making/Tinkering clubs at each campus, and it’s not uncommon to hear them telling their parents what they did during lunch as they leave school, said Amy Shelley, STEM teacher at Gardner Bullis School.

“When I see the students walking home from school, if they have been to the lab that day, they talk about what they are doing and how excited they are,” she said.

According to Shelley, the lunch sessions are the ideal place for students to attempt challenging activities without fear of failure.

“I think kids need to be able to learn how to problem solve,” she said. “To be given a challenge and sometimes fail but find a better solution because of that failure – that is what engineering is. It is less about memorization and reading (and more about) analyzing, touching, feeling, exploring and finding the answers for themselves.”

Enhancing physical sciences

The STEM teachers also contribute to the science curriculum by supplementing each classroom teacher’s physical science instruction. The goal is for classroom and STEM teachers to collaborate to add experiments beyond the previous offerings, said Karen Wilson, STEM coach for the school district.

Gallagher said the STEM enhancements meet the new Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards, recently adopted by the California Department of Education.

“We want to help students begin to make cross-curricular connections,” she said. “It is not about learning an isolated programming skill, it’s about integrating it into what they are already learning.”

One example of that is seeing younger students use their Bee-Bot robots on a map, incorporating geography in their programming lessons.

Both Wilson and Gallagher stressed that the program is a work in progress, but added that they are excited to be on the cutting edge of delivering STEM to students. They have been asked to discuss the district’s STEM program at a statewide conference.

“When they sent someone to the moon, they didn’t know how they were going to get to the moon, but they said they were going to do it anyway,” Gallagher said. “That is sort of our mantra. We don’t have all the details that our STEM program entails yet, but we know that it is important for kids to have a STEM program.”

District teachers are using Twitter this year, often touting various STEM lessons in the classroom. To view their tweets, search #lasdk8.

STEM at Gardner Bullis - By Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier

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