ARTICLE BY JONAH ASHCRAFT | PHOTOS BY JACKIE SUTTON
When Ashlee Griffith enrolled in a science-education class at The University of Alabama, she was hoping to help change a stereotypical image of elementary-school classrooms: kids glued to desk chairs, reading textbooks or reviewing multiplication tables.
UA students in the CEE 304/550 Teaching Early Childhood and Elementary School Science course work with teams of elementary children called STEM-gineers to create science, technology, engineering and math projects.
“Kids said things like, ‘Wow, this is so fun! We never get to do stuff like this!’” says Griffith, who is from Savannah, Ga., and recently graduated with a degree in elementary education. “It was enlightening to see you could let kids know school could be fun and interesting, especially in the more scientific fields.” Griffith currently teaches fourth grade at Chesney Elementary School in Atlanta.
Through the CEE 304/550 class, UA students learn to explore children’s prior ideas about science and to teach the subject in pre-K through sixth-grade classrooms, with emphasis on education through inquiry and engineering practices.
“Many children who don’t normally enjoy school are eager to participate,” says Diana Marchant, a teacher at Woodland Forrest Elementary School in Tuscaloosa. “The others are all about figuring out how experiments work and how they can try them at home.”
UA students make sure projects are hands-on and engaging, Griffith says. “One project we did for the younger kids involved learning the life cycle of plants,” she says. “We had the students plant seeds in a garden and then return periodically to see the plants’ growth. The kids loved being engaged and getting to see the progress their work had created.”
Dr. Lisa Fowler, who teaches CEE 304/550 and is a clinical associate professor for curriculum and instruction, says while most primary school subjects are administered universally to all kids, there is a divide in how certain subjects are received by children of different races, genders and social backgrounds. “The STEM-gineers program is important because there is a vast body of research that indicates female and other underserved populations are not pursuing careers in STEM fields,” she says. “Likewise, we know that if we do not encourage children in such endeavors during elementary school, they are less likely to gain interest in careers in those fields.”
Macy Counsell, who graduated from UA with a degree in elementary education and now teaches sixth grade at Prattville Intermediate School in Prattville, Ala., says the class taught her how to get children more interested in schoolwork. “Just making a kid sit in a classroom and listen to a lesson every day wasn’t enough,” Counsell says. “It really took giving them something to do and something to play with that made them really want to learn about it.”
Counsell says one of her favorite lessons involved the water-tension experiment. The experiment allows kids to see how water will stick to surfaces by watching it flowing out one cup, down a string and into another cup.
Each semester, UA students and children present their projects at a STEM Family Night for kids, parents and community members. Family Night gives parents a window into what their children are doing in the classroom and gives kids an opportunity to showcase their science knowledge.
“The parents are as into the science night as the kids,” Marchant says. “They enjoy learning with their children. They are not in a hurry to leave.”
At Family Night, some parents and kids make plans to recreate experiments at home, Marchant says, adding that the elephant-toothpaste experiment is a crowd favorite. In this experiment, kids demonstrate an exothermic reaction by using chemicals to create a large string of foam from a bottle.
The STEM-gineer program takes place at Woodland Forrest Elementary School in Tuscaloosa and involves 45 to 100 UA students per semester and hundreds of elementary children. UA students visit the school at least once a week, working up to several hours with kids in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade. Each UA student creates and leads at least three lesson plans over the semester. In Fall 2017, more than 500 family and community members attended Family Night. UA students spent approximately 18 hours preparing science stations and presenting experiments at the event.
UA students also learn to make connections to other disciplines when teaching science, to understand and take into account kids’ various learning styles and to assess their teaching techniques. They cover the specific science concepts they’ll be teaching at the elementary school and practice experiments while in class at UA.
“Dr. Fowler would model the projects to us and show us how to use them with different grade levels,” Griffith says.
Fowler says she hopes that in addition to promoting interest in science and engineering among children, CEE 304/550 will help strengthen the resolve of future educators.
“I always loved teaching math,” says Griffith, who was a tutor at her high school. “But I was hesitant about getting into the more scientific subjects. This course gave me the confidence to accept a job where I teach science.”
To learn more about STEM-gineers or CEE 304/550 Teaching Early Childhood and Elementary School Science, contact Dr. Lisa Fowler at firstname.lastname@example.org or 256-710-5016.