Civil Engineers...in Training: Susie Dasher students learn STEAM skills
By Jason Halcombe
The stack of LEGO blocks was placed gently on the foot-high tower of paper tubes, masking tape and cardboard, and the waiting game began.
“1…2…3…4…” came Mrs. Shayna Morgan’s voice from behind the camera, getting more excited the closer and closer the count came to “30.” And when she reached the half-minute mark, the class erupted into cheers, jumping around the classroom with as much fervor as their varsity brethren had done in Shamrock Bowl following a last-second win over Veterans one week prior.
Except this victory was less about defeating an opponent on the field of play, and more about realizing one’s full potential in a challenging field like civil engineering.
It’s a scene that has been playing out in Morgan’s “SMART LAB” on Thursdays and Fridays the first several weeks of school, as students use fun activities tied to old fairy tales like “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” to learn advanced skills and methodology tied to Susie Dasher Elementary’s Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (STEAM) theme.
Morgan, a former Kindergarten teacher, was approached by principal Lakeisha Fluker to spearhead the “SMART LAB” as part of the school’s transition from STEM to STEAM, which she took and ran with in search of curriculum and project ideas for students in all grades. “What we’re doing here is very new all across the nation,” Morgan said. “I think there are only two other elementary schools in Georgia who are STEAM schools, and both of those are in Atlanta.”
STEAM at the elementary level is so new, Morgan said, that she couldn’t locate materials offered by the state and instead used high school-level curriculum as a base to build an age-appropriate model for Susie Dasher students.
All the hard work and time spent over the summer has been worth every minute, she said, when paired against successes like that video or the countless other times that students grasp concepts or show interest in abstract ideas like bridge building.
Each week begins the same, with classes beginning the first steps of the Design Loop of:
5) Experiment and
“They’ll maybe do steps 1-2 the first day, and 3-4 Tuesday, then experiment Wednesday and Thursday before presenting on Friday,” Morgan said. “Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t. The biggest thing they learn is that it’s okay to make a mistake.”
“Yes, the students are embracing the value in making mistakes,” Fluker said. “In traditional content areas, so much time is spent in search of the correct answer. Here it isn’t about the ‘right’ answer; it’s about discovering the best answer you can come up with. And, as they’ve seen, there can be more than one ‘right’ answer with these projects.”
In Morgan’s classroom, desks have been replaced with tables and no chairs. And, like one recent Thursday, students spent the majority of the period standing at those tables in full-on design and experiment mode, with straws bent into triangles, paper tubes for supports and plenty of masking tape stretched to offer additional tensile strength for each under-construction bridge.
Students have embraced the civil engineering project with such interest that Morgan said she’s had more than one student recount how they requested parents print copies of different design ideas so they could practice at home or to bring to share with the class.
“This class doesn’t have homework, but some of them have created homework just because it has engaged them so much,” Morgan said.
The national push toward STEAM is one that has been embraced by Georgia Schools Superintendent Richard Woods, who said that “Teachers need flexibility to provide the education each child needs, rather than adhering to a standardized model. We need to make sure our kids are reading on grade level by third grade, engaged in meaningful STEAM instruction and equipped to begin a meaningful career after high school or college.”
Morgan said she’s had plenty of flexibility, and been provided an equal amount of support from school leaders like Fluker, and the results have been students pining over the chance to be the next success.
“Second grade is our leaders right now,” Morgan said, “because all four of their tables have built successful bridges.”
Plans are being put in place to transition the students from civil engineering to other engineering fields like aerospace, environmental and mechanical. “I’ve been thinking about a mechanical engineering project involving Cinderella’s castle,” Morgan said.
The brainstorming and projects won’t be limited to the classroom for long, either, with Susie Dasher vying for a grant project that will bring a STEAM-focused garden and greenspace where students can employ concepts as they play.
“We’re going to call it the ‘Tinker Yard,” Morgan said. “We’re planning to have a Physics Fort, with pulleys, gears, levers and a pendulum so students can watch as it makes marks in the sand. We’re also going to have a ‘Gear Garden.”
The only thing standing in the way of these students becoming the next Eiffel, Bell or da Vinci, Morgan hopes, will be their own imaginations. “It’s wonderful,” she said. “We’ve had so much fun, and seen so much improvement that their regular teachers have started coming earlier and earlier to pick students up so they can watch and enjoy the success with them.”