Shawnee Mission piloting new program to bolster elementary STEM learning

SMSD-logoThree Shawnee Mission elementary schools are piloting STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum that could have children thinking differently about even the classic tale of the Three Little Pigs.

Santa Fe Trail, Oak Park Carpenter and Comanche schools are testing a new Project Lead the Way program created specifically for elementary students. Just a few months into the effort, elementary teachers and principals are already impressed with the curriculum, said Shawnee Mission STEM Director Christy Ziegler.

“At the elementary level it’s all tied to literacy and literature. In kindergarten we might be reading about the Three Little Pigs and getting that rich literature and thinking about cause and effect,” Ziegler explained.

Then teachers would ask targeted questions that get students brainstorming ideas that relate back to engineering and design concepts.

“How would the pigs build a better house? The kids would get into some open-ended problem solving and they’d have some construction materials and play around,” Ziegler said.

It encourages them to consider structure and function alongside other learning material.

“There are some really fun concepts that come into the elementary learning environment,” Ziegler said.
Shawnee Mission already uses Project Lead the Way curriculum for middle and high school students.

The learning material is considered a key way to inspire STEM development and careers, which are expected to grow by about 17 percent by 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. The non-profit program has designed curriculum to encourage activities and projects that build critical thinking techniques. It is aligned with Common Core standards for math, English language arts, Next Generation Science Standards and other state standards, according to the non-profit.

The pilot schools are taking different paths for implementation.

At Santa Fe Trail Elementary some third-grade students worked on activities after school in November and December. Oak Park Carpenter offered the program to all sixth-grade students during the regular school day in November and December. Comanche will start its after-school pilot this spring with some third-grade students.

“During the 2014-15 school year only a few units were available per grade level which is why we chose to implement this as a pilot project,” she said. “We are very excited to see the fully developed curriculum which should be available through Project Lead the Way this fall.”

At Santa Fe Trail the students combined the project with technology using computer applications. One app, Aero, allows the students to analyze force, motion and the principles of flight.

“The students are able to simulate the flight of a bird – controlling the wings to learn what happens with lift and aerodynamics associated with the working of the wings,” she said.

Then they’re expected to take the principles they learned and build a model out of light-weight cardboard.

Not surprisingly elementary teachers and principals throughout the district are eager to see the program at their school.

“It’s going well, Ziegler said, and we are very much excited about expanding it for next year.”