Thanks to a generous private donor
By Olivia Lueckemeyer
STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) programming has long been a priority of the Gunnison Watershed School District (RE1J), with several schools up and down valley offering the curriculum to middle school and high school students.
But not until this year was a STEM program brought to elementary students at the Crested Butte Community School. Thanks to a generous private donor, students in grades one through five now may immerse themselves in subject matters deemed essential by the U.S. Department of Education.
Crested Butte Elementary School (CBES) principal Sally Hensley explained that she became interested in STEM for younger students after exploring the elementary curriculum offered by Project Lead the Way—the district’s go-to resource for STEM programming.
“I became interested in the elementary component, Project Lead the Way Launch, and did some research,” Hensley explained. “I felt it would be beneficial to bring some of the programs here, so with that idea in mind I approached the Hughes family.”
Although they have since moved back to Texas, the Hughes family had students in CBCS when they mentioned to Hensley that she could call on them for support if she ever wanted to implement new curriculum at the elementary level.
“They were very interested in supporting the program and proceeded to get others on board—other school supporters and families with kids in the elementary school,” Hensley explained. “They have made it possible.”
With financial backing from the Hughes family, Hensley approached the RE1J school board and superintendent Doug Tredway for additional support. Since STEM programming was already a priority of the district, the board supplemented the project with money from Fund 26, funds collected from the 2014 voter-approved mill levy override.
“Some of the ballot language from the mill levy included elementary STEM,” Hensley said. “So the school district put some money into helping us get a person from our staff trained in Project Lead the Way modules; the private donation supporters helped us accumulate enough funds so that our pilot is sustainable.”
With the available funding Hensley purchased teaching modules for each grade level and began training a staff member to teach the modules in a pilot format. Each module consists of eight to 10 lessons, and each grade is taught four different modules.
Hensley stressed that while there is often a misconception associated with STEM curriculum that assumes children spend too much time learning in front of a screen, Project Lead the Way Launch incorporates elements that limit excessive computer exposure.
“A lot of it is not happening in front of a computer,” Hensley said. “It’s very literacy-based and incorporates a lot of hands-on learning. There is a lot of writing, reading, discussing and problem-solving.”
Ann Weise, the CBCS library educational assistant trained to administer Project Lead the Way Launch to elementary students, said after teaching the curriculum during the district’s Summer Experience program, she received positive feedback from students who appreciated the program’s autonomous format.
“The students absolutely loved the curriculum,” Weise said. “It’s hands-on and everything is self-directed, so as a teacher you are helping them find their resources and outlining what they do, but then they get to take off. So every kid can access it from their interest level, or ability level, or skill level.”
Each grade level attends a Library Tech and Informational Literacy class once a week, in which they learn either an engineering or a computer science module. Third graders this year, for example, are building machines to save a tiger from a moat.
“The kids who really get it and get machines may build a really advanced machine, versus the kid who has never dealt with a machine before and may build a very simple machine,” Weise explained. “But that’s okay, because we are trying to figure out how to get different solutions to a problem and there is no right answer. It’s all trial and error and it’s extremely accessible.”
Each student is equipped with an iPad, via which the curriculum is accessed on an app. From there, the groundwork is laid for the hands-on component.
“They might use the app to learn about robots, but then they are going to take what they learned and apply it to building a robot,” Weise said. “Or they may use the app to learn about the design process for a paintbrush, and then they will apply it to building a paintbrush.”
In 2009, President Obama launched his “Educate to Innovate” Campaign for Excellence in STEM Education, which aimed to set a priority of increasing the number of students and teachers proficient in these vital fields. Since then, schools districts across the nation have incorporated STEM curriculum into their day-to-day operations, and RE1J is no different. While the program at CBES is only a pilot, the hope is it will be well received and incorporated into the regular curriculum.
“The real goal is that if the pilot is successful and engaging for students and worth all that we are putting into it, then the district will look at adopting the program district-wide,” Hensley said. “If it works well in Crested Butte, and it’s good for our children, then it will be good for all children.”
In the meantime, the pilot program will continue in true Crested Butte fashion—through the generosity of private donors and the community as a whole.