STEM Infusion Project provides fun challenges for distance-learning students
Coronavirus may have closed North Carolina classrooms, but a new partnership between Fleet Readiness Center East and Craven County Schools ensures area students continue learning about science, technology, engineering and math. The STEM Infusion Project, brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, has injected a little fun into the digital learning experience.
The STEM Infusion Project encourages students to design and build various challenges, including a confetti blaster, a Rube Goldberg machine – those complicated gadgets that perform a simple task, made famous by Wile E. Coyote in Looney Tunes – and other complex concepts using only materials they can find around the house.
The program, designed with different levels of difficulty for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, came about when North Carolina schools shifted to a distance-learning format in mid-March, said Michelle Smith, a high school technology, engineering and design educator with Early College of Eastern Applied Sciences and Technology (EAST) in Havelock. Smith, who leads the program from the Craven County Schools side, said it is important to her to provide students with opportunities to continue working with engineering concepts even while learning from home.
“The goal is to make learning fun and challenging for students and teachers through STEM design challenges that are fun and can be done by anyone, anywhere, with only materials they find around the house,” she said. Because Smith had worked closely with FRCE’s engineering outreach program for years, she invited the depot to assist – and FRCE was happy to oblige.
Randall Lewis, innovation lead at FRCE’s Fleet Support Team Site Support Office, said the depot’s involvement in the project is a natural fit. FRCE normally conducts outreach by visiting schools with the FabLab, a mobile learning unit equipped with high-tech fabrication resources including 3D printers. With the rest of the school year’s visits canceled, the STEM Infusion Project provides FRCE with an excellent avenue to continue supporting STEM education.
“With the FabLab parked for the rest of the school year due to COVID-19, I wanted to find a way to keep engaging students remotely,” Lewis said. “We want to keep kids engaged in STEM topics while they are stuck at home. Biweekly STEM challenges seemed to fit the bill, and I’ve been able to partner with a handful of teachers from Craven County who are interested in the same type of engagement.”
With three challenges complete and the fourth under way – it started May 16 and closes May 29 – the ongoing series has a final round scheduled to begin May 30. The contest and is open to all students, regardless of which school district they traditionally attend. Challenge rules and information can be found on the Fleet Readiness Center East Facebook page at facebook.com/fleetreadinesscentereast.
The program made a big impact when the first challenge launched, with 145 students submitting videos of their finished designs. There has been good participation throughout the duration, but the project’s organizers say the numbers aren’t the most important metric for success.
“I love seeing how creative the students are,” Lewis said. “Many of the designs they come up with are very unique. I also love that many of them choose to involve parents or siblings in their projects.”
“Without a doubt, the family involvement has been the best part,” Smith agreed. “Seeing the smiles of family members and the acting they did for the video demonstrations was so much fun. As a teacher, knowing a family is having fun working on a remote learning project together is incredibly rewarding.”
For Whitney Hernandez, a fifth-grade teacher at Roger Bell New Tech Academy in Havelock who helps organize the project, watching the students’ creativity and flexibility has been inspiring.
“My favorite aspect of the STEM Infusion Project has been the excitement of our local youth and seeing the finished products, demonstrations and explanations of their designs and how they worked or didn't work,” she explained. “It has been refreshing to see students thinking outside of the box throughout a very unprecedented learning shift and environment change. The STEM Infusion project has boosted student engagement which has resulted in quality designs and critical thinking.”
Smith, Hernandez and a volunteer team of educators develop each new challenge, and depot’s engineers volunteer to serve as judges for each contest by reviewing the entries and grading them against the evaluation criteria. According to the teachers, getting the contest’s logistical elements in place proved to be the biggest initial obstacle.
“The most challenging part of the program has been organizing the infrastructure, as in how and where the videos are posted and how they will be judged,” Hernandez explained. Once the team finalized those aspects, organizers shifted their focus to developing the individual projects, which provides an ongoing challenge.
“I think going forward, the biggest challenge is going to be designing (projects) that are fun and engaging, can be scaled in difficulty for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, and most of all that can be done using only things that anyone could find around the house,” Smith said. That has proven to be a tall order for an engineering teacher accustomed to working with the supplies found in her classroom.
“Making the challenges equitable and possible for every single student is the first requirement as we develop new challenges,” she continued. “If it requires a glue gun or craft sticks, it isn't fair to all students so we won't use it in this competition.”
Smith and the team don’t want to place an unnecessary burden on the participants by requiring specialized supplies or equipment. They also didn’t want to place an additional burden on educators who are acclimating to this new learning environment right along with their students
“No one was prepared or ready for this complete shift in education. The learning curve was kind of like running into a brick wall, to be honest,” Smith said. “It has all been a little overwhelming for educators, students, and their families. Originally, (the project) was to provide teachers with a learning activity that would infuse a little fun into their virtual classrooms and to give students an engaging assignment that doesn't involve looking at an electronic screen. What better way to do both of these than STEM activities?”
“It is designed in a way to not be ‘one more thing’ for teachers to do, but to be able to integrate it into other subject areas to provide hands-on learning experiences for students outside of the classroom and school building,” Hernandez explained. “The ultimate goal is having teachers implement STEM tasks in core subject areas once things return back to ‘normal.’ I would hope this is the start of something that will far outlast the stay-at-home order.”
In the meantime, Smith said, watching the participants’ submission videos makes her feel hopeful.
“These young people are so creative, and funny and intelligent. I encourage everyone to at least watch the Week 1 announcement video to see a small sample,” she said. “It will make you feel really good about our future.”
“I would like to encourage everyone with kids at home to participate” Lewis added. “From the feedback we have received from parents, it has been a great experience watching the students develop their designs as they work through issues or challenges. It’s a great way for parents to observe their child problem solving and using skills they have learned at school in a practical way.
“Our goal is to provide local students with opportunities to stay engaged with STEM while at home,” he continued. “We strive very hard to promote STEM education in Eastern North Carolina and this is a way that we can still make an impact on students without being able to physically visit them at school.”
FRCE is North Carolina's largest maintenance, repair, overhaul and technical services provider, with more than 4,000 civilian, military and contract workers. Its annual revenue exceeds $835 million. The depot generates combat air power for America’s Marines and naval forces while serving as an integral part of the greater U.S. Navy; Naval Air Systems Command; and Commander, Fleet Readiness Centers.