John Becker kept his eyes riveted on the Lego robotics set, barely able to answer questions because of his focus on the project.
“Hand me a number seven and a five,” he said to teammate Blair Chance.
Then he added, “I’m the team leader.”
Blair, the designated engineer of the group, was just about as engrossed in the project as John. He found the pieces John needed and handed them to him as fellow students Justin Keegan, go-getter of the group, and Brandon McEntire, recorder of the group, organized the rest of the kit.
John, a fifth-grader at Julia Randall Elementary (JRE), along with 86 other third- through eighth-graders spent four days of their fall break playing with genetics, solving crimes, geo-cache adventuring and building robots.
The students would not have had such an amazing experience without the commitment of teachers and aids.
Six middle and high school teachers and three aids each gave up more than 20 hours of prep time and 16 hours of program time during their fall break to facilitate the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) camp. That added up to an estimated 264 hours of time outside of their regular jobs.
Marlene Armstrong headed up the group. She obtained outside funding from the Holbrook-Pyle Foundation and the Health Occupation and Safety Association for Future Health Professionals to fund the supplies.
“This is the future of education, but the prep time needed is not possible in a regular schedule,” she said.
With common core standards set to come into effect next year, the new state and federal educational mandates encourage and sometimes require project and group learning, but Armstrong worries. She said teachers simply do not have the time or resources to facilitate that type of learning, but the STEM camp was an overwhelming success.
Each day after the camp, Armstrong had the children fill out questionnaires asking to rate the day from one to five, with one being “not fun” to five “super fun.”
“All the kids rated the days a five,” said Armstrong.
She also asked if the kids liked math and science, and overwhelmingly the students said they did not care for either subject.
Yet to watch the children focus on the robotics kits, it was hard to imagine all of them did not love science.
But it took a coordinated effort from the staff.
Teachers Kristi Kisler, Ross Carpenter, Barbara Quinlan, Stacey Summers, Scott Davidson and Michael Ellis along with aids Alissa Dunman, Angie Newbold and JoAnne Clawson spent hours in preparation and presentation to engage the kids in various science projects.
Armstrong had different teachers take the responsibility to organize a day’s activity. Davidson cashed in on his friendship with the state rangers at the Tonto Natural Bridge to find a location for the geo-caching day. Kisler recruited parent James Scouten to place all of the caches in preparation for the day.
Quinlan worked on the genetics day. She and Armstrong wrangled gel electrophoresis machines from Northern Arizona University and the Gila County Superintendent’s Office to pull out genetic material for the kids to study.
Ellis used his engineering background to facilitate the robotics day on Friday, the last day of the camp.
Organizers split the grades into groups according to their abilities on the robotics day. Third-graders had simple designs, while the fourth- and fifth-graders worked on more complex designs, which included simple engines. The sixth- through eighth-graders worked with Vex robotic kits.
Kisler worked with the younger children.
“It’s a progressive robotics class,” she said, “First they receive the gears, second, we give them a picture, and third, they receive more complicated instructions.”
As she described the third-graders’ class, Matthew McCombs walked up holding a levered sling.
“We accidentally made this,” he said as he lifted up his group’s creation for Kisler to take a look.
“That is wonderful! Let me take a picture,” she said as she snapped a shot.
Back in the fourth- and fifth- grade room, John’s group finished up their project — a vehicle that looked like a moon rover.
As John flipped a switch, the vehicle lurched forward, but then got stuck.
“Hmmm... I’ve gotta move this to make it work... Hand me a new number four piece,” he said to his team as he brought their project back to the table to fiddle with — just as any good project manager would do.