Sparked by an idea to provide students with a new way to process problems, Centennial Elementary School launched a campus-wide literature-based STEM program using parent volunteers, simple materials, and a lot of creativity.
The “Future Engineer” idea developed in a partnership between the Centennial PTO and fourth-grade teacher Jennifer Ignacio. Ignacio created five unique engineering challenges based on stories for each grade level to conduct throughout the year. Supplies and directions for each challenge are stored in kits and rotated between the classrooms. A parent volunteer replenishes the supplies in the kits after each use and then redistributes the kits to the classroom teachers.
The Future Engineer program impressed Higley administration so much that Centennial won the district’s first Innovation Challenge.
There are between 30-35 parent volunteers in the program and most classrooms at Centennial have at least one volunteer. Shortly after school began, Ignacio held a parent training to guide volunteers through the engineering design process and let them try their own challenge. Parents were given strategies on how to facilitate each STEM challenge and how to encourage the children, while at the same time teach them to embrace failure and perseverance.
Ignacio said students learn to identify with the engineering design process and apply the process to their own lives. This serves to make students better critical thinkers and teaches them how to solve problems. For example, one project students will work on this year involves designing a gondola car to deliver a ping pong ball down a zipline made from rope. Each student team will receive straws, paper cups, foil, metal washers, tape, rubber bands, and fishing line. The catch? They are limited to using just five items in 20 minutes to complete the challenge and they must agree as a team how it will come together.
Collaborating as a team allows student groups to consider each other’s design ideas and agree on how they will complete the challenge, Ignacio said.
“It’s neat to have a program that impacts all students across every grade level. I love that all of the teachers, and so many parents, are also enjoying the challenges,” Ignacio said. “I’m excited to see what design principles they start to apply from year to year and how the students’ critical thinking skills develop from challenge to challenge.”