STEM class draws students to school for the challenge

This house was constructed with a light to alert the bears that an intruder was nearby.

BLOOMFIELD, NJ — The Bloomfield School District this summer has been offering a STEM class for sixth- to ninth-graders. It is a free “camp” supported by federal Title I funds and averages about 30 students each week at Bloomfield Middle School. STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The camp was initiated six summers ago by BMS teachers Irene Cohen and Danielle Benevento. Cohen said she was grateful for the administrative support it has received and the $10,000 grant from the Bloomfield Educational Foundation that supported it for the first two years. Benevento is currently on maternity leave, but Cohen has been joined by middle school instructors Derya Kurt, Yvonne Ruiz and Jenny Lucas.

Students are provided with hobby materials and two problems each week whose solutions incorporate STEM thinking. Among the problems were a Rube Goldberg machine, a better way for getting through a maze and a claymation movie.
Claymation is using clay to create a figure which is made to appear to move by using stop-action photography. Cohen and Kurt said making the figure was engineering; making scale model sets for the action required math; and making the figure move realistically was science.

“The claymation was more STEAM than STEM,” Cohen said, alluding to the incorporation of art with a capital “A” inserted into STEM.
Last week, teams of students used the fairy tale of “Goldilocks” to create a home security system for the three bears to keep their porridge safe from the poaching golden-haired girl.

“Every student will tell a story from a different point of view and develop a challenge,” said Cohen, who called STEM-thinking holistic.

Five or six teams of students will work on a problem. Cooperation is stressed and each student makes a contribution. Finished solutions are orally presented to the class, first using a smart board to screen the text of a team’s particular vision of the Goldilocks story. Each student reads a portion of the text. Next, teammates talk to the class about how they arrived at their solution. “Warm” and “cool” criticism is then encouraged from the class. The oral presentations give the students a sense of personal responsibility, Kurt said, and teach them how to learn from criticism.

The models that were built for the Goldilocks security system varied in complexity and charm. Some were simple boxes representing the home of the three bears while another was a sturdy construction of Popsicle sticks. Some teams presented only the bears’ home while others added a Goldilocks figure and one included three sleeping bears on beds.

A solution by one team had Goldilocks tripping over a wire which caused a bucket of cinder blocks to fall on her head. A small, handmade doll represented Goldilocks and the room she enters was constructed from cardboard. Cohen suggested the heavy blocks be replaced with chocolate syrup or Cheerios to teach Goldilocks a lesson without hurting her.
“Suppose the blocks fell on the three bears?” a student also asked.

Some of the solutions were more finished than others. But one that was not finished was lauded for incorporating a cell phone that sent out a signal when touched by a stylus attached to the door that Goldilocks would open to enter the house.

There was also something to be said about the written text the students read at the smart board. Although not a STEM solution per se, all the stories were imaginative and nicely set the stage for the presentation of the security systems. One text even employed two points-of-view — one for the girl and one for the bears.

Another good thing about the camp was where it was located. The middle school is only a walk across a playing field from Clarks Pond and an outdoor classroom. The class went there for a break on the day of the Goldilocks presentations. Cohen said it was very important for students to put their computers aside and get outdoors.

The class which began June 25 concludes tomorrow, Friday, July 19. The instructors said more boys than girls take the camp with about 60 percent being boys.

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