Fun and the Force With Families at Stafford Schools’ STEAM Night

By DAVID BIGGY | Jan 18, 2017
Photo by: Ryan Morrill Adam Steinmetz and daughter Ellie build a triangular tower using KEVA planks during Stafford Township School District’s STEAM Night at Stafford Intermediate School on Jan. 12.

Jayson Cantu is a McKinley Avenue Elementary School third-grader who loves to build things. At home, some of his pet projects have included various robots and Lego constructions, including a large Death Star. Yes, that Death Star, the mobile battle station made famous in the space-opera saga “Star Wars.”

“My top-three ‘Star Wars’ movies are ‘Revenge of the Sith,’ ‘The Force Awakens’ and ‘Rogue One,’” Jayson revealed amid the hundreds on hand at Stafford Intermediate School for the Stafford Township School District’s STEAM Night on Jan. 12.

But young Jayson wasn’t really there to discuss the Death Star with other ‘Star Wars’ geeks. He and everybody else was in the house to enjoy some family fun and project development in a carnival-like setting, as he and an estimated 400 attendees made their way through various stations designed to promote many of the STEAM initiatives already going on within the district’s STEAM labs.

“We incorporated STEAM labs into all of our schools this year,” said District Supervisor Jenny Ulbricht, one of more than two dozen faculty members on hand to oversee the activities and delight in the incredible turnout of families. “The purpose of these labs is to teach students about science, technology, engineering, art and math in a way that’s fun and exciting to them.

“Tonight is just a showcase of what they do every day in those STEAM labs. And the turnout, I think, proves that our STEAM labs work. The kids love what they’re doing and a lot of them couldn’t wait to bring their families here for this.”

The Cantu family was just one of many, and at one point they were engaged – along with dozens of families crammed into the hallway behind the Intermediate School’s media center – in constructing a tower of some kind, using only pipe cleaners. Working along with his mom, Kelly, and sister, Madison, Jayson ended up building a 48-inch quasi-replica of what appeared to be the Empire State Building.

“I had an idea before we started and that’s exactly what I wanted to make,” he said. “For this structure, it was all about the reinforcements. I think it’s great how it turned out. It’s amazing.”

About 10 feet away and a few minutes after the Cantu clan’s tower was measured, fourth-grader Rielly Haldenwang, brother Jack and friends Gunnar and Annika Myhre were busy finishing up their colorful menagerie of pipe cleaners. And following the addition of a few more cleaners to their tower’s antenna, the crew dubbed “the Whiners” had become the new leader at 48¼ inches.

“We used teamwork and made it strong at the base,” said Rielly, who for some reason named the creation the Eiffel Stink Tower. “It’s all about the base.”

Around the corner in the gymnasium, 5-year-old Primary Learning Center student Ellie Steinmetz and her dad, Adam, were busy building another sort of tower made of KEVA planks – light wooden slabs measuring about 4½ inches long, three-quarters of an inch wide and one-quarter inch deep. With Ellie eventually sitting on Adam’s shoulders, they built their triangular tower to about 7 feet before enough of a breeze came through to make it topple over and crash to the floor.

“We both had an idea of how to start and it developed as we got higher,” Adam said. “I figured doing the triangles would be easier for Ellie, and for her it was just a matter of placing them just right and stacking them as high as they would go.”

Of course, Ellie’s goal was to go higher than she eventually would have been able to reach without the use of a really tall ladder.

“It was beautiful,” she said. “I wanted it to go up to the ceiling.”

Throughout the gym and the rest of the building, so much more was going on and so many youngsters and parents engaged in various activities – from roller coaster design using spliced foam tubing to cup stacking, and online games in the media center to the Math Carnival, hosted by Southern Regional students from its math club.

“We had kids making slime recipes, doing logic puzzles, going through Estimation Alley with the chance to win a calculator, among other things,” said Southern math club adviser Chris South, who had 20 students on hand to play along with the younger students for a couple of hours. “Most of our students love working with kids, and this was a great chance for them to be a part of this fun night, doing a lot of things many of them hadn’t done since elementary school.”

Additional STEAM stations included the Whirlybird Activity, Fractal Doodles, the “Engineering Challenge” and a variety of activities using air/straw racers, mini cars and Himmeli ornaments.

Teacher Cathy Sbaila, who runs the STEAM lab at PLC and instructs some 300 kindergartners on a daily basis, said STEAM Night was validation that most kids have embraced the new brand of learning within the district.

“A lot of the kids were excited about this and were talking about it for weeks,” she said. “Kids are so tech savvy these days, but sometimes you have to take them back a step to show them how they got to that point. The technology is the end result of a process with many steps, and in our STEAM lab this is what they learn about. And for them, it’s a lot of fun and they enjoy learning.

“But STEAM goes beyond just learning about the process. The students learn about working together, brainstorming and problem-solving, and – one of the biggest things – that it’s OK to fail, go back to the drawing board and do it better the next time.”

Sbaila said the success of STEAM Night – that so many students and families turned out for it – was an indicator the “district is going in the right direction” with utilizing STEAM labs as part of the learning structure. Ulbricht agreed.

“They’re solving real-world problems in the classroom,” she said. “And they’re incorporating teamwork, using all kinds of resources to fulfill their plans, bouncing ideas off each other and encouraging each other. It’s a whole new way of learning, but it’s balanced with having fun. It’s highly student-centered, very hands-on, and I think the turnout tonight shows that it works.”

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