STEM Education at Blue Ridge

Picture of Dash Robot provided by Wonder Works. Blue Ridge Elementary students work with these robots with Mrs. Angie Zick.

By: Daniel Tierney/Webmaster

Blue Ridge is currently working to increase education, interest, and performance in some of the most important subjects in the world: STEM.  The word “STEM” in this case is an acronym for four subjects ― science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  In the modern world, people advanced in these subjects are in high demand.

“Scientific and technological innovations have become increasingly important as we face the benefits and challenges of both globalization and a knowledge-based economy,” says Mr. Joseph Page, a director of the STEM program at Blue Ridge and teacher of the new STEM classes in the middle school.

The STEM program aims to prepare students for this new, innovative society.  Instead of having the classes taught separately, the students are taught how to synthesize their knowledge in different subjects into one cohesive subject and then apply their skill to develop new things.

Having one subject where students combine their knowledge also helps to teach and reinforce concepts learned in other classes.

High school computer science and math teacher Paul Sokoloski says, “STEM subjects help with logical thinking and problem solving.  These skills can be transferred to any other discipline and be of great help in learning anything.”

In response to the increasing demand and the potential benefits, Blue Ridge has created and implemented a district-wide STEM education program, gradually being included in the curriculum at every grade level.

In the elementary school, Mrs. Angie Zick teaches various technology classes.  Right now, all of the elementary students are learning to write computer code in some way.  For example, the students work with Wonder Workshop’s Dash Robot and program it to do different things and follow different patterns.  In the process, the kids learn the fundamental parts of computational thinking and how to apply it.

When the students move on to middle school, they are introduced to more STEM classes that range from grades six to eight.  With Mr. Page, students work with platforms such as Scratch, Codeacademy, Ozobots, and TryEngineering in order to develop science and engineering problem solving skills.  They ask questions and define problems, investigate those problems, interpret collected data, and support and argue solutions from their data.  In the process, students’ math and computational thinking skills are reinforced and expanded.

Later on, high school students are given the option to continue their STEM program in two computer science courses: Computer Science Essentials (CSE) and AP Computer Science Principles (CSP).  The computer science classes have an emphasis on teaching students to design new products to solve problems in the world.  They also go in-depth with how to create those products using modern technology, using programming languages like HTML and Python.

Student reactions are mostly positive.  According to all of the involved teachers, students taking the classes have shown enthusiasm and interest towards the subjects.

“They are very, very excited about using robots,” said Mrs. Zick of the younger students.

On the other hand, the high school computer science class may be drawing the wrong audience.  According to Mr. Sokoloski, “some students take the course thinking it is about playing games.”  That doesn’t mean bad news for the class, though.  It is important to remember that the computer science class is more focused on a specific concept than the other STEM classes, so it will naturally attract a smaller group of students.  The important part is that the students who take the courses based on curiosity or interest in the computer science field are expressing similar enthusiastic reactions as those in the lower grade levels.

A notable goal the teachers have seems to be expanding the STEM education program to new levels in response to student reactions and requests.  Students in the middle school classes wish for a more hands-on learning experience, and things are being done to get there.

Plans for the future include getting 3D printers, K’nex building sets, and littleBits.  Mrs. Zick also plans to implement  new activities in the curriculum.  Starting at the beginning of this year, Blue Ridge began offering the AP version of the Computer Science Principles class, taught by Mr. Sokoloski.

Mr. Page would like to emphasize that Blue Ridge needs the support of other members in the community in order to make an impact.

“Our Intermediate Unit (IU#19) needs to take a proactive stance to become more involved with its constituents and promote STEM from within,” says Mr. Page.

The Blue Ridge STEM programs have grown rapidly in the past few years.  Students enjoy the classes, and the teachers are making plans to develop the program even further.  STEM is an important part in the technological world, and Blue Ridge is ready to be a part of it.