Killip Elementary School fifth-grader Oscar Landa lights up as he explains how his classmates studied how the nitrates from fish waste can feed plants. Then, they designed a way to filter and pump water from a fish tank to a nearby aquaponic green wall, where tiny green pepper plants are starting to sprout from vertical planters filled with seeds.
This is the new face of education at Killip Elementary. Students learn by incorporating research, science, technology, math and engineering into hands-on projects rather than learning only from textbooks.
“It’s more fun,” Landa said. “I like books, but it gets boring when you just sit there for a long time. When you do STEM, you can experience things with your hands and make stuff.”
Killip Elementary is halfway through a pilot program that aims to turn the school into a fully functioning STEM academy by 2016.
In 2013, Science Foundation Arizona awarded Killip Elementary and six other schools around Arizona a three-year, $400,000 Helios STEM School Pilot grant. They were tasked with collaborating with Science Foundation Arizona and community partners to create a new education model.
“Our goal over the next three years was to find a way to get STEM on the plate for every kid in a meaningful and rich way here at Killip,” said Killip STEM Coordinator Ted Komada.
Under the old method, math, reading and science were taught as separate subjects. Teachers at Killip now integrate STEM by using science-related texts in their reading lessons, allowing students to use iPads to research and compose presentations on the topics they are studying, taking field trips to STEM-related businesses and using the school garden as an extension of the classroom.
By the end of this school year, each student at Killip Elementary will have spent a minimum of 15 weeks out of the 36-week school year in integrated STEM instruction. On top of that, STEM has been incorporated into extracurricular activities like STEM, robotics and chess clubs.
Killip Principal Josepeh Gutierrez described the new model as a shift from the “teaching to the test” method that flourished under No Child Left Behind to a teaching style that prepares students for the high-tech industries that dominate today’s business world.
“We are really looking for a classroom that is student-centered as opposed to teacher-centered,” he said. “That is where 21st century skills come in, where the kids are, through direct guidance of the teacher, moving the learning forward through their inquiry.”
Gutierrez said he will measure the success of the STEM pilot program through testing as well as qualitative data, such as how many Killip students go on to STEM magnet programs in middle school. He also expects the school’s efforts to boost students’ standardized test scores in reading and math.
Inquiry-based learning is especially important for closing the opportunity gap at a Title I school like Killip.
“When you come from a school where 98.6 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch, when you have kids who come from an impoverished setting, one of their ways out is education,” Gutierrez said.
He hopes the STEM academy model will give the children at Killip real-life experiences that will help them become interested in STEM careers.
“I think back to when our kids are young,” Gutierrez said. “When you ask, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ they say, ‘I want to be a fireman, a policeman, a doctor a lawyer.’ Somewhere, when kids start getting into fourth, fifth, sixth grade, those dreams start fading. I’ve always asked myself, ‘Why?’ Well, it’s the lack of experiences that they have.”