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STEM Kits Allow Students to Learn 'Like a Real Scientist'

Stem kitsMay 4, 2021 — Michael Davis vibrates with excitement as he peers into the small microscope on his desk.

Underneath the microscope’s plastic slide is part of an azalea bloom — a velvety white flower tipped with a hint of fuchsia. Michael, a fourth-grader at Allen Jay Elementary in High Point, bolts upright with a start and scribbles furiously on a blank sheet of paper. He repeats the process a few times, while his partner, Ariana Romero Lopez, patiently points a flashlight at the slide.

Michael reaches into his desk, feeling for some crayons. A touch of a pink … a little bit of green … and voila: “Here’s what I saw!” he beams, holding up his drawing for all to see. “It’s a flower, and it’s got green in the middle and lots of white and …”

But the other kids in Brittany Nunes’ science classroom pay him no mind. They’ve got their own flowers to observe.

Nunes’ students are among hundreds of third- and fourth-graders in High Point who are benefitting from the district’s new STEM kits — the generic name for interactive tools that help students learn science, technology, engineering and math.

stem kitsThe $25,000 purchase was made possible by a gift from the Oak Foundation. A $30,000 donation allowed the Guilford Education Alliance to purchase the STEM kits and give the remaining $5,000 to the Teacher Supply Warehouse, says GEA’s Dawn Spencer, program coordinator of the alliance’s High Point Schools Partnership program.

The district had previously used its own money to buy STEM kits for the district’s fifth-grade science classes, but this is the first time that younger students have been able to use them. At Allen Jay, teachers are using the kits to supplement the traditional instruction they’ve been delivering to students for years. Only this time, kids are learning while doing, which boosts engagement and retention.

“The kits provide the same lessons through different perspectives,” says Carla Flores-Ballesteros, the school’s principal. “It opens up new horizons for them, in a sense. It gives them the opportunity to manipulate the materials, but it also develops critical thinking skills.”

In Nunes’ class, for example, the kits are augmenting a unit on the parts of a plant. She sent her students into the courtyard outside her classroom to gather small pieces of flowers or plants. Then they paired up and took turns either looking into the microscope or holding the flashlight. Once complete, they sketched out what they saw — hence Michael’s announcement to his classmates.

The following week, after teaching them about the pistil and the stamen and the stem, she asked the kids to pull out their drawings and label the parts.

Nunes didn’t realize how excited the kids were until one of them told her: “I didn’t know we’d get to use tools like a real scientist.”

“Ordinarily, there wouldn’t be a microscope for this unit,” she says. “For these students, that’s huge. It brings a level of engagement that wouldn’t have been there before.”

Academic research backs up Nunes’ anecdotal observations, showing that STEM courses in particular are well suited to hands-on learning, no matter what the students’ ages. A study by the University of Chicago revealed that students who physically experience the science they’re learning understand it more deeply and retain it more easily.

nunes and studentAccording to Spencer, the former principal of Allen Jay, the kits came at just the right time in the school year — as many students were transitioning from virtual classrooms back to the brick-and-mortar ones.

“These kids have been involved in remote learning for half the school year,” she says. “Now not only are they back, but they have these kits. This is what real learning is all about.”

A few classes down from Nunes’, students in Katherine Tuttle’s third-grade class are using a kit to learn more about animals — and not just your run-of-the-mill cows, horses and pigs, either. The kids are carefully cutting out pictures of various birds, fish and mammals in order to understand how they breathe.

Nine-year-old Naggelly Cruzamaya was considering matters, though: “I think they call it a macaw because that’s the sound they make,” she mused out loud to no one in particular.

Then, for good measure, she added: “Macaw, macaw!!”