School should be exciting and engaging–I want to have these little boys go home saying ‘That was the best day ever!’

It used to be,“It’s Maker’s Week!” were magic words to HC elementary kids’ ears in February. Halls erupted with marble runs, kids creating, designing, engineering, coding in multigrade teams all over the school building in lovely glorious crazy messes.

But this year, our south side schools, South Side and Pine Ridge, are taking the STEM concepts of Makers Week and turning them into everyday curricular experiences looking forward to full tilt STEM learning next school year. Like Maker’s Week, kids are still learning and practicing important science, tech, engineering, and math (STEM) concepts, and still in teams, just with masks on and more often than one week out of the year. And with classmates instead of multiple grades.

We can give you all the good pedagogical reasons for why we’re focusing on STEM at South Side and Pine Ridge: STEM occupations are growing at 17% versus other occupations growing at 9.8%. STEM degree holders generally make more money, even when they’re in non-STEM careers. STEM workers and growth are critical to maintaining the U.S. as a stable world power. STEM education creates critical thinkers, genuine collaboration, and enables the next generation of innovators.

But we’d rather talk about the observations from our own classrooms that catapulted us into going full-steam STEM:

For Pine Ridge 4th grade teacher Diane Riemersma, it’s about student engagement, the excitement of important hands-on learning: “I was the kid crying at the kitchen table over math, and I don’t want that for these guys!” Diane said about her 4th grade boys in particular. “They’re too little to say ‘I’m not good at math or science!’ or be anxious about it. School should be exciting and engaging—I want to have these little boys go home saying ‘That was the best day ever!’”

And kids seem to do that more after a day that includes STEM learning, she noticed. Sometimes parents even email her photos of students continuing their problem-solving projects at home.

South Side kindergarten teacher Karen Strikwerda ’83 marvels at the depth of thinking that happens naturally in STEM learning. For example, kindergarteners figuring out physics on their own, like “Why does your tower fall over when placed this way, but not this way?” she said. She describes multiple times when unexpected learning and growth happened in her classroom with STEM, like when a normally very shy unengaged student suddenly builds the tallest tower in the room, and the other students all pause in joy to celebrate it.

Pine Ridge 4th grade teachers Jennifer Becksfort and Stephanie Smit appreciate how STEM projects connected to social studies or language arts projects help students learn collaboration and people skills, recognize interpersonal traits, and learn to work with people in a group—all useful life skills, whether in college, as employees, or as family, church and community members.

Students are “learning to work together, and take each other’s ideas and to listen to each other’s ideas and compile them together into one good plan,” Diane said. And then added that STEM is “more fun, and when kids are having fun, they’re more likely to engage in the learning. Kids learn by doing, not just by being told.”