In this fast-changing world, elementary school educators don’t know what jobs will be available when their students hit the “real world.” But they expect those jobs to require problem-solving skills and working well collaboratively.

That’s the whole idea behind the new STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) lab being put together at Sandhill Elementary School, where solving problems and working together is the name of the game. Students and teachers have served as test subjects this year as educators look for future ways to incorporate those lessons into elementary school classrooms around the district.

The project started to take shape a few years ago when district superintendent Tim Onsager wanted to bring some of the STEAM experiences at the high school and middle school “Fab Labs” to the elementaries, Sandhill principal Jeff Fimreite told the Hub.

“We have all these kids at the upper levels, but where could they go if we actually started them out with that experiential learning right here in elementary school, and give them those hands-on manipulatives and what they can create?” he said.

Fimreite wrote a proposal and last year received a $5,000 grant from Alliant Energy, with the district also providing some seed money to start a pilot STEAM lab at Sandhill. He said the goals this year have been basic – try some new things, keep track of how it’s working and move slowly but surely.

“We want it all to interconnect when it comes forward – the combination of STEAM and putting it into what we already doing – that’s the complicated piece,” Fimreite said. “If this is successful, we can roll it out to all elementaries so all kids have this opportunity.”

New tools

So far, the school has purchased a variety of tools and “toys,” including two Sprout computers with which kids can create three-dimensional items.

“Once you go get into working with computers to solve problems, there are a lot of different tools out there,” Fimreite said. “We’re collecting stuff and trying things out. It’s been an adventure.”

A favorite so far has been “Little Bits,” a coding program kids can use to create robots for functions such as moving tires or flashing lights.

“There’s a lot kids can do,” he said. “They’re hooking the Little Bits to the computer, and fix a problem they’re trying to resolve.”

First-grade teacher Andrea Nichols said she’s integrated STEAM lessons each week with her class during small-group “exploration” time.

“I’ve had kids designing cameras, and they have these moving pieces and they’re explaining how it works,” she told the Hub. “They’ve made glasses, hockey players, all these really creative things. So far it’s been going really well.”

Another favorite has been using “Magnaflex” pieces to help flesh out part of the first-grade science curriculum to “discover” a new species of animal.

“They have to figure out where it would live, how it would protect itself, and with these Magnaflex, they can build that animal and write about it,” she said. “The kids are doing more.”

Hands-on learning

The more kids can do, the better their chances are in an uncertain job market a decade or so from now.

When looking at what careers her students might end up in, Sandhill learning strategist Kelly Stewart it’s difficult to gauge what skills they will need.

“The biggest thing is getting (students) to be able to think critically and problem-solve and work with other people to prepare them for things we don’t even know are out there yet,” she told the Hub.

Nichols said the STEAM projects so far have been “very engaging” for students of all capabilities.

“I can really be a motivator for some of our at-risk or struggling students as well as our students who really need to be challenged, and everyone in between,” she told the Hub. “It’s a nice way to meet those needs and also give students an opportunity to explore what they’re interested in.”

Fimreite said not all learners are the same, and some will thrive with hands-on learning that the new lab can provide.

“It’s that creative problem-solving, to be able to work though collaboratively as students, which is a huge skill,” he said. “That’s how we’re feeling we can feed them into the middle school and eventually the high school, getting them started really early on.”

Stewart said the next steps for the program are figuring out how to use the STEAM tools “on a more consistent basis and integrating them into things already happening in the classroom.”

“This is definitely an experimental year for us,” she said. “How can we make this more readily accessible? That is a big goal.”

Email Unified Newspaper Group reporter Scott De Laruelle at scott.