STEM lessons expanding in Washougal

School district emphasizes science, technology opportunities for elementary students

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category icon News, Schools, Washougal
Washougal Community Library's Rachael Ries works with Columbia River Gorge Elementary School students Lauren Byrne, Aubrey Timmons and Bailey Wright during a coding club session last month. (Contributed photo courtesy of Rene Carroll)

Earlier this month, fourth-grade students at Gause Elementary School participated in an activity in which they were asked to build ‘scribble bots.’

Students in the classrooms of Colleen Davis and Robin Riat were provided various components including batteries, motors, plastic cups, pipe cleaners, tape, felt-tip pens and popsicle sticks, and given the engineering challenge of creating a device that could scribble across a paper-covered table on its own.

The program, brought to Gause by the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) with the assistance of the Gause Booster Committee, emphasized the importance of scientific process and encouraged students to identify problems, brainstorm solutions, and test and improve on ideas in a collaborative environment.

The scribble bot project is a good example of the type of science, technology, engineering and math or “STEM” skills Washougal School District (WSD) leaders have long promoted in higher grades and are now trying to bring to younger Washougal students.

“I definitely feel an increase in (STEM) activities,” said Columbia River Gorge first-grade teacher Sydney Termini. “I see more opportunities for (elementary school students).”

Three years ago, Termini started a coding club at Gause, where she taught at the time. She felt that her son, Ben, now a third-grader at Columbia River Gorge Elementary School, wasn’t being exposed to a lot of STEM-related activities.

For the last two years, the club has met once per week at Columbia River Gorge under the tutelage of Termini and fellow first-grade teacher Allison McGranahan.

This year’s club has about 30 to 35 students in first through fifth grades.

“We work with, which guides the students through different programming lessons and (teaches them) to use code to solve problems and puzzles,” Termini said. “They learn to think like a programmer. They learn to use code to program robots, and they work on different mazes. Later on there’s more engineering stuff and hands-on work.”

Upcoming district STEM activities include Gause’s annual science fair and family fun night on April 24; Mobile Education’s STEAM Museum, which will come to Columbia River Gorge Elementary on May 2 and Gause on May 3; a presentation from two entomologists dubbed “The Bug Chicks” at Gause on May 13; and a life-sized inflatable whale display at Gause on June 6.

Cape Horn-Skye Elementary School held a family science night event was held on March 21, and Alex Zerbe, a Pacific Northwest-based prop comic, juggler and magician also known as ‘The Zaniac,’ entertained Gause students with a science-focused assembly earlier this year.

In addition, separate coding and robotics clubs are going strong at Gause.

Renae Burson, the school district’s assistant superintendent, said district leaders hope to introduce younger students to the types of STEM-related careers that likely will be in demand when they are young adults. She cited figures from the U.S. Commerce Department that show that STEM job creation will significantly outpace non-STEM job creation in the next 10 years.

“Knowing the significance of STEM-related jobs, (our emphasis is) going to be important to give (students) chances to get a leg up and give them exposure to careers that will be in demand,” Burston said. “These are engaging topics, and that’s important, too — learning the scientific process and critical thinking engages students with hands-on learning. There’s all kind of benefits and we want to make sure we have those benefits in our curriculum.”

When WSD Superintendent Mary Templeton visited the Gause classrooms to experience the “scribble bot” challenge first-hand, she was thrilled to see students succeed in their endeavors, but said she wasn’t so lucky with her own robot, which wouldn’t scribble.

One day last week, however, Templeton’s robot was delivered to the school district office in perfect working order thanks to the efforts of Gause Principal Tami Culp, Gause Booster Club member Rona Ager and a few of the students.

“We talked to some of the kids about Mary’s robot and why it wasn’t working,” Ager said. “We took a step back and said, ‘Why don’t we try this or this?’ We made a few adjustments on her design and got it to work.”

Ager said the students learned the value of not giving up on something that’s not working, such as Templeton’s robot. They also learned critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration.

“It was exciting to see the wheels turn,” she said. “Each one of them approached problems differently. We wanted to show them that if they put their minds to it, they can make things happen. We wanted them to question things. Even though a lot of the bots they created were similar in some ways, they were different in other ways. They learned that there’s not just one way to do things — one robot did perfect circles and another did loops. It was cool to see.”

Like Termini, Ager became interested in STEM activities through her children — Zach, now a freshman at Washougal High School, and Derek, a fourth-grader at Gause.

“I’m kind of known as ‘the science booster’ now. It’s a personal passion for me,” Ager said. “When (Zach) was in elementary school, me and another parent looked around and said, ‘There’s not enough of this.’ There was a missing piece of the puzzle. We started a family fun science night to get the ball rolling. As the years went on I got more and more involved.”

The Gause science night event has expanded since its inception.

“We have a fair during the day and a family night in evening,” Ager said. “We invite some of the Science Olympiad teams, robotics teams, Columbia Gorge Stewards and other people in the community. Now it’s morphing into a STEAM night, so we’ve added arts and math. Last year was our first science fair portion, which was open to kindergarten through fifth grade. This year all fifth-graders at our school did a project. The goal is to get kids excited about science. There’s lots of different ways to expose our kids. It’s growing, and my heart is full.”

One of the lessons that STEM activities teach, Termini and Ager said, is how to deal with failure.

“Failing is devastating, but they learn to push through it. Once they learn to do (something), or they have a breakthrough, you hear a gasp, and it’s really fun,” Termini said. “I want them to learn that problem-solving can be a group effort and something that they’ll need to learn in order to get a job. They’re learning as a team and learning to communicate.”