Hemingway student Brayden Smith appeared startled as a four-inch crayfish appeared to strike out at him.
“They seem to strike out if I reach toward them,” he said. “I can’t wait to do more studies to learn more.”
Smith and his third-grade classmates at Hemingway STEAM School had already drawn pictures of crayfish and identified their parts as they learned vocabulary words like “crustaceans,” “omnivore,” “pincer,” and “molt.” Now, they were studying the lobster-like creatures’ habitat so they could feed and care for them over the next few weeks, during which they would devise experiments and observations to learn more.
This inquiry- or Socratic-approach challenges students to examine things that are relevant to them, instead of being spoon-fed information. It’s part of what makes Hemingway a STEAM school, or a school emphasizing science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics.
The Ketchum school recently became the eighth school in Idaho to earn STEM certification from Cognia, which certifies schools around the world. The certification, based on a stringent scientifically based assessment that the school spent years working towards, nets the school $10,000 each year for the next five years from the Idaho STEM Action Center. The money will go towards materials for the school’s 500 kindergarteners to eighth graders to conduct STEM projects and provide professional development for teachers.
Cognia evaluators complimented school staff and parents, saying they were passionate and “completely invested in student success.” Business partners will do anything for the school community, they added. And they noted that the students are self-directed learners who are excited to attend school.
Third-grade teacher Gina Cey wasn’t surprised when she read the report. “I’ve taught for 28 years, and I’ve noticed the kids seem more engaged since we became a STEAM school,” she says. “They get to ask and answer their own questions, and I think they’re learning more because they do more of their own research. Also, they’re not as afraid to make mistakes because they know they can try again.”
While the certification addresses just science, technology, engineering, and math, Hemingway staff decided to add the A, as in art, to the equation because of this community’s interest in the arts, says Lydia Flynn, who will be the school principal beginning with the 2022-23 school year.
The STEAM emphasis means that fourth-grade teachers no longer stand in front of a whiteboard presenting a lecture on the Oregon Trail. Instead, their students studied the Oregon Trail by designing wagons pulled by robots along a trail they designed with relevant activities at each stop.
Kindergarteners used an engineering and design process to build and test nests, during which they learned about why birds make nests and what kinds of nests they make. Third graders completed a timeline of the Wood River Valley’s inhabitants and industries using materials gathered from the Community Library’s Regional History department. Then they built houses for fairy tale characters like “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Three Little Pigs.”
Seventh graders created an imaginary island, plotting its geographical location and conducting research to determine its climate and vegetation. Then they built a three-dimensional map of the island to highlight the different vegetation on the island’s windward and leeward sides. Finished with that, they wrote and designed a magazine titled, “The Wonders of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Brain” and “What Goes on in the Teenage Brain.”
One of the highlights each year is the school-wide Cardboard Challenge. This year, the fourth graders cut to-scale replicas of each county in Idaho, then built structures for each representing that county’s economy, natural resources, and landmarks. The fifth graders, who were learning about the solar system, invented an arcade game in which players must learn the solar system to win. As with many school projects, older students paired up with younger students to mentor them.
The school’s efforts to track whether the new approach cuts absences and improves comprehension were disrupted by the pivot to online learning during COVID. But teachers say they’ve noticed fewer absences.
“Kids want to be at school—they might miss something interesting or fun if they’re not,” said fifth-grade teacher Laura Barnhardt. Fifth-grader Sydney Nelson looked up from her project writing a visitor’s brochure for a national park: “School is so fun; I don’t want to miss a moment.”
The school partners with businesses and nonprofit organizations, such as The Advocates, to give the students real-life experiences. They visited a bank vault this year as they learned about money and saving. They visited the Sun Valley Museum of Art where they learned about Japanese tea ceremonies halfway around the world. Sixth graders take part in the McCall Outdoor Science School. Others participate in the Camp Invention Summer Camp led by Hemingway teachers.
Barnhardt’s students just completed a black light project, in which they learned about reflection and refraction as they played with silhouettes, shadow puppets, kaleidoscopes, and prisms. They also just completed a project in which each student created a float for each state, decorating it with artifacts that highlighted each state’s uniqueness.
“They’re more engaged. They want to learn more, and they learn more skills that they can use later on in their academic careers,” said Barnhardt.
STEM Activities to Try at Home
A play-based approach to STEM learning is a great way to get your children engaged in some learning activities this summer. STEM activities don’t have to be lengthy science projects. Quick tasks, such as using marshmallows to build an igloo or building effective paper airplanes, can be completed in less than 15 minutes. Even though it’s hard, try and stand back and let your kids make mistakes as they work, offering additional information only when necessary.
The materials aren’t hard to come by for this project, but the opportunity for learning is big. With only a pack of toothpicks and a bag of marshmallows, your budding engineer can learn through trial and error. This architectural activity encourages imagination (will she build a castle, a house or maybe a bridge?) as well as critical thinking and fine motor skills—she’ll have to skewer that marshmallow just the right way to achieve a structure with staying power. The road to success will likely be paved with frustration, but that’s how STEM learning (and life) goes. Bonus: this activity features a built-in bribe if things get too intense.
Homemade Ice Cream
If there’s one science lesson all kids can get on board with, it’s the one that ends with an ice cream sundae. Don’t be fooled, this activity is much more than just a complicated dessert recipe—it teaches children about phases of matter, freezing point, and freezing point depression. This edible experiment will give your kiddo a physical workout, too (there’s a whole lot of shaking required). You’ll need sugar, salt, half and half, ice cubes and some elbow grease. Check out some recipes online and get your child ready to exercise her biceps, brain, and taste buds all at once.
Back in the day, folding a piece of paper into an airplane was a fun way to pass a note in class. But did you know this was actually a lesson in physics? Paper airplanes teach children the four basic concepts of aerodynamics—lift, thrust, drag and gravity—through trial and error. Place two targets in the room, one near and one further away. Ask kids to test their planes on both targets, refining the plane design as necessary to reach them. Then, discuss how the two designs differed.