Pasco students learning to integrate subjects

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldDecember 23, 2012 

PASCO -- Lesly Santos and Monserrat Gutierrez were trying to figure out why their car wouldn't move.

The 11-year-olds, along with their fifth-grade classmates at Virgie Robinson Elementary School in Pasco, had built model cars using K'Nex building toy pieces. The students were measuring their cars' average speeds as they used weights and string to pull them across a desk.

Eventually, Lesly diagnosed the problem.

"These two pieces were pushing on the wheels," she said, pointing to two brackets on the frame. Sure enough, with a small adjustment, the car began moving freely.

This hands-on approach to learning, with integration between subjects such as engineering and math, are new at the school and another Pasco elementary school.

Teachers and administrators said they're attempting to tie together science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, education with subjects such as language arts and social studies, and the early results are promising.

"We go beyond what we were teaching," said Mark Arreola, one of the school's fifth-grade teachers. "Everything is being melded together."

STEM education is already being integrated heavily at the high school and middle school levels in the Mid-Columbia, such as at the STEM-focused Delta High School in Richland, as well as elsewhere in the state and nation. The need for highly trained and savvy workers in high-tech fields has led to a demand for engineers and other workers, business leaders and government and education officials have said.

STEM hasn't been nearly as common at the elementary level. In Pasco, elementary science teachers teach lessons based on kits developed by the district that don't usually connect with other subjects, said Robinson Elementary Principal Megan Nelson.

The district wanted to bring more STEM education into its elementary schools and tie it with other subjects, said Nelson. Principal Deidre Holmberg and teacher Jenny Rodriquez, both from Delta High, worked with the teachers at Robinson and Emerson Elementary School to develop the new curriculum.

In the first integrated lesson plan, students learned about biomes, an environment determined by climate, and environmental science in science class, building dioramas to demonstrate how animals within a single biome tie together.

"We had a lot of animals and different plants and weather climates," said fifth-grader Anahi Jaime, 10.

To connect that lesson to social studies, teachers had the students learn about the differences in environmental policy between then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Obama. In language arts, the students read books on environmental topics such as burrowing owls.

With the model cars, the students are learning engineering and math by observing force and motion and the meaning of mean, or average, in calculating speed.

"They are loving it," said Kristie Gonzales, a fifth-grade science and math teacher, as students swarmed around her to pit their model cars against others. "It's eye-opening."

In social studies, the students will learn about the colonists who first came to North America but will have to design a machine that could have made their lives easier.

Nelson and her teachers acknowledged that they are still tweaking and adjusting their lesson plans as they try things out. There's also no clear plan for how this could potentially be implemented across the district, though teachers and administrators said the approach will help when the state implements the new Common Core Standards, the future basis for standardized testing and graduation requirements.

But the teachers said they're already pleased with what they're seeing from their students with the new curriculum. Gonzales said her students are retaining more of their knowledge and constantly mentioning how it relates to what they're learning in another subject. Arreola said his students are more interested because the lessons are more challenging.

There are also regular signs that the students are taking what they learn in class out into their lives.

"We've had kids who talked about going home and watching the Science Channel because there was a show on about an animal in their biome," Nelson said.

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