Finley Elementary School brings in STEM education

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 3, 2013 

At first, 10-year-old Blaine Chavez thought his group's filtration system would do the job.

The Finley Elementary School fifth-grader and his four teammates watched a "contaminated" mixture of water and Italian salad dressing flow through a stacked system of inverted water bottles filled with playground gravel.

"Oh wow, look at it, all those little things are getting stuck," Blaine said.

But the results didn't pan out. Fifth-grade science teacher Mike Davis told his students the goal was to bring the mixture closer to the pH of drinking water. After three tests, Blaine's mixture still was too acidic.

"It looks so clear, though, I want to drink it," Blaine said.

The fairly simple experiment was just one of the latest examples of how teachers at Finley Elementary have brought science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, education into their classrooms.

The school pursued thousands of dollars in grants to pay for materials and helped teachers develop new curriculum, all to make STEM education easier for students to relate to and perhaps pursue as a career.

"We're trying to bring the outside world in," said Principal Pam Kinne.

Kinne said she and other teachers initially hadn't thought of STEM education as being a big part of elementary school lessons. But the school received a $9,000 grant from the Washington State STEM Foundation in February 2011 for teacher training and to provide time for teachers to come up with STEM projects for students.

Those projects led to promising results, teachers said, with students becoming more engaged and interested in math and science.

The school received another $10,000 last year from Battelle as part of the Washington State Leadership and Assistance for Science Education Reform, or LASER, Education Leadership Institute, allowing teachers time to develop more STEM-focused lesson plans.

So far, kindergartners have looked at fictitious pollutants at nearby Two Rivers Park while third-graders investigated water quality for a hypothetical nursery needing a well.

Teachers said the goal was making projects hands-on but affordable for teachers to do each year. Most importantly, though, is making science and math easier for students to relate to.

"Every kid out here is on a well, and they know when the water is good and when the water is bad," said fourth-grade teacher Lorianne Donovan, who conducted the water quality project with third-graders last year.

The school is doing more than just new lesson plans. Teachers also are bringing in more parents who work in STEM-related fields to talk to students about their jobs and how they got into them.

"One of the girls couldn't believe a girl could be a scientist," Kinne said of a visit last spring by a female scientist from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

The projects don't always go as planned. In Davis' class, where the fifth-graders were filtering contaminated water, some of the filters got clogged up, and it wasn't always easy for the students to read the results of their tests with litmus paper.

"You know in science, sometimes things don't turn out the way you think they will," Davis said.

But the students are engaged, he said, and are building a foundation in STEM they'll need later on.

Fifth-grader Autumn Zilar said she is thinking about a career in science, working with dirt and water. She and four of her classmates had a filter system using coffee filters to clean up their water sample.

By the end of class, she enthusiastically told Davis the pH of their sample was closer to that of tap water.

"You can take something you just have at home and do anything," the 10-year-old said.

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