Picking up STEAM: Richland school adds 'A' for arts to popular STEM curriculum

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 23, 2014 

— The director of Christ the King's preschool was standing nearby when Sydney Jarvis' attention landed on a cake pan and the bowl of stones sitting next to it.

"Would you like to make an island or a lake?" Kelly Buchanan asked.

"A lake," Sydney, 3, responded.

"All right, well, help me out," Buchanan said as she reached for the stones and began to move them around an open circle in the pan.

Sydney was just one of many students and parents interacting with displays during the Richland Catholic school's Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math expo last week.

The event was the latest step in converting the school to a hands-on STEAM curriculum, school officials said, and it's a direction parents and students at the school said they like.

"That's our kids' future," said Sue Brendel, who has a kindergartner and a seventh-grader at Christ the King.

Interest in programs based on STEAM and the related STEM, which does not include the "A" for arts, has been growing in Washington, especially in the Mid-Columbia.

The educational models emphasize hands-on learning and integrate math and science into all subjects, from social studies to language arts.

Delta High School in Richland is often cited as being on the cutting edge of STEM education by state education officials.

Richland's Three Rivers HomeLink and a pilot program at some Pasco elementary schools use STEAM and STEM. Three new Pasco elementary schools opening during the next two years are planned to have a full STEM curriculum, from kindergarten to sixth grade.

But Christ the King, along with the public elementary schools in Burbank and Finley, have been transitioning to STEAM for the past few years. The three schools are part of the regional Leadership and Assistance for Science Education Reform, or LASER, group working with Educational Service District 123 and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to promote science education in Mid-Columbia schools.

"So many times science gets cut out at the lower grades," said Julie Sijgers, who teaches fourth-grade math, science and religion at the Richland school. "Because I'm teaching science, I have to fight for my own subject."

STEAM and STEM change that dynamic, teachers and administrators said. Sijgers' students made and designed lunar rovers to demonstrate the effects of weight on movement. They then took technical writing skills from that lesson and applied them to their English class.

"Elementary science for us is on as equal footing as math and reading," said Ian Yale, principal of Burbank's Columbia Elementary School.

Change doesn't come without some resistance, though.

Mid-Columbia parents and educators in various districts have raised questions about the STEM and STEAM models, with concerns the arts will be minimized or that young children's creativity will be stifled by focusing too much on science and math. Christ the King Principal Nicole Anderson said there will always be people who are hesitant to change.

But expos like Christ the King's have helped inform parents and show them how the curriculum works. Several parents said they were pleased with the school's direction and that their children have embraced an approach to science that is evident in their daily lives.

"This is teaching them that science is so fundamental," said Angie Jarvis, Sydney's mother.

School officials said their efforts are ongoing. Washington adopted the Next Generation Science Standards and they will become the driving force on curriculum. And teachers will need more training.

Money also is needed to go fully into STEM and STEAM. Christ the King has so far not had to spend much money to change its curriculum, Sijgers said. But some parents said they were eager to see the school bring in more computers and other technology.

Regardless, those same parents said they already see signs that STEAM is having a positive effect.

"She wanted a science kit for Christmas," Brendel said of her kindergartner, Morgan.

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