STEM on a Shoestring: A Principal’s Perspective
By Rebecca Malone
Lessons learned from starting an after-school STEM club at a small Catholic school
This is the second in a multi-part series about how St. Francis of Assisi School, a small K-8 neighborhood Catholic school in Baltimore City, started an after-school STEM Club on a shoestring budget.
A common misperception about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) is that only schools with elaborate science labs and large budgets are suitable sites for STEM. The reality is that there are many projects and activities that can be implemented successfully in a school with limited space and limited resources. The crucial ingredients are commitment and imagination.
We are a small Catholic elementary school located at the northeastern edge of Baltimore City. Our mission is rooted in the example of St. Francis, who promoted the virtues of a selfless life dedicated to serving the world around him. Drawing on the spirit of our patron saint, we form children for a life of scholarship, spirituality, and service.
Two years ago, Dr. Sandra Young, a parent volunteer and STEM educator by profession, stepped forward to create an after-school STEM Club here at St. Francis. To our delight, 60 of our students signed up for the after-school club. Dr. Young and her team of helpers organized activities, sought grants, promoted attendance at weekend competitions, and managed the lively Thursday afternoon gatherings.
Our students have built robots, learned computer programming, tested chemicals, experimented with “snap circuits,” designed models, and more. This year, they will explore the world of 3-D printing, which was made possible by support from the Knott Foundation.
STEM seamlessly integrates pedagogical best practices in a way that traditional education can’t always accomplish. For example:
- “Total Participation/Hands-on Engagement.” All students are actively involved at all times. There is no opportunity to be passive recipients of information. Students learn by doing.
- Cooperative Learning: If you have ever watched a reality competition such as Project Runway, you know that being able to collaborate successfully with others is considered essential for today’s workplaces. Some cooperative learning activities in classrooms can seem artificial or contrived. Not so with STEM. The collaboration is real, and it is ingrained in the STEM experience. Students learn to negotiate and to understand different perspectives. They learn to communicate clearly because that is how teams accomplish things together.
- Craftsmanship and attention to detail: Precision matters in science and design. When a measurement for a bridge span is a few millimeters off, or a circuit is connected the wrong way, the whole project is weakened. Students don’t learn this by being told to be precise. They learn it through action.
Education is most successful when students are so curious and actively engaged that they move into a “flow” state, oblivious to the passage of time and eager to continue learning. As a principal, I am delighted to observe the energy and interest of a STEM Club session.
How can a small school make STEM happen on a shoestring? Here is what I have learned:
- Begin with what you have. Don’t wait for the perfect time or the perfect setting. Our school has no science lab and very little storage space ... but we are across the street from a beautiful wooded park. The kids love to get outside and mess around with dirt and plants and rocks. Our classrooms are small, but it is amazing how much good work can happen on a desktop or in a circle on the floor. Given the choice between a shelf full of construction materials or a shelf full of aging grammar textbooks, the decision is a clear one.
- Connect with community resources. Do you have a university nearby that would allow a visit to their engineering labs? Is there a community group that does stream clean-ups or wastewater monitoring? Do you have parents who work as engineers, as plumbers, as artists, as pharmacists, as computer programmers? Let them come show students how they use science, technology, engineering and math in their daily work.
- Make it fun and engaging for the adult volunteers too. I love bringing a visitor into a room where STEM activities are happening. They watch intently and often whisper to me something along the lines of “This is so cool!” Adults who are innately engaged by the activities, but who know how to step back and let the kids take the lead, end up finding STEM club to be a creative break from their regular routine.
- Go where the energy is. Seek grants, make wish lists, and allow your supportive community to step in and help you make STEM a priority. When committed educators say they really want to bring something special to their students, there are friends of the school who enjoy helping out. PTAs, neighborhood groups, grandparents -- all are looking for ways to show their support for your students. So don’t be shy -- show them something really cool that they can be a part of!
- Tell your story and celebrate the adventure. We love to post photos and videos on Facebook and Twitter. It is completely free, takes only a moment, and lets the community know, simply and quickly, about the great work that our kids are doing.
We are fortunate to have Dr. Young spearheading our STEM initiative. I would bet that in every community, there is someone -- be it a teacher, a parent, a neighbor -- who thinks STEM activities are just about the coolest thing there is. Find that person, befriend them, and give them your support in whatever way you can. You won’t be disappointed.
Rebecca Malone is the principal of St. Francis of Assisi School, a K-8 Catholic school in northeast Baltimore. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Religion and English from Harvard University and a master’s degree in English Education from Columbia University. She has served as the principal of St. Francis since 2010.