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South Valley Journal

STEM learning is magical at Foothills Elementary

Nov 08, 2021 03:09PM ● By Jet Burnham

With masks they created themselves, students act out animal behaviors in a short drama based on what they learned in science class. (Jodi Howell/Foothills Elementary)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Selena Berg will never forget the lesson when students gave her a standing ovation. She was teaching about light refraction using a laser and a prism.

“I would bend the light or I'd shine it on my ring so it would sparkle and I got a standing ovation,” Berg said.

That’s the kind of enthusiasm Principal Cherie Wilson wants students at Foothills Elementary to have about science, technology, engineering and math. Through daily rotations, students participate in fun, hands-on, experiential learning activities that reinforce STEM concepts.

This type of discovery learning fits with the current science teaching standards which teach kids to think for themselves and develop a problem-solving mindset, Wilson said

“It's not about the teacher up there saying, ‘This is what you'll find, this is what you'll see,’” she said. “The kids are able to participate in activities where they’re discovering and exploring.”

Berg said students love the engineering challenges, coming up with their own design ideas and solutions for activities such as creating a bug catcher out of pipe cleaners and string. If students complete the day’s activity, she gives them a harder challenge.

Drama specialist Jodi Howell teaches during art rotations, using drama and physical movement to reinforce STEM concepts. When the third graders were learning about gravity, she had them act out fairy tales on various planets. Students had to consider how the gravity of Jupiter or the moon would affect the way their character moved.

“When they're using different parts of their body, it helps to solidify what they've learned, because they're experiencing it, instead of just reading about it,” Howell said. “It allows them to communicate in a different way that is more open-ended. It allows them to explore it and not worry so much about a correct answer.” 

Howell also uses drama to reinforce math concepts, such as having students act out math story problems.

“I think when you make it into a story, which is really a real world application, it actually brings it to life,” Howell said. “And isn't that what STEAM is all about, bringing it to life, and problem solving and working together? That's why it's so important because the jobs of tomorrow, that we don't even really know what they are, some of them, they're going to have to work with other people to collaborate, they're going to have to problem solve and make solutions to problems we don't even know about yet.”

Wilson believes elementary school is the time to give kids a head start for their future careers.

“Their brains are developing so fast,” she said. “These kids really need STEM in order to develop that way to think, that way to question and wonder and explore and decide what will work.”

Families have always been very supportive of the STEAM program at Foothills. The Community Council holds an annual fundraiser to purchase materials for rotations and fund the family STEAM night held each spring. 

Wilson jumped at the chance to bring STEM on Stage-- the Magic of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math assembly to students in October. Provided through Utah’s STEM Action Center, the assembly is being offered at no cost this year, thanks to local tech companies who are investing in their future workforce by sponsoring the assembly. Foothills was one of the first to schedule the assembly which fits right in with their STEAM focus.

Paul Brewer, who has been mixing education and magic for 47 years, in eight countries and three languages, provided an engaging assembly (which he co-wrote with his daughter) to get kids excited about STEM and familiar with the terminology and concepts.

With impressive props, a live rabbit, fun music, jokes, lasers, and plenty of audience participation,  Brewer explained magic and illusion using STEM concepts, following the scientific method and encouraging students to ask questions and make hypotheses. He showed students that STEM is used by everyone-- even artists and magicians. He explained how math is at the core of all his favorite things-- music, dance, juggling and even cookies.

“I learned to juggle because of math, and we have cookies because of math,” he said. “Math made me magic.”

Requests for the free assembly can be made at