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Reading, 'Riting, 'Rithmatic make room for another R

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov 16, 2011 - Move over, reading, 'riting and 'rithmatic. In today's classroom, you need to make room for a fourth R: robotics.

That was one of the main messages Wednesday at a conference in downtown St. Louis titled the STEM Summit on how to best teach Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

Sponsored by LEGO Education and National Instruments, the conference at America's Center was designed to help teachers learn the best ways to get their students excited about and interested in science, math and other subjects where, according to at least one measure, American students rank far behind those in dozens of other nations.

For Erin Hardy, a second-grade teacher at East Richland Elementary School in Olney, Ill., a key is to make sure students learn how to express themselves in a variety of ways, from words to designing robots.

"I try to make learning such an exciting thing, students don't want to miss it," said Hardy, who is on LEGO's education advisory panel. "Last year, I had a mother call whose daughter was sick and she was crying because she couldn't come to school."

Not all students can be so dedicated, of course, but Hardy and others had a variety of tips to help instill a love of learning into their classes, no matter what age.

One of the big favorites in Hardy's class is robotics design, where the students come up with plans to build anything from a ball kicker to a spinning top to a drumming monkey, with students controlling the music by using a computer keyboard like a sound mixer.

With today's computer programs, Hardy said, such projects can be easy for second graders to do, by just dragging and dropping the right components. "With the programming piece," she said, "they just took off. They loved it."

Not only are they learning rudimentary programming, she added. They are also learning valuable skills like collaboration and writing, as they make up stories about the characters they have created.

"We talk a lot about how important it is to share your ideas," she said. "We can all learn from each other. We can take all of those stories, put them into a class book, and your children are reading."

It's all part of a healthy balance, Hardy said, between teaching the science and math part of a curriculum and making sure students can read and write at grade level or beyond -- and prove it on the ubiquitous standardized tests used to measure their progress.

"You still have to teach the basics," she said. "That's what we are in the business to do. But standards can still be met if you do things a little differently."

Panelists in a session about getting children excited about STEM echoed what Hardy had to say, emphasizing the need to try a variety of approaches to make sure all students are engaged.

It starts with making sure that children are allowed to express themselves -- and teachers are allowed to innovate to find precisely the right techniques.

"When a child brings out the pots and pans from under the cabinet and starts beaging on them with spoons, don't tell him to stop," said Leland Melvin, a former astronaut who went on to work with NASA in education.

"We build confidence and curiosity when we allow children to try things."

Noting a theory that if students aren't interested in the science, math, technology and engineering by eighth grade, they are likely to be lost to those fields forever, Matt Myers, who works in the STEM project of the Boy Scouts of America, said his organization has moved away from just the common image of camping and leadership to help kids learn from those academic subjects.

"The Boy Scouts of America have been doing STEM for 100 years," he said. "We just didn't call it STEM."

And Don Mugan, director of the Great Plains STEM Education Center in North Dakota, stressed the importance of hands-on experience -- a skill that was lost as people moved off of farms and needs to be re-introduced in the classrooms of today.

"If you want to feel free to innovate," he said, "you have to get on top of how our education system got to where it is today."

Discussing statistics that say 87 percent of engineers today are male and 78 percent are white, the panel discussed how to broaden the appeal of STEM subjects so a wider variety of students take part.

Melvin mentioned that in too many African-American classrooms, students who show an interest in such academic pursuits often are mocked, not prized.

"It isn't cool to be smart in that neighborhood," he said. "How can we change that mindset?"

He pointed out that celebrities such as Mos Def and Donovan McNabb have helped that effort, with a goal of using every tool available to make sure that students are inspired to do their best.

"We have to inspire students," Melvin said. "Can we inspire them by lecturing to them, or can we inspire by mixing two chemicals and creating a giant explosion?"

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