It is one thing to open up a book and see photos of a skyscraper. It is another to construct a tower from wooden blocks.
This is one of the options given to students in Plaza Middle School’s BrainSTEM Collective, an open science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) lab. The lab is housed in the school’s library and available to students and teachers at any point during the day.
“What I think it does more than anything is it really brings the world to them,” said Catherin Taylor, a library media specialist. “It opens a different mindset to students that otherwise they wouldn’t have had.”
Taylor’s BrainSTEM Collective was one of 55 recipients of a Virginia Beach Education Foundation (VBEF) Innovative Learning Grants. With the funds received from the grant, Taylor was able to purchase the circuit and robotics kits, wooden Keva planks, gravity activities and more for the students to experience while in the STEM lab.
“Students are getting hands-on experience with coding and manufacturing,” said Maureen McElfresh, a project manager of Waller Todd & Sadler, the grand underwriter. “This lab gives children the opportunity to practice trial and error. They will be able to see if one way works better than another does and this really allows them to learn. I have always believed that you learn more from your failures than your successes, so opportunities that give students permission to experiment like this are great.”
Lessons in the new laboratory are aligned with the school’s science curriculum, Taylor said. “Because our STEM lab supports the middle school curriculum, the concepts and activities can easily be replicated in every school.”
For the students, the lab is a place to play.
“It doesn’t really seem like learning,” said Caleb Underwood, “it’s just fun.”
Underwood and fellow seventh-grader, Joseph Santiago-Rivera, chose to play Circuit Maze, a board game that introduces students to electrical engineering. The game allows players to create a real circuit that lights up different colored beacons. These clever circuit-building puzzles provide a boost of brainpower and a wonderful introduction to electrical engineering.
“We see this as the future. Everything is coding, engineering and technology, so the more they understand how these things work, the better they’re prepared,” said McElfresh.
In the two weeks that the STEM labs has been opened more than 130 students have visited. The lab is so successful the school has decided to extend the lab hours after school.
“With this classroom,” Taylor said, “we find that the students are much more engaged with what they’re doing, and they’re coping with how to solve a problem when they’re not given the answers.”
Taylor adds she was impressed with the students’ eagerness to learn.
“What excites me most is the enthusiasm they have and their understanding that coding and technology provides them with the ability to pursue their dreams.”