Army, Maryland schools turn students into ‘STEM Superstars’

Lisby Elementary, Aberdeen, MD, fourth-grade teacher Dan McGonigal looks on as his students explain their 'Bad Hair Day Fixer' prototype during the CERDEC-led STEM Superstar program, which engages students from first through fifth grade in stimulating activities challenging students to think creatively and solve problems like an engineer.

Lisby Elementary, Aberdeen, MD, fourth-grade teacher Dan McGonigal looks on as his students explain their ‘Bad Hair Day Fixer’ prototype during the CERDEC-led STEM Superstar program, which engages students from first through fifth grade in stimulating activities challenging students to think creatively and solve problems like an engineer. (U.S. Army photo by Amanda Rominiecki)

By Amanda Rominiecki, CERDEC Public Affairs

During its second full academic year, the STEM Superstar program continues to bring science, technology, engineering and mathematics to elementary students around Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.

The U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center created the STEM Superstar program to engage Harford and Cecil County students from first through fifth grade in stimulating activities challenging students to think creatively and solve problems like an engineer.

“Building, imagining, discovering – these are all things kids do naturally when they play,” said Erica Bertoli, CERDEC Educational Outreach team lead. “No one ever puts the word engineering next to it, but that’s what they’re doing. We hope that STEM Superstar shows students that engineering is truly a creative science.”

The STEM Superstar program was tailored to younger students’ interests and level of understanding. Connecting popular movies and superheroes to STEM, like the invention in “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” that makes it rain food and its engineer creator, or Tony Stark and the suit he engineered to become the superhero Iron Man, allows students to connect fun and entertainment to the seemingly daunting ideas of engineering and STEM.

“Too long there has been a paradigm in this country that you’re a math and science kid or a creative, artsy kid,” Bertoli said. “It’s a disservice to the kids and our country. Engineering, innovation—it’s driven by creativity.”

STEM Superstar began as a pilot program in November 2011 and evolved into a five-year initiative to bring STEM to elementary students in the APG area. Harford and Cecil county officials were critical in the successful launch of the program, Bertoli said, citing the positive relationship between APG, county officials, and the schools’ principals and administrative staff.

Currently in the second academic year of the STEM Superstar program, CERDEC has visited 18 elementary schools and more than 9,000 students. Over the program’s anticipated five-year period, CERDEC plans to visit each elementary school in the two counties, ensuring every student has taken part in the program at least once by the time they reach middle school.

CERDEC is also launching a follow-on program at middle schools in April called STEM Blast. The program will allow CERDEC to see all HCPS middle school students in a three-year cycle. It will build on the activities of the STEM Superstar Program and aims to extend the pipeline, reaching middle school students – a critical population, Bertoli said.

“The program is a reflection of the dedication of Harford and Cecil counties to provide the best opportunities and further the education of their students,” Bertoli said.

“STEM is the way of the future and we have to ensure we are laying a foundation for our students,” said Karen Jankowiak, assistant principal at Meadowvale Elementary in Havre de Grace, Md. “The discussions we have with Harford County high school and middle school administrations reaffirm the need to prepare students for upper-level math and science courses, now, at the elementary level. If they aren’t prepared, it just closes doors for their future.”

The STEM Superstar program is broken into hour-long sessions spread across four days at each school. During that hour, CERDEC team members lead a short lesson designed to show students the basic concepts of STEM, followed by a mission that, by the end, will leave the students “STEM Superstars.”

“Students walk away with an understanding of STEM, but they also see how all the skills they’ve learned in different subjects can come together to create something new and solve a problem,” said Meadowvale Principal Debbie Freels. “As an educator, it can be difficult to show young students that we aren’t just teaching them addition and subtraction because it’s in the math book. It all has a greater purpose and a real-life application.”

The 30-minute STEM missions are specific to each grade level, challenging them to work as a team to solve a given problem. The missions, while centered on STEM, are rooted in creativity and imagination. They work together to create a design and bring that design to life, building a prototype from a box of unconditional items like reflective bubble wrap, small wiffle balls, PVC pipes and plastic beakers.

“Students need experiences like these to let them know it’s okay to not have the right answer the first time around,” said Dan McGonigal, a fourth grade teacher at Lisby Elementary in Aberdeen, Md. “It’s ok to think outside the box, it’s ok to be wrong. They can come out of their shell and learn to solve problems in a risk free environment.”

After completing their prototypes students are asked to present their idea to the class, explaining how it works, its benefits, problems they ran into during the process, and – for the older students – how much of their budget they used or any potential unintentional harm their idea could cause.

“This program truly is special,” Freels said. “It brings the program into our classrooms, into a familiar setting, and provides a unique opportunity for our students to actively participate in a fun and engaging lesson that they will remember. Not only that, but for the teachers it serves as an anchor point that they can refer back to in future lessons.”

Throughout the STEM Superstar curriculum are messages that relate back to the work CERDEC and other Army engineers do nearby at APG and where many of their parents work, showing students real-life applications for the STEM concepts learned in the classroom and where future STEM careers could lead them.

“We show them the amazing things engineers at CERDEC do – creating night-vision goggles to let Soldiers see in the dark, making Sense Through the Wall that lets Soldiers see what’s on the other side of a brick wall,” Bertoli said. “To a kid, what CERDEC engineers do can seem like really giving Soldiers super powers and that’s a powerful message.”

CERDEC is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to develop technology and engineering solutions for America’s Soldiers.

RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command. AMC is the Army’s premier provider of materiel readiness — technology, acquisition support, materiel development, logistics power projection, and sustainment — to the total force, across the spectrum of joint military operations. If a Soldier shoots it, drives it, flies it, wears it, eats it or communicates with it, AMC provides it.