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Challenging minds: School’s new lab teaches 1st graders group problem solving

Macaela Tilman, Kaylee Madrigal and Mathew Buhl, first graders, work together to build their apple carriers in the new STEM lab at the Fort Rucker Primary School Sept. 25. (Photo by Nathan Pfau)

Macaela Tilman, Kaylee Madrigal and Mathew Buhl, first graders, work together to build their apple carriers in the new STEM lab at the Fort Rucker Primary School Sept. 25. (Photo by Nathan Pfau)

Published: October 3, 2014

FORT RUCKER, Ala. (October 3, 2014) -- Students at the Fort Rucker Primary School are getting the chance to think outside the box as they utilize a new lab designed to challenge their minds.

The Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics program is one that is growing in popularity amongst schools across the country, and although FRPS is not officially a STEM school, Bridget Lester, FRPS gifted teacher, has spearheaded the charge to bring these important lessons to the primary school and open the STEM lab.

“STEM is huge in our society, so if we want our children to become more successful, productive citizens, we need to start training them now,” she said. “Our society is one of collaboration and teamwork, and you’ve got to be able to work with people, and (STEM) helps with that because it gets them to work together as a team to solve problems.”

The new lab has the space and tools needed in order for students to be able to work on STEM projects without needing to take up space in other classrooms or pods, said Lester. The need for the lab came about when Lester began teach STEM lessons about a year ago, but found that she was strained for space.

It was suggested by Dr. Deborah Deas, FRPS principal, to transition a computer lab into a STEM lab, so the process began.

“We took a leap of faith,” said Lester, and got to work on the lab right away with the help of Sylvia Thornton, music teacher. “I painted the entire room and Ms. Thornton scraped every single wall for two days straight. It took about two weeks to complete the entire lab.”

In the STEM lab, the students are presented with a real-world challenge, and Oct. 2 they took part in such a challenge. During the lesson, students were working as if they were agricultural engineers and were tasked with creating a carrier for apples so that farmers could pick their apples and carry them from one side of the orchard to the other during harvest time.

“Whenever we give them some kind of real-world problem that they have to solve, they have to follow the engineering design process,” Lester said. “They investigate first and learn about the problem, and then they learn about some background information on what they’re doing.”

From there, the children brainstorm different ideas individually before coming together as a group to compose a single plan to tackle the project.

“That’s really good for these children because it gives them the experience to be able to work with a group – that’s the society that we live in,” said Lester.

After the planning, the building process begins. As they build, there are certain rules they must follow: use their materials wisely, always be working and never say “I’m done.”

“We introduced STEM to the students with a NASA video that showed that they are continually trying to improve, so if they just finish and say they are done, they never give themselves the chance to improve,” she said.

Not only must the students complete a project together, but they must do so within a specific timeframe and budget. Each group is given a set amount of materials to work with, but can purchase additional materials for a price. For this project, students were allowed a budget of 20 cents, with additional materials costing 1 cent each.

“This makes it more real for them,” said Lester. “It really makes them start thinking about what they really need and what’s important in the project.”

In the end, the students get to test their product and present it to the class, and although not all of the projects are a success, Lester teaches the students that failure is OK because it provides the incentive to do better.

Currently the program is only working with first graders, but Lester said that eventually kindergarten and pre-k students will be introduced to the program with lessons that are scaled back to fit their learning capabilities.

This article was originally published at

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