- Associated Press - Saturday, October 7, 2017

ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) - How do you teach a child to code?

How do you get a student just learning simple math to understand programming that often requires algebra skills?

It’s not as hard as you’d think, and it’s happening every day at Talahi Community School in St. Cloud, the St. Cloud Times reported .

“First we teach them unplugged lessons,” said Jason Menth, STEM integrationist at Talahi. “That means they’re not using technology, so it’s a lot of just moving their body.”

First, students use a large walkable grid to form paths. Students lay down arrows in boxes to form a path that will get them to their destination the fastest, Menth described.

It’s a lot of trial and error. But it’s working.

“They start to understand what a computer is doing - following a sequence of directions,” Menth said.

Menth, in his sixth year at Talahi, became the STEM integrationist two years ago. A similar position was created four years ago, when Talahi became a STEM-focus school.

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. But it’s much more than an acronym. It’s a new way of thinking about how to combine subjects and create hands-on projects that look more like real-world experiences and skills required for careers.

“Old education was (where) you’re just learning math, or you’re just learning reading, or you’re just learning science,” Menth said. “What STEM is is project-based learning where you’re putting it all together.”

In people’s careers, they never need to only master just one skill. But for many years, the education system revolved around teachers teaching students one subject - such as math, reading or science - in a silo.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Menth said.

Jenny McNew, media specialist at Talahi, is helping Menth integrate STEM into the curriculum. McNew has been teaching for 31 years; she has been a media specialist in St. Cloud school district for 19 years.

McNew and Menth are rearranging a former classroom into a “creation station” that has wide open space for students to learn using engineering projects and robots. The room is temporarily housing STEM bins filled with pattern blocks and cubes that will rotate through classrooms. It also is the temporary home to iPads before they get distributed to students; Talahi has one-to-one technology for students in grades 2-5. That means each student gets a device.

Each classroom at Talahi also has its own robot, and the robot is more advanced with each grade level.

The younger grades use Bee-Bots, which look like small beetles with arrows on the top that can be programmed to move certain ways. Second-graders use Dash, a blue robot made of four spheres that responds to voices, navigates objects and can use apps to learn new behaviors. And fourth-graders use Sphero, a clear ball-like robot that can be programmed to navigate mazes, swim across water or create chalk lines to help students learn about circumference and other math skills.

“You don’t need all these resources to make it STEM,” Menth said. “It’s taking what you do in math and applying it to science or social studies together. We’re just lucky to have all these resources to make it more engaging and more fun and go the extra mile with it.”

STEM programming is funded through grants and resources dedicated by the district to make Talahi the district’s first STEM-focus school. While Talahi is the designated STEM school, other elementary schools in the district are implementing STEM curriculum, too.

“Our challenge was to take what we already do - reading and math, which are two big skills - and how to bring our science and engineering and technology into those areas and still cover the standards,” McNew said. “We utilize a lot of things that are considered STEM but what we really pushed for this year was to what we call ‘STEMify’ our curriculum.”

What that means is every classroom dedicates one hour each day to “STEMify” its lessons. And once a week during that time, the classroom can go to the STEM room, library or computer labs to use different equipment.

McNew described a typical science lesson - how plants grow - that is “STEMified” by not only writing and reading about germination and photosynthesis, but by integrating math skills into the lesson by measuring plant growth. A teacher could even integrate engineering into the lesson by having students create a device to water the plant when they are not there.

“It’s a lot of big ideas and inquiry. You want kids to have questions after they solve their initial question,” Menth said. “That’s what the STEM process is - how can we keep pushing our boundaries?”

Transitioning to a STEM-focus school requires buy-in from teachers. Getting the students excited about engineering is easy, Menth said.

“You put an iPod or a robot in a student’s hand, they are going to figure it out. They love to explore,” he said. “It’s more of actually getting the teachers familiar. You can’t just change into a STEM school overnight. Each year, we give teachers something else to build upon to incorporate more things into the classroom.”

Talahi has an after-school robotics club for students. Staff are also planning a STEM night in December to show parents and community members how STEM is being implemented in the classroom.

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Information from: St. Cloud Times, https://www.sctimes.com

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