Teaching STEM skills to elementary school children calculates to a win for all

Penn State Abington education major

Penn State Abington education majors Helen Lam and Tori Parker teach a lesson to third-graders at an after school STEM enrichment program.

Credit: Emma Claire Mason

The Bee-Bots buzzed along number lines solving simple equations such as 6 plus 2 and 7 minus 4. Who programmed the colorful little robots to determine the correct answers? Twenty eager children, at a local elementary school, learned to do so with a helping hand from Penn State Abington education majors.

Ten junior and senior Elementary and Early Childhood Education (EECE) majors and two professors — Rachael Erikson Brown and Kathleen Fadigan — partnered with the Highland Elementary School Parent-Teacher Organization to conduct the STEM (science, technology, math, and engineering) enrichment program this semester.  

The Abington students said they found the eight-week program with second- and third-graders increased their preparedness for teaching on their own, especially as the focus on STEM in elementary schools is increasing.

“Not only did the children strengthen their STEM skills, but I learned strategies on how to manage a classroom. I was able to see a lesson in action and gauge its effectiveness as a teacher,” EECE major Marci Feldman said.

Helen Lam agreed.

"This experience makes the skills I've learned more tangible, and I'm more comfortable teaching the lessons, so it is a win-win for us and the students,” Feldman said.

The EECE majors developed the lessons by getting to know the school community, the neighborhood, the students and their level of STEM preparedness — just as they will in the professional world. One student taught while another observed and later gave feedback. Among the STEM lessons they presented:

  • Planning the cost of a meal using grocery store ads as a guide;
  • Budgeting a visit to a museum including the cost of admission and deciding whether snacks and a visit to the gift shop were options; 
  • Plotting out a bus route with the least number of stops for the children in the enrichment program.
  • Learning about the stars and constellations using mini-marshmallows and sticks to produce constellations.
Penn State Abington education major

Penn State Abington education majors taught children in an after school enrichment program to program Bee-Bots to solve math equations.

Credit: Emma Claire Mason

Tori Parker noted the importance of differentiating teaching between the second- and third-grade groups. 

"You need to use different language and take into account that the maturation levels on things like sharing differs between the grades," said Parker. “But it's all about letting kids explore and become independent learners in math and science." 

Rachael Erikson Brown, assistant professor of math education, praised the progress of the EECE students in a post-session wrap up.

“You are clearly more comfortable planning and facilitating lessons, driving home content, and leading tasks," she said.

James Etlen, principal of Highland Elementary, took photos as he visited one day and was pleased with the program.

”I hope to continue this valuable partnership,” he said.

Penn State Abington offers baccalaureate degrees in 19 majors at its suburban location just north of Philadelphia. Nearly half of its 4,000 students complete all four years at Abington, with opportunities in undergraduate research, the Schreyer honors program, NCAA Division III athletics, and more. Students can start the first two years of more than 160 Penn State majors at Abington and complete their degrees at University Park or another campus. Lions Gate, Abington's first residence hall, opened in August 2017.