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The science classes of the future

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Posted at 6:00 AM, Jan 19, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-19 12:26:26-05

On a recent morning at the Western Row Elementary School, there were 27 third-graders spilt into six teams as they worked on their class assignment.

Their mission was to build the tallest structure in 15 minutes using gumdrops, marshmallows and toothpicks.

This is the science class of the future.

Students work together on the class project. Photo by Sonia Chopra

More than 25 years ago, the Mason City School District became the first district in Ohio to offer science lab as a special course in its elementary schools.

Today, those labs have evolved into Innovative STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Learning Centers.

The goal is to generate excitement and aspire kids to become future coders, engineers and scientists.

As the students concentrated on building the structures, third grade STEM teacher Karen Vome said that she had a few expectations from her students.

Vome's "I Can" guidelines. Photo by Sonia Chopra

“I want them to learn teamwork, to negotiate, to problem solve, to compromise and to finally take responsibility,” said Vome, who laid the foundation of the class with eight “I Can” statements posted on the wall.

“They didn’t get all this in the beginning of the semester, but I am so proud of them for never giving up and always working respectfully as a team. It’s not the product; it’s the whole process,” Vome said.

The tallest structure to win first place stood steadily at 44 centimeters. The second one was 33 centimeters.

The class raised their hands one by one to explain why their product worked or didn’t, their thought process and what the takeaway lesson was going forward.

“Everyone agreed that we had to work on the base for support. We worked together to do that,” said C.J. Castner, whose team won.

“Without the base, it would not stand. I didn’t imagine that it would look like these but we won,” said teammate Dylan Yan.

Vome hopes this project will propel students to pursue careers in engineering or architecture.

A former STEM class project. Photo by Sonia Chopra

A past project was decorating toys to go with kid’s meals and future projects include working with Makey Makeys, robots and coding.

During the current school year, more than 2,100 first-, second- and third-graders at the Mason Early Childhood Center and Western Row Elementary School go the STEM classes daily.

Both centers were supported with a $25,000 grant from the Mason Schools Foundation and are equipped with movable furniture and technology such as iPads and Chrome.

“The best thing about the STEM classes are that every student is engaged. They are talking, asking, learning and working together,” Vome said. “That's 100 percent involvement and that’s great.”

The main reason for STEM’s success is that it was conceived and executed by a team of teachers, lead learning coaches, technology team members and district administrators who wanted to take classrooms into the 21st century.

“The STEM Learning Centers started off as a bit of a dream and conversation filled with excitement and enthusiasm,” said innovative learning officer Jonathan Cooper. “In Mason, we want to continue to provide innovative learning experiences for our kids.”

By making the technology, tools and training available to students at the beginning of their learning career, the ambitious hope is to build a foundation of exploration, autonomy, risk-taking, creativity and problem-solving.

Educators say that the critical thinking will lead to solving of real world problems later. And it will also enhance leadership skills and foster pride in citizenship.

“We were also one of the first elementary schools in the state to be able to put together an elementary STEM lab,” added MECC Principal Melissa Bly. “It was an innovative approach to try and increase the rigor and the learning that was going on in the classroom.”

Parents are enthusiastic about the STEM classes, too, and they eagerly follow its Twitter handle @MCSStem123 for updates.