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Educators look to spur students' interest in STEM programs

Educators look to spur students' interest in STEM programs

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When Neal Elementary School fifth-graders Darrius Smith and Ambrose Arevalo unveiled their science fair project Thursday night, it went beyond an experiment involving balloons or plants.

Instead, the two studied the effects of mirrors on refracting LED lights and were supervised by a Texas A&M professor as part of a U.S. Department of Education federal STEM grant.

A&M professors received the $1.3 million federal grant to work with students at Neal Elementary for the 2015-16 school year and get them engaged in math and science.

About 30 students from third through fifth grade shared science projects at the school Thursday. Since September, 124 students in six different classes at the school have received several weeks of instruction from their teachers with the assistance of various A&M professors, who collaborated with the teachers to integrate the federal STEM ideals and concepts into everyday curriculum.

STEM stands for "science, technology, engineering and math," and is a national program initiated by the Obama administration to help raise American children's competitiveness and success in these industries by means of merging science and math into everyday learning experiences, making the fields more applicable to real life and attainable as career goals for children.

"Today, few American students pursue expertise in STEM fields -- and we have an inadequate pipeline of teachers skilled in those subjects," states the Department of Education's website. "That's why President Obama has set a priority of increasing the number of students and teachers who are proficient in these vital fields."

Since the beginning of the school year, Texas A&M faculty have taken time to work with Neal Elementary students to create up to eight projects per class that combine language arts and other nonscientific, nonmathematical fields with science and math. This plan has been named "Making the Makers" by the National Science Foundation, the group that provided the grant, which will extend the professors' work through 2018.

"With this, the students are learning differently," said Bryan Independent School District Superintendent Tommy Wallis. "Here, they take all the different senses of learning and implement them to the projects. The kids are taught presentation skills, collaborative learning and problem-solving skills. Nothing about this science fair tonight is not 21st-century learning. We've just made science fun."

Students were taught to work with circuits, creating robots, ice-melting devices, quiz boards and more, as well as how to use storytelling elements in their projects. A team of nearly a dozen A&M professors of varying specialties have instructed the students on their projects, and have studied for their own research purposes how the opportunities affect the students' dispositions.

"I like to say we're planting a seed in their self concept," said A&M associate professor of psychology Rebecca Schlegel. "Maybe down the line, these kids will want to be scientists."

Sharon Lynn Chu, assistant professor of visualization, said she and her colleagues have been observing over the past few months how putting together these projects has affected students' self-esteem, and though no conclusive data has been put together yet, she noted, the professors have noticed a difference in the children.

"It did increase these kids' enthusiasm in science and they've shown interest in scientific careers," Chu said.

Smith and Arevalo are students in Rita Gamache's fifth-grade class, admitted they liked using the mirror reflection and refraction concepts they learned to pretend to be Marvel superheroes shooting off beams of light. For the moment, the boys said, they feel like they'd both rather be athletes than scientists, but aren't going to let their scientific abilities go to waste, they said.

"Our predictions we had at first turned out wrong," Smith said, "but that's what it's all about -- getting it wrong a few times until you finally get it right."

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