A Hands-On STEM Breakthrough in a Hands-Off Environment

STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is now a well-known acronym in the education field, and its importance continues to grow. Engaging students in STEM is crucial for many reasons—it creates critical thinkers, increases science literacy, and enables the next generation of innovators, to name a few.

The Smithsonian Science Education Center (SSEC) understands that providing students with hands-on STEM activities naturally encourages their curiosity, and its various curriculum pieces often reference items easily found in classrooms and homes for students to use as guides in their inquiry-based learning.

Promoting hands-on activities was Allentown (PA) School District’s (ASD) goal when it began collaborating with da Vinci Science Center in 2019. Karen Knecht, the center’s Senior Director of Education, explains they began working with the district’s 4th and 5th graders to bring their science curriculum to life. This included several co-teaching experiences when da Vinci center staff brought materials into individual classrooms and presented lessons with teachers.

When the pandemic brought in-person learning to a halt, educators and other stakeholders in different arenas collectively sought ways to retain a hands-on element in teaching. The result was a four-way partnership that includes da Vinci Science Center, ASD, SSEC, and PPL, a Pennsylvania-based utilities company.

Knecht explained that SSEC already had established elementary school science curriculum that is aligned with Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), a multi-state effort to create new education standards that are “rich in content and practice, arranged in a coherent manner across disciplines and grades to provide all students an internationally benchmarked science education.” She added that Pennsylvania is on track to adopt these standards in the near future, and they are a great way to introduce 3-dimensional learning.

SSEC converted this curriculum to a digital format for teachers but retained a complementary book for distribution to students. Using the curriculum, which for 4th-graders was How Can We Provide Energy to People’s Homes?, da Vinci Center staff crafted individual kits that included D batteries and battery holders, regular wires and wires with alligator clips, a switch, tape, mini light bulbs, an LED bulb, bulb holders, a toilet paper tube, and a variety of loose metal items (washers, paper clips, etc.), all of which were for ASD students to use to build their own flashlights. Similarly, they created individual kits for the fifth-grade curriculum, How Can We Get Fresh Water to Those in Need? Each student also received a STEM notebook to record their findings.

PPL played a critical role in this endeavor. Their generous funding provided a copy of the SSEC book to all 3,500 ASD fourth- and fifth-grade students. PPL President Greg Dudkin, who also serves on SSEC’s Board of Directors, explained this project aligns perfectly with the PPL Foundation—their philanthropic arm—which focuses its contributions and volunteer efforts to support equitable and engaging high-quality educational opportunities for all students, with a particular emphasis on early childhood education and (STEM) programs, among others.

Although the program is still in progress, Dudkin noted it clearly got off to a good start, based on enthusiastic participation and feedback from ASD’s teachers during the professional development training held prior to launching the curriculum.

“Subsequently, we have been thrilled to learn that the students have been equally enthusiastic in taking the STEM kits home and absorbing the new materials,” Dudkin said. He added that one particular anecdote stood out: a fourth-grade girl who never volunteers to speak unmuted herself during a video conference session to diagnose another student’s electric circuit problem that he was showing on the screen. Dudkin also shared that many families have gotten involved, joining the students in their experimentation while on screen.

“The program appears to be sparking curiosity and hopefully a lifelong love of science,” he said. And that’s a win-win all around!