STEM learning comes from trying, trying again

Jefferson STEM classroom challenges students to create, collaborate

Staff photo by Connor Cummiskey Third-graders Oliver Barnhart, left, and Riley DeGre, right, use a Little Bits set to create a bubble making machine. They used a fan, some batteries, wires and switches and by attaching them to found materials like paper cups can make anything from a bubble blower to a flashlight.

NEW ULM — Out of chaos comes learning, creativity and collaboration in the Jefferson Elementary STEM Lab.

An acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, the STEM class presents students with one hour every seven days of problem solving and collaboration.

“The goal is to have kids work together problem solving, learning how to collaborate, how to come up with ideas that I am not telling them,” STEM Teacher Beth Sletta said.

The program started as an after-school activity a few years ago. Last year it became an official class at Jefferson and expanded to all four grades for the 2017-’18 school year.

Each class generally consists of one challenge or project that all the students have to complete.

Staff photo by Connor Cummiskey Second-graders Jacob Pornter, left, and Brenton Nachreiner, right, use snap circuits to manipulate electrical flows and connect a switch to a spinning fan blade to shut it off.

Most of the learning does not come from building a successful project, however. More often students learn through failure, where they can analyze what went wrong.

“We learn how to fail a lot and get through it and to keep on going,” Sletta said.

They also learn collaboration by working in small groups. Sletta calls it the four C’s: collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity.

Lessons can vary drastically. One period students may be building chain-reactions to learn about energy storage and transfer, the next they could be programming small robots, called Ozobots, to follow lines through Lego cities.

“I try to tie the curriculum to what they are learning in the room, or maybe a season,” Sletta said.

Staff photo by Connor Cummiskey Rumor Pieper, left, watches as Lily Enger, right, times a ball in a ping pong ball run. The girls had to keep the ball on the setup for as long as possible.

For example, when the students were learning about ancient cultures, they were challenged to build structures like the Parthenon out of the strongest 3D objects they could make.

In each challenge, students are welcome to use whatever materials are available in the room. Including a healthy amount of donated junk that Sletta keeps in a box in the corner.

“They really love the cardboard, the tubes, the Pringles cans, they love those kinds of challenges,” Sletta said.

Those kinds of found material are what the class started with. All the other technology, from Ozobots, to kits of electrical components called LittleBits were either donated or funded through grants.

“Some (grants) are really pretty easy, you just fill out a few items on an online form and you hear back,” Sletta said. “Others it is quite a process where you have to have letters and photos and statements from other teachers.”

Staff photo by Connor Cummiskey Zelli Kamm, right (fourth-grade), and Brelynn Schmid, left (fourth), use a Makey Makey set to turn bananas into a piano to play “Mary had a Little Lamb.” The system uses a circuit board an wires hooked up to a laptop to turn anything the wires are set in into piano keys.

So where does Sletta go to find these tools? She plugs into a world-wide network of STEM teachers who share, trade and suggest ideas.

“I would say my professional development, which is going to sound really funny, is probably Twitter,” Sletta said. “There are a lot of Twitter groups that are STEM teachers because we are maybe one person in a district or one person in a town, so you kind of have to find your tribe.”

She has connected with teachers as far away as Australia to find new projects. That global collaboration has seeped into the classroom too.

The students participate in what is called the “Pringles Challenge,” which does not involve eating anything.

Instead, groups have to figure out the best way to package a single Pringles chip to be mailed to schools in Florida and Texas.

When they arrive, those schools will judge the effectiveness, weight and more. They then mail their own chips back.

The collaboration is also within Jefferson. Teachers across the school use STEM topics in their class.

A Makey Makey Invention Kit, consisting of a circuit board plugged into an USB port can turn anything from Play-Doh to bananas into piano keys using wires. It’s a fun twist that the music classes use.

Beyond the classroom, the STEM class spurred the installation of a garden. When beekeepers visited to teach students about pollinators, the third-graders wanted a pollinator garden.

With some help from the community it was put in and now students are learning gardening, when it is warm enough.

Students also can take home their STEM lessons. There are suitcases that can be packed with material for projects that take more than an hour.

Sletta only asks that students take photos or videos of the project they make at home and send them to her.

While Sletta worked to gather grants for some of these, donations from local parents and companies like Allina or Parker Hannifin have added to the variety of tools students are learning to use.

To keep up on the STEM class, find the Jefferson STEM Lab Facebook page or go to the website