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Administrators Corner: STREAM Missions lab opens many doors for students

Elmore City-Pernell Elementary School, Elmore City, OK, pilots Pitsco program

Published December 6, 2016
At a glance
  • Community with strong ties to oil and gas industry sees relevance in Missions science curriculum.
  • STREAM Missions’ ability to make connections across the curriculum is a benefit.

Sheila Riddle, Principal
Elmore City-Pernell Elementary School, Elmore City, Oklahoma

Sheila Riddle is in her eighth year as principal at Elmore City-Pernell Elementary (ECPE) and, prior to that, spent nine years as a math teacher and a principal in Texas. ECPE is in its first year with a pilot program for the Pitsco Education fifth-grade Missions program, a science-heavy STREAM solution. Elmore City is located in the south-central part of Oklahoma and is home to several energy-related businesses. Here are excerpts from an interview with Riddle, who explains how the Missions program has affected students, the teacher, and education at ECPE so far this school year and the impact it could have in the future.

How has elementary science education changed in recent years?
I would say there hasn’t been as large of a focus on science in elementary classrooms as there has been on reading and math. Students have not been exposed to hands-on experiments, but with the STEM program our focus is slowly changing, and the importance of science is increasing due to the push for STEM.

What has brought about the increased focus on science at ECPE?
I think a lot of that has to do with some of the grants that we have written. We have been a part of some technology grants that have come in through the K20 Center at the University of Oklahoma. We had a STEM grant that brought in a lot of professional development and some tools the teachers could use in the classroom. That was our initial start of bringing in the science lab. It has been my goal to implement an actual science lab where kids can go learn science through a hands-on experience.

Do any businesses in the community have strong science connections?
Oh, definitely in this area because we are so dependent on the oil and gas industry. The companies in this area build several gas and oil materials, so I feel like the focus on science is going to be important for our school.

What programs have you brought in to boost science education?
We began with the Missions STREAM lab. It has been our biggest push to begin the science here. In the past, we just used regular textbooks, Scott Foresman, and then whatever the teacher would pull in as resources. We haven’t really had a strong push for science and the hands-on lab like we have right now through the Pitsco STEM lab.

What have you observed in the Missions lab?
I went over there about two weeks ago, and students were working on building skeletons, they were drawing atoms, they were doing a lot of hands on, creating things. . . . I walked in there and could see that they were all engaged, they were working together, they were on the floor, they were building, talking about it all, so it’s exactly where we want to go.

What does the Missions program mean for these students going forward?
Having the experience with Missions, I think it’s going to set them up to be able to go deeper into science at the middle level. That’s what we would like to see. We still have some development that we need to do at the middle school and the high school. I feel like we are creating the base to push our middle school and high school to do something further with their science.

How important is it to have the right teacher in the lab?
It’s huge. I feel like if you don’t have the right teacher in there, it’s not going to work well. (teacher) Cathy Johnson is nationally certified. Science is her love. It’s very important to get somebody who is passionate about science and teaching so that it is productive for the students and they are able to learn.

What doubts and concerns did you have about the Missions lab at the beginning?
My concern was, how would the teacher facilitate over all these different groups that are doing different objectives all at the same time, where you have to keep your mind fresh and keep yourself ready to answer the questions? If this group over here is working on Crime Lab and this group is working on Body at Work or whatever, you have to be ready to do that, and I was very concerned about how Ms. Johnson was going to be able to get with those students and make sure they were getting the material and understanding the material.

Have your concerns been alleviated?
It’s beginning to play out well. She has eased my mind in the last couple of weeks. She has come to me and told me that they are learning and they are answering their questions with in-depth answers. It’s not just a lot of basic answers; it’s actually in-depth thinking.

Did you realize the Missions would strongly reinforce subjects other than science?
We had talked about that too, about the students’ being able to connect other subjects within the STEM lab. We are excited for our students to see math and use math in the lab, along with other subjects. We feel like the additional reading components will help to increase reading comprehension and fluency for our students. We love the idea of tying all of the subjects together so the students can get a better idea of how all of the subjects work together, not just individually.

Compare the Missions to book-based science education.
When you go in there and you see what they’re doing right now in the classroom, you can see the kids are leading themselves, and (the teacher) is just facilitating over that, answering their questions. It’s just more hands on; the kids are more involved.

Why is it important for each student to have a device?
The STEM lab is based around technology, so it is very important for students to have access to devices. Our students are fortunate to have one-to-one exposure in the lab setting. I feel like they’re more interested in technology and are more engaged when they can use technology during the learning process. They’re technology-driven students, and I think if you put that out in front of them, they’re going to be more apt to participate and be engaged in the process of learning. Students know how to use technology, so let’s hand it to them and let them use it.

How could you improve science education further in your school?
I would love to have fourth-grade Missions and get our fourth-grade students going in there. And if we can go even further down to third grade, I would love to do that. Funding would be an issue. Of course, we already have the lab, so it would be more along the lines of just picking up the extra curriculum.

How is it beneficial that the Missions are STREAM focused and not just STEM?
I think that instead of focusing just on the STEM, having the reading component in there is going to help us across the board with their reading comprehension and vocabulary. Having that art is great because as a small school district, we’re not getting to add any of those components separately from the curriculum that we have. So it is a bonus for us to have all of that in one class.

Is the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act good for ECPE?
I think we’ve focused so much on the test results since No Child Left Behind that we’ve lost focus of what’s really more important, which is, can our students walk out and apply the knowledge they have, are they getting exposed to enough of the knowledge and the hands-on experiences that are going to prepare them for college? Or, are we more focused on getting them past the tests to make our schools look better? . . . I haven’t read enough about ESSA yet. I went to a workshop yesterday, but I feel like that’s the direction we need to go. I think we need to be looking at what the kids can do in the classroom, where are they taking the material, what are they learning from the material, are we getting them ready for college or the job force following graduation?

“If I could have a STEM lab for every classroom in our school, this probably would be the best school in the United States because I see how our students are engaged in our Pitsco lab.”

– Jeff Torrence, principal, Honeysuckle Middle School, Dothan, Alabama

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