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Smart STEM shopping pays dividends

El Centro deepens its elementary, middle offerings with proven Pitsco programs

Published April 15, 2019
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EL CENTRO, CA – A strong hands-on science program is a prized asset for any school. But when El Centro Elementary School District in Imperial County, California, built their program in the 1990s thanks to a National Science Foundation grant, the district was not content to keep the benefits to itself.

As part of a program that continues to this day, El Centro designed and created science kits that were used it its schools and also loaned to schools in other districts within the county. In fact, the operation is so significant that the district maintains a warehouse and a refurbishment crew for the kits.

All of this is to say that El Centro is no newcomer to the conversation about how to build an excellent STEM program. So, when the district went scouting for major new tools to ramp up their offering at their STEM magnet school, De Anza Magnet, it was already a smart STEM shopper.

After visiting other California schools to survey the options, El Centro made a careful decision to implement Pitsco STREAM and STEM labs at the elementary and middle levels in 2017. School officials saw right away what the Pitsco labs were doing for students elsewhere, and they wanted to bring the same wins to El Centro.

MEETING NEEDS

At present, El Centro has installed three Pitsco labs in its district, an elementary STREAM Missions lab at Washington Elementary as well as a Missions lab and a middle-level STEM Expeditions® lab at De Anza Magnet. All the labs provide collaborative, project-based experiences for students.

In both schools, the labs are required classes. This is fitting considering how the new STEM curriculum is helping the school meet its larger education goals in multiple subjects.

According to Linda Morse, senior director of educational services at El Centro, “It blends very well with another district-wide initiative, which is AVID, a college-readiness system that focuses on WICOR – writing, inquiry, collaboration, organization, and reading. All of the Pitsco curricula include each of those pieces. They are interactive, collaborative, require critical thinking and problem-solving. That was another reason we were very intrigued with the Pitsco product.”

Students in the labs (both at the elementary and middle levels) learn through a wide variety of inputs, tailored to appeal to multiple learning styles. Students read text, listen to audio, converse with their partners and teammates, and complete hands-on projects. The differing inputs reinforce one another.

More than 50 percent of the El Centro district’s student population is composed of English language learners. Pitsco’s multimodal learning solutions have been invaluable. When Director of Learning, Instruction, and Accountability Joy Ceasar was asked if ELL students benefit from the approach used in the STEM labs, she didn’t mince words. “Absolutely yes,” she said. “They benefit from the collaboration, from being able to work in groups.”

ENGAGED STUDENTS LEARN

Providing the right tool set to meet objectives is one metric for success. A more immediate and emotional measure, however, is simply gauging the response of those who use the labs.

When the district was still deciding on its purchase, STEM Coordinator Marco Arellano visited an Expeditions lab in another school. He and his compatriots noticed immediately how excited the kids became as they entered the classroom. As the lab got underway, it became obvious that this was a truly dynamic program.

But, according to Arellano, what really made an impression was “the engagement of the students. It really stood out.” He noted that the facilitator did a superb job keeping the lab running smoothly, but it was the students themselves who truly drove the educational experience.

Morse and Ceasar also visited a Missions lab at Placentia Yorba-Linda. The student reaction was palpable. “We had the ability to talk with students and hear from them,” said Morse. “And we had the ability to see, visibly see, and to feel the excitement and the enthusiasm.”

These were all enticing indicators when El Centro was considering options. Of course, the true test is whether students show the same enthusiasm now that the Pitsco labs are in the district.

“The students love it,” described Ceasar. “When you walk into a classroom, the students are all engaged and very excited.”

Parents have begun to take note of the dynamic environment in the STEM labs too. “Linda and I also deal with a parent group,” said Ceasar. “One of the parents was talking extensively about the lab at De Anza. She was very excited about the lab, and all the other parents became very interested. We got to see it from the parent point of view.”

According to Arellano, the enthusiasm has an infectious quality. “The lab aids are very excited,” he said. “This excitement in the room gets transferred over to the students. And this motivates the teachers. They go back to the classroom wanting to do a little bit more!”

The excitement is set to spread a little further next year when El Centro installs an additional Missions lab at Lincoln Elementary School.

“One of the things that we really love about the STEM program is that it’s application based, it’s hands on, students are solving real problems, they’re working collaboratively, and they’re learning that everyone has a role to play and that they all have something to offer. Those are the kind of intangible things that you can’t measure with an ACT and you can’t measure with the AP exams.”

– Dr. Keith Rice, academic dean, UMS-Wright Preparatory School, Mobile, Alabama

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