STEM Learning at the Elementary Level
Making the most out of fewer resources is a mantra recited by nearly every school district these days. So when Vickie Hallock, supervisor of elementary education at the Penn Manor (Pa.) School District, realized there would be a shortage of physical education teachers at the elementary level this school year, she saw it as an opportunity to introduce a new 21st-century skills course.
The district, roughly 80 miles west of Philadelphia, has over 5,000 students sprawled across seven elementary schools, two middle schools and one high school. The middle school and high school already had a robust technology education curriculum, but this new class would begin that at grade 3.
“This is really the result of budget cuts and reduced resources,” says Mike Leichliter, superintendent of Penn Manor. After a physical education teacher retired at the end of 2010, there was no room in the budget for the position to be replaced. This would leave students at three elementary schools having only one physical education class per six-day rotation and a block of time that had to be filled.
Hallock recruited a technology education teacher, Nick Crowther, at the high school to create a technology curriculum to introduce elementary students to the foundations of engineering.
According to Leichliter, the outcome was a compromise that produced positive results. “Vickie is the ultimate example of making lemonade out of lemons.”
The Elementary Approach
The basic concepts between the high school course and elementary course are similar, says Sean McKnight, Penn Manor industrial arts and technology education coordinator. “At the elementary level, you can’t get deep into engineering principals,” says McKnight, “but even children as young as five could understand the processes including identifying a problem and building a testing solution.”
The course is about more than technology, however. “We called the courses ‘21st-century skills’ because ‘technology education’ implies the courses are focused solely on technology,” Hallock says. “We’re asking students to solve hands-on problems collaboratively.”
Leichliter says that Hallock gained input from all departments to make Crowther’s transition to the elementary schools almost seamless. With the program also being supported at the middle school level, Crowther is traveling between five buildings and seeing 900 students each week. Some expenses were incurred for the new class, such as transportation carts for Crowther’s projects, but they were minimal, says Hallock.
Sincere STEM Enthusiasm
Before the program’s inception in September, Hallock and Leichliter heard from parents and teachers who were concerned about children losing physical education courses. However, according to Leichliter, they are enthusiastic about their children learning skills they wouldn’t otherwise have received until middle school.
Crowther receives instant gratification from students who are excited to engage in hands-on projects, such as building sailboats, windmills, water wheels, wind turbines, bridges, hot air balloons and architectural models. Science concepts, including erosion, rainwater collection, wind speed and alternative sources of energy such as solar power, are demonstrated throughout these projects.
To Hallock’s knowledge, hers is the only district in Pennsylvania attempting this broad of a technology and engineering program across grade levels. Ultimately, expanding the program across all elementary schools would be the culmination of the district’s technology program. “If this is successful,” says Hallock, “we may need to sit down with all the departments across the board and look at staff projections for the coming years to find a way to make this work.”
Vickie Hallock, Supervisor of Elementary Education at Penn Manor (Pa.) School District
- Tenure: 26 years
- Age: 54
- Salary: $103,000
- Staff: 369 professional staff, 279 support staff
- Schools: 7 elementary, 2 middle, 1 high
- Students receiving free or reduced-price lunches: 28%
- Web site: www.pennmanor.net
Marion Herbert is associate editor.