BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Santa’s reindeer were lost in Clear Creek Elementary School, and Emma Younger was their only hope.
As the booth at Clear Creek’s first STEM Night explained, the school was having a “power outage,” and the reindeer needed a light by which to see.
That’s where Emma came in: She was tasked with building a circuit to light up a Christmas light, and show them the way.
Baylee Gabbard, an Indiana University sophomore in charge of the booth, explained the basic science of the activity and offered a few pointers as Emma, focusing hard, outlined a square using strips of aluminum foil.
At one corner of the square, her dad, Matt Younger, held down the wires of a Christmas light while Emma taped them down under the foil. On one side of the square, she left a little gap between the pieces of foil. When she was ready, she touched a nine-volt battery to the foil, putting the battery’s positive terminal and negative terminal on either side of the gap, making a bridge.
The light bulb blinked on.
“Look! I did it!” Emma crowed in triumph. Gabbard gave her a cheer.
“You’re an electrician!” she said.
Gabbard’s booth was one of seven or eight stations at the Clear Creek’s STEM Night, an event that invited families to come in and see some of the science, technology, engineering and math principles students are learning in class. The stations each unpacked a STEM-related educational standard to explore. At one, two IU students led kids through a snowflake-making activity; at another, children got up to their elbows in LEGOs. Several booths were dedicated in some capacity to coding, allowing kids to program a cartoon cat to move in patterns they designed, or to instruct small robots to navigate a maze themed around the Disney movie “Moana.”
Gabbard and the other IU students are working toward a Computer Education License, which would certify them to teach computer science classes in the state of Indiana. Candace Buggs, instructor for the course in IU’s Instructional Systems Technology department, and Clear Creek principal Susan Petty arranged for the students to create kid-friendly booths as part of their final project for the class. Buggs said she pressed students to create booths that would spark students’ interest in STEM topics by engaging in interests kids already have — hence the pervasive Disney, LEGO and Christmas themes.
“Everybody took it and ran with it,” she said proudly.
In addition to helping spark kids’ interest in STEM fields, Petty said the night was intended to bring families to the school and show them what STEM was all about. Many of them hear their kids chatter about it but don’t necessarily know what it means, she said. A night of experiments and exploration can demystify it for adults, she said, and maybe even show them how easy it can be to conduct similar experiments at home.
“I want them to see the possibilities” of all STEM has to offer, Petty said. At the elementary-school age, it can spark a lot of creativity.
One of the big talking points for a STEM education is that it prepares students for the future job market. But Anne Leftwich, associate professor in the Instructional Systems Technology department, said it does more than that: It broadens a kids’ thinking skills. Practices like programming help thinkers break down problems of all kinds into their smallest components. If an inventor wants to design a device to help a motion-impaired person pick up objects, Leftwich said, that inventor must start with the most basic functions of an arm before adding on the fine-motor elements.
“They don’t necessarily have to be coders, but they have to be able to break something down,” Leftwich said.
And on top of that, it can be a lot of fun, said Gabbard as she guided more Clear Creek students through the circuit-building challenge.
“Kids have so much fun with hands-on stuff,” Gabbard said. And with the ever-growing field of STEM education, there are more resources and activities to play with coming out all the time.