STRASBURG – Part of teaching is about challenging students to discover what they never thought possible. It’s also about playing to students’ strengths and interests so they want to keep on learning.
At this month’s STEM Share Fairs, Shenandoah County Public School students are doing all those things and more.
An avid baker, Chloe Copeland, 11, made it her February sixth grade science fair project at Signal Knob Middle School to discover which type of brownies taste the best. She used one regular and two gluten-free brands and experimented on her four lucky sisters.
“I like to bake on a regular basis,” she said at Tuesday evening’s fair at her school. When she realized not everyone can eat regular brownies, she decided to whip up a fun experiment as her class project.
Chloe tested regular and gluten-free Betty Crocker brand brownies against King Arthur gluten free, using taste testers in four different age groups.
“In conclusion, the regular brownies did win, but the King Arthur gluten free was the best gluten-free alternative out of the two,” she said.
“To me there’s not really a difference,” she said. It’s only the type of flour that matters.
Her teacher Darla Lisbon’s decision to let students choose their own assignments reaped wide-reaching results.
Seaira Warnell, 12, discovered that angles make objects stealthier than curved ones when she measured light reflecting off paper she had manipulated into different shapes.
Jacob Kosubinsky, 12, used trigonometry to determine whether a smaller or larger rocket would launch higher into the Shenandoah Valley sky. The math initially concerned him, until he realized multiplying the height of the rocket’s path by its angle to the ground and distance from where it would land basically made a big triangle.
Jacob won first place in the school’s February science fair, followed closely by Austin Six and Katie Stieringer, who tied for second.
Katie, 11, measured which type of concrete is the strongest, and Austin, 12, said his baby cousin inspired him to measure the absorption levels of three diaper brands.
Luvs outlasted the competition, a result Austin said surprised his aunt and uncle. It also does the job for less money.
In the case of Huggies, he said, “You’re actually paying for the name.”
The fair, which brought together students from first through 12th grade, celebrated hands-on education that encourages creativity. Wednesday evening’s share fair at Stonewall Jackson Middle School in Woodstock offered projects like musical boomwackers made from tubes that produce a specific pitch when struck by student musicians.
Earlier in the year, Central High School teacher Holly Roberts led students in researching the molecular gastronomy of their food, while elementary school children built a waterslide and debated the best construction materials for a “wolf proof” house, that they might fare better than two of the Three Little Pigs did.
Projects showed that there’s more than one way to solve a problem.
When directed at Sandy Hook Elementary School’s Family STEM Night on Monday to build a multi-player game using simple materials like paper towel rolls, duct tape, aluminum foil and Play-Doh, first grade student Thomas Stieringer, 7, and his family rose to the challenge.
Using plastic cups for goals and pipe cleaners for goal posts, they built a soccer field on cardboard. Other teams constructed a ring toss and a basketball court.
The projects were part of a Dr. Seuss-themed family night that Principal Robin Shrum said encouraged family participation.
Usually parents drop off their children for school projects, Shrum said. “We didn’t let that happen this time. They had to work as a family, which was really, really neat.”
STEM classes, which focus education on science, technology, engineering and math, encourage out-of-the-box thinking — an idea Strasburg High School teacher Mike Mellish has embraced in his ninth grade English class.
In Strasburg, STEM education includes an “A” for arts and humanities to spell STEAM.
His students used lumber in small construction projects that come with instruction manuals they wrote themselves.
“It’s a little bit of English, a little bit of engineering,” Mellish said.
In Quicksburg, which plans its STEM Share Fair for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at North Fork Middle School, STEM includes an “A” for arts and an “R” for reading, and spells STREAM.
Susan Tusing’s class at Ashby Lee Elementary School made a Noun Town complete with brochures, and Beth Colwell’s art classes used engineering to construct puppets in a unit on Chinese culture.
Spanish students at Stonewall Jackson High School researched chemical engineering in the Amazon for the creation of new medicines, while students from Triplett Tech built a computer for an animation course, and two others from Massanutten Regional Governor’s School started plans for building an outdoor classroom at Ashby Lee.
STEM ideas even break boundaries of core studies, like at Signal Knob Middle School, where they cross over into the school’s 30-minute daily enrichment period. Scheduled halfway through the day, the free electives offer opportunities to have fun through unexpectedly educational activities, said art teacher Heather Fellers.
Take MaKey MaKey boards, which teach students about circuitry and electronics by sending signals through their fingers to a digital keyboard on a school Chromebook.
“You can play the keyboard using bananas if you want to,” Fellers said. “Their imagination starts to run wild when they can figure out new ways to use it.”
“It’s recess for their brains.”
Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or firstname.lastname@example.org