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School's STEM focus gets students authentically interested

School's new STEM focus gets students authentically interested

Third-grader Von Heater used scissors to simulate a sandpiper’s beak and picked up plenty of washers, which represented Grabarkewitz crustaceans, and even a few toothpicks, which substituted for worms.  When he tried to pick up marbles – intended to resemble snails – they dropped back to the pan.“Oh, this is so hard,” Von said during the activity to teach students about how animals beaks’ are adapted to help them survive.
The project was part of the science lab at E. Hale Curran Elementary School in Murrieta, which this year has a new focus on science, technology, engineering and math.  In Curran’s science lab – called the Exploratorium – third-grader Victoria Bailey used a plastic spoon to act as a flamingo’s beak and scooped up a marble and a washer. She dropped them into her plastic cup.
Before the activity, STEM teacher Melissa Grabarkewitz talked to students about birds, showing pictures of the beaks of a flamingo, sandpiper, mockingbird and grosbeak. Spoons, scissors, tweezers and clothespins were laid out on tables to simulate beaks. And what were the cups for?“That’s your stomach,” said Grabarkewitz.“You have to feed yourselves,” she said. “Grab a beak and try to pick up whatever you can.”
Grabarkewitz After students struggled to find lunch with their beaks, Grabarkewitz asked them to think about hungry animals in the wild trying to survive. Will the birds search for food that’s easy to eat, or food with which they have to struggle, like Von did with the scissors and marbles?  
These kinds of exercises encourage students to think more critically than traditional paper-and-pencil lessons, Parris said as she watched.They’re also more engaging for students, Principal Pam Roden said.Now that the school is focusing on STEM, she said, students aren’t just complying with instructions because they think they should. They’re authentically interested.  “I’m not getting the behavior problems because they’re so focused,” Roden said.  She also expects test scores will rise because students are more interested.  
As part of Curran’s STEM focus, each teacher was told to teach at least one unit, or series of lessons, integrating all subject areas around a science concept. For example, Roden said, one class studied monarch butterflies.Students hatched eggs, read and wrote about the butterflies and studied the geography of their migration from California to Mexico each year. They created blueprints for a monarch garden, measuring the perimeter and figuring out the area.Every class also will participate in raising trout eggs, Roden said.
The lessons are just part of the changes at the school this year.  The school completed the Hour of Code so all students became Coding familiar with computer programming at the beginning of the school year, Roden said.   First-graders were coding computer games Tuesday. Curran will start after-school Discovery Classes this week for extended learning opportunities, including robotics, engineering challenges and more computer coding.  
The district also plans to increased STEM programs at Shivela Middle School, to which most Curran students move when starting the sixth grade. Officials are aligning programs with some career pathways at Murrieta Mesa High School, including the medical and engineering pathways, Roden said.