McNeese State University has partnered with the Calcasieu Parish School System and CITGO to bring STEM education to over 900 elementary students in 23 participating elementary schools through a national program called Engineering is Elementary.
EiE is a national STEM education program developed by the Museum of Science in Boston, Mass., that is designed to engage elementary school students to STEM education in creative ways with hands-on learning, discovery and exploration using the engineering design process, according to Dr. Nikos Kiritsis, dean of McNeese’s College of Engineering and Computer Science.
He discovered EiE three years ago when he was looking for a way to spark the interest of his son, then a third grader, in the science, technology, engineering and math areas.
“Sparking a student’s interest in STEM is critical at a young age,” says Kiritsis. “Research has revealed that by the time students reach fourth grade, a third of boys and girls have lost an interest in science, and by eighth grade, almost 50 percent have lost interest or deemed it irrelevant to their education or future plans. I was looking for some kind of program my son and I could do together that was hands-on and fun while also being educational.”
Assisted by McNeese State University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science, the first CITGO Design Challenge was held this week to celebrate National STEM Day.The challenge pitted nine Engineering is Elementary teams of fifth graders from Calcasieu Parish schools that were tasked with designing and building a mousetrap car. Team members from St. John Elementary prepare to race their mousetrap car.
Kiritsis was excited about the EiE program and saw the potential educational value for both the community and McNeese. So, he partnered with Dr. Ning Zhang, McNeese associate professor of mechanical engineering, and they initiated a weekly pilot after school program that met for 15 weeks in the spring of 2015 at the McNeese SEED Center with 25 third grade students.
“Students and parents were enthusiastic so I approached officials at the Calcasieu Parish School Board about expanding the after school EiE program,” says Kiritsis. He even brought in Museum of Science President and Director Dr. Ioannis Miaoulis to talk with officials.
According to Darrell McDaniel, STEM educator development leader for the school board’s PROGRESS Project, EiE seemed the perfect program to bring STEM education to students in Calcasieu Parish.
“The PROGRESS Project seeks ways to improve student success and educator effectiveness in 20 priority schools in Calcasieu Parish and EiE presented a concrete method towards this goal,” said McDaniel. “Our EiE pilot program launched in 2016 with 100 fourth grade students in six schools.
CITGO also wanted to be involved and matched the Calcasieu Parish School Board funds for the project through its STEM Talent Pipeline program, which provides grants to schools and educational organizations to promote STEM awareness and instruction.
“With this combined support and enthusiasm, EiE was able to expand quickly,” said Kiritsis.
While the program is still relatively new, McDaniel says that the board has already seen a large impact not only on students but also with teachers. “Now teachers are assigning students a problem that’s open ended and has many different solutions that the student can pursue, providing much more of a hands-on learning experience in the classroom,” says McDaniel.
The program features modules that present “unique” problems to students. In the “Rockets and Rovers” module, students are asked to design rockets that that can carry autonomous rovers to explore different planets and moons. In “Bubble Bonanza,” students use different materials to create bubble wands and discover the science of how bubbles behave. Kiritsis and Zhang provided training to teachers on these modules.
As a result of the program’s successes, some teachers are bringing methods and techniques from EiE into their regular classrooms.
McDaniel and Kiritsis say that future plans are to hopefully expand the after school program into all 35 of Calcasieu Parish’s elementary schools, as well as potentially bring the program into regular classrooms.
Making final team preparations for the upcoming robotics competition at F.K. White Elementary is Ava Lankford, left, a sixth grader from S.J. Welsh Middle School, with help from Huanrong Ouyang, a McNeese State University engineering junior. Two sixth grade Engineering is Elementary teams – coached by McNeese engineering faculty and mentored by McNeese students – are entered in the competition. EiE is a national STEM education program designed to engage elementary school students to STEM education with hands-on learning.
Kiritsis says the partnership with CITGO and the school board is a win-win situation. With assistance from the McNeese College of Engineering and Computer Science, the first CITGO Design Challenge was held this week to celebrate National STEM Day. The challenge featured nine EiE teams of fifth graders from Calcasieu Parish schools tasked with designing and building a mousetrap car. McNeese engineering faculty served as judges for the competition.
Also, F.K. White is hosting an upcoming robotics competition and two sixth grade EiE teams coached by Kiritsis and Zhang are entered in the competition and are made up of students from the original pilot class of third graders in the SEED Center.
“The STEM areas are where the best jobs of tomorrow will be and EiE is igniting a spark that will hopefully help fill those jobs,” says Kiritsis.