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Elon workshops help area teachers bring STEM into the classroom

Elon faculty members led a variety of workshops for local K-12 teachers on Wednesday, June 13, designed to help them integrate unique science, technology and mathematics concepts in their classes. 

Mike Czysz of Roxboro Community School reacts as he uncovers a fingerprint on a glass beaker using a technique taught by Elon Chemistry Professor Dr. Karl Sienerth during Wednesday’s STEM workshop at Elon University.

Local teachers celebrated moments of triumph in classrooms and laboratories around Elon's campus on Wednesday. This fall, they'll be helping their own students achieve the same kinds of successes. 

In the Department of Computing Sciences in Duke Building, one teacher raised her arms triumphantly, saying "great success!" as she completed a series of computer code using the Scratch programming language. The result? An animated cartoon cat delivering the punchline to a joke. In the third-floor chemistry lab in McMichael Science Center, another group of teachers eyed fingerprints on the sides of beakers, uncovered by fingerprint powder. 

Elon Chemistry Professor Dr. Karl Sienerth talks to Roxboro Community School teacher Mike Czysz about the intricacies of fingerprints during Wednesday’s STEM workshop at Elon University.

Examining an irregularity in his own fingerprint, Steve Kirby with Orange County Schools recounted a childhood injury to his thumb that likely accounts for the unique pattern that makes his print easily identifiable. "You're not going to get away with anything," said Karl Sienerth, professor of chemistry, who was teaching a "Human Identification through Fingerprints and DNA" workshop. 

Sienerth and other Elon faculty members offered their expertise for the range of workshops for area elementary, middle and high school teachers in this annual event that offers attendees unique ways to integrate STEM concepts into their classrooms and lesson plans. Organized by Dave Gammon, associate professor of biology, and Martin Kamela, associate professor of physics, the seven workshops led by 11 Elon faculty and staff provided teachers the opportunity to take the ideas they learn about, make them their own and use them to spark new ideas. 

"Our goal is to provide teachers with ideas that they can immediately begin embedding in their classrooms," Kamela said. 

Originally funded by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation, the workshops have received positive feedback from the teachers who attended, with an overwhelming majority of past participants saying they left with ideas they plan to implement in the classroom. The workshops have continued thanks to the support of the deans of the School of Education and Elon College, the College of Arts and Sciences.

In a McMichael classroom, Sirena Hargrove-Leak, associate professor of engineering, walked teachers through the engineering design process as part of a Watercraft Design Challenge they can use with their elementary school students. 

Haw River Elementary teacher Heather Norris (center) reacts as her watercraft sinks after taking on too much weight during an engineering exercise taught by Sirena Hargrove-Leak, associate professor of engineering .

"My goal really is for them to see they can introduce engineering in the elementary school classroom," said Hargrove-Leak, who led the "Engineering in Elementary" workshop. 

She noted that studies have shown that around the fourth and fifth grades is when many girls begin to develop insecurities about mathematics and science, making that an ideal age for the use of innovative ways for them to engage with STEM topics, like the Watercraft Design Challenge. 

Hargrove-Leak walked the teachers through the engineering design process that can be implemented for the challenge, which tasks students with using paper cups, straws, tape and plastic wrap to create a boat that can hold metal washers and stay afloat. "Do emphasize the importance of the brainstorming step with your students," Hargrove-Leak said. "They will likely want to gloss over that. ... Make sure each participant has their voice heard."

The workshops are also designed to build connections between Elon faculty and surrounding schools and teachers so that those teachers and schools can continue to draw upon the resources and expertise of Elon faculty as they look at new ways to present STEM subjects to young learners, organizers said. 

Teachers engineer a weight-bearing watercraft using household items during Wednesday’s STEM workshop at Elon University.

In a computer lab in Duke Building, teachers walked through tutorials in the Scratch programming language as they tackled individual projects. Offered free by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Scratch offers a more visual way to dive into learning the concepts of computer programming and coding that makes it more accessible to younger or less-experienced learners, said Duke Hutchings, associate professor of computing sciences. 

"The environment offered by Scratch is oriented particularly to children," Hutchings said. 

However, it's not limited to just beginning learners, with Scratch programming offering the ability to delve into more complex programming work as the student progresses, Hutchings said. "This can be used throughout K-12 — all the concepts are here," Hutchings said. 

It's free and accessible to anyone with a browser that supports Flash, making it easy for the teachers involved in Wednesday's workshop to quickly and easily take Scratch back to their own schools. 

"Conceptually, computer science is already fairly challenging," Hutchings said. "The hope is that this removes some of those introductory challenges, and makes it easier to eventually make the leap to more commercial-grade programming languages."

Owen Covington,
6/13/2018 2:55 PM