Cultivating Scientific Minds at Ponderosa Elementary School

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What physical traits define an insect? Why do raisins dropped in Sprite “dance”? What composes an owl pellet?

Ask the students at Ponderosa Elementary School in Paradise. They can tell you.

art-0601-stem3Clad in official scientist gear – aprons, goggles, and protective gloves – students who enter Ponderosa’s new Rotary-sponsored STEM Lab emerge as mini scientists. “STEM” represents four key fields of study: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, and the lab exists to cultivate students’ appreciation for these subjects. As Ponderosa second-grade teacher Mary Ludwig says, “We’ve always been a science-focused school. But now we have the space to really develop and expand.”

The lab was born after a group of the school’s teachers and Principal Thomas Taylor attended a STEM conference last year. Aided by many supportive parents and community members who worked together to secure funding and convert a classroom into a suitable environment for scientists, the lab opened on September 26, 2015. A steady stream of classes has kept the room full ever since.

The STEM lab takes hands-on learning to a whole new level, encouraging students to truly experience and experiment. Multiple grade levels recently studied live ladybugs, stick bugs and crickets through the lens of a microscope. Ludwig’s students have dissected owl pellets and scientifically categorized the contents. Before the end of the school year, students will engineer parachutes for LEGO people and design packaging to (hopefully) protect an egg from breaking when dropped from a cherry picker.

art-0601-stem2The lab also facilitates learning by offering teaching opportunities to other students in the community. Recently, at Paradise Intermediate School, 6th-grade students in the school’s Creekside 6 program learned how to engineer and construct catapults. The team created lab books with their newfound knowledge, then traveled by bus to visit Ludwig’s second-grade class in Pondorosa’s STEM lab. With their newly-written lab books in hand, the 6th graders taught the younger students how to build catapults, drawing on their own trials, errors and successes. Helping younger students reinforces information for the older students and also helps build a learning community.

With tools like forceps, magnifying glasses, microscopes, and LEGO kits complete with motors, the STEM lab provides an excellent space for practical, tangible learning. “The students love the lab,” Ludwig says, “and they learn so much. One of the best lessons they learn is that it’s okay for results not to meet expectations.” Ludwig adds that the lab fosters multi-subject learning. “Science is all about writing, and writing is embedded in STEM projects,” she explains, referencing the importance of recording procedures and communicating results clearly.

The concept of the arts and design taking an integral role in STEM curricula has given rise to the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) movement, and in many ways Ponderosa has fused STEAM into their STEM lab. The flexible schedule of the lab allows teachers to reserve blocks of time for students to approach a given project from multiple angles and to utilize proper procedures for inquiry-based lessons..

The new STEM lab acts as a window into Ponderosa Elementary School’s educational goals and atmosphere. With the support of staff, students, and the community, the lab serves as a way to cultivate a love for learning and exposes students to multiple, integrated fields of study. “The point,” Ludwig says, “is to get kids to wonder.”

Jenna Christophersen
About Jenna Christophersen

Jenna Christophersen is a Chico native who loves her community and can never get quite enough of the arts. She supports fostering creativity in any venue, especially as a part of young people’s daily lives.

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