What is all the hype about STEM?
Lately it has become a catch phrase for schools to prove they are on the “cutting edge.” The combination of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math is not a new thing, however. Maria Montessori incorporated these into her programs even for the youngest children. So many of the classic Montessori lessons involve the tenets of scientific practices: from the precision of pouring, the construction of the pink tower, the evaluation of length with the box of sticks, the classification of vertebrates, the organization of animal life cycles. Montessori believed in cultivating the scientist in each child through curiosity and structured activities.
By the time students make their way to our Elementary II classroom (traditional grades 4 to 6), they have had countless lessons to develop their skills of formulating questions, observing, evaluating, categorizing, experimenting, and expressing ideas. They are ready for further opportunities to follow the scientific procedure, guided at first until they achieve independence. The annual Science Fair at Bridgeview Montessori is a celebration of this goal, as much as it is a work in progress.
Every year the Science Fair unit is different. Teachers cannot prepare for this unit as they do for others. Though we have organized our expectations differently throughout the years, the projects and the enthusiasm must be student-driven. If the students are to create the hypotheses and conduct the experiments, collect the data and make the graphs, then they must feel invested in the topic. In the past few years, we have moved from expecting the majority of the project to be done at home to helping them complete the project at school. Due to the restraints of space and materials, some procedures are still conducted outside of school, but a minimum of two class periods per week are dedicated to the scientific process in the months leading up to the Fair. Discussing theories and researching the scientific terms involved in each experiment gives the students the background knowledge to feel confident speaking with others about their projects. In the weeks leading up to the fair, many students carry out their procedures at home and return to school with data to compare with their partners. When they use this data to create graphs and to write about the results, they realize how much they have learned over the course of the project.
Science Fair day is both exciting and nerve-racking. The day starts with an open house for parents and school community members to wander through the classrooms examining the posters and speaking with the students about their projects. Soon, upper class students from Falmouth Academy arrive to act as “judges,” giving our students a feel for the more formal atmosphere of a science fair. One or two judges visit each project to listen to presentations prepared by our students. As they interact with the students, the judges fill out feedback forms that we have designed for them.
Later in the morning, we have the opportunity to hear from the Falmouth Academy students in a forum style meeting. They share their own experiences with Science Fair projects and answer our questions about the process, the things they’ve learned and how they’ve struggled. It is rewarding and inspiring to hear about the work of these young scientists. At the culmination of the day, what once felt like a daunting task, the many repetitions of one experiment and the weeks of study, feels like a great accomplishment.