From robotics to engineering and coding, elementary schools in Wantagh are finding innovative new ways to get students engaged in learning through STEAM classes.
STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics, and the program focuses on project-based learning and taking an in-depth look into a variety of topics.
Leading the way for Wantagh students are their STEAM teachers, Kaitlin Humphrey and Alexa Del Piano. Del Piano is serving her second year as a STEAM teacher at Forest Lake Elementary School and she also teaches at Mandalay Elementary School. Humphrey, a K-5 teacher at Wantagh Elementary School and a STEAM teacher for seven years, said she encourages her students to think about the skills they could use outside the classroom.
“A lot of this class is about me getting into their ear about their future,” Humphrey said. “Some of the kids statistically are going to be coders, and some of them are going to be engineers, but we are just trying to give them 21st-century skills that we didn’t get.”
Wantagh Elementary third, fourth and fifth graders all complete a prototype project in the fall, going through the engineering and design process, making their own individual projects, and improving them along the way. Students end up devising advertisements for their projects so they could really see a potential job for them in the future.
The STEAM class is not only designed to get students to develop critical thinking skills but also to make them excited to be in school, educators said.
“A lot of them get a little discouraged in the classroom, especially learners who struggle, they tend to do really well here,” Humphrey said.
Everything within the STEAM class is hands-on, from kindergarten to fifth grade. The STEAM class continues to evolve and send students off to middle school with the skills they need for life after the classroom. The course concentrates on inquiry-based learning, where students pose a question and discover the answer on their own. Students reconvene toward the end of class to discuss the findings of their project.
Del Piano, a first-grade teacher in the New York City school system before arriving at Wantagh, discussed some of the changes to her teaching approach she has made with the STEAM class.
“They’re really learning through self-discovery,” Del Piano said. “I initially wanted to give them all the vocabulary they needed, all the examples, and the step-by-step guides to follow. The hardest part is finding that balance between providing the information but still letting them discover things on their own and find their own answers to their questions.”
These students work on robotics and coding, which is learning how to communicate with computers, and many go home to their own coding clubs and then return to STEAM class excited to learn more, teachers said. STEAM students do a lot of engineering design processes, robotics and coding. One engineering lesson involves finding how to build a house that can withstand a rainstorm and the different materials they could use. STEAM teachers are given the freedom to meet the needs of their kids and engage in creative projects.
“It’s really nice that they can use their creativity here,” Del Piano said. “It’s nice to give them an outlet where they’re doing all hands-on activities and about solving all these problems themselves.”
From robotics and prototypes to fifth graders making electromagnetic cranes, creativity is free flowing for Wantagh’s elementary students. Soon the STEAM class will make Rube Goldberg machines, using a chain reaction of simple machines, such as levers, pulleys and cranks, to make a complex machine. Humphrey said she hopes to implement a new first-time project, with fifth-grade STEAM students building a mini-golf course.
”It gives a lot of freedom because there are so many open-ended questions and so many different findings,” Del Piano said of the joy in teaching the innovative class. “You’re not rushing through any certain topic and you’re making sure that they fully understand whatever the first step is before moving on, and it gives us more freedom to help them make connections to the real world as well.”