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Richland Elementary students STEAM on ahead

Karen Price
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Lana Wilson and Rafael Fu use Lego’s during a Richland Elementary STEAM lab.
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Naomi Yimam works with a beebot during a Richland Elementary STEAM lab.
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Jack Palko, 8, learns coding by working with Puzzlets.

In what used to be the band room when Richland Elementary was a high school, one group of second-grade students built bridges using Legos, another group used rubber bands to make designs on a nail board, and another programmed directions into robotic bumblebees in order to get them to travel across the floor.

“We’re trying to get it to hit the block,” student Luca Azzara explained about his task with the bumblebee. “I hit it, but mine went past it and hit the wall. We have to program it, but for some reason mine touched the block but kept going.”

It looks like play — and it is — but the school’s new STEAM Dream Lab and makerspace also offers students hands-on opportunities to explore science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics.

“The problem-solving and the scientific thinking is really our main objective, and just letting them be creative,” first-grade teacher Bonnie Allessi said. “The possibilities down here are endless. It’s open-ended learning, lots of opportunities for problem-solving, integrating the arts and technology and doing it in a way that gives them a little bit more freedom, and they think that they’re playing. And they are playing, but they’re learning at the same time.”

The lab came about thanks to a proposal from a group of teachers, including Allessi, and a $13,885 grant from the Pine-Richland Opportunities Fund to get things off the ground.

The money helped purchase high-tech “toys” including two 3D printers and Puzzlets, in which children organize puzzle pieces on a tray in order to make an animated character on the computer screen jump, walk forward and move throughout a video game.

“They’re video games, but the kids have to control what the character does, so they’re coding,” Allessi said.

“It’s early coding, and they’re doing it in a way that they don’t even realize they’re doing it.”

They don’t just use new, high-tech materials, either. Teachers dug through closets and found lots of items left from the school’s previous incarnations that they decided to make available in the new space, ranging from microscopes to models of the planets to oversized replicas of human teeth and giant storybooks.

There’s also a puppet theater area and a puppet makerspace as well as a separate larger space that was once the backstage area for the high school that’s now for arts and crafts and other projects.

“Parents have donated all the craft supplies,” Allessi said. “Everything you can imagine. Buttons, ribbons, glue sticks, collecting paper towel rolls and egg cartons and all that stuff is in there. It’s just another space for us to be creative and give kids those problem-solving ideas and activities.”

Each class gets a half-hour every week to enjoy time in the space, and how they use it is up to each individual teacher. Teachers can also bring their classes in for indoor recess when the weather is poor outside.

Allessi said it’s a learning process for the teachers, too, as they continue to find new ways to use the space.

“We’re all regular classroom teachers but we’re also trying to all do this and find ideas and integrate them, too,” Allessi said. “We don’t have an official STEAM/STEM teacher so we’re all just working together as a team. There’s a grade level representative from every grade level and we all just kind of take a piece.”

Karen Price is a
Tribune-Review contributor.