Blast off!

STEM education launches local school to new heights

by Tori Hamby

The U.S. Department of Defense’s STARBASE program visited Mountain Island Elementary last month for a week of STEM related activities. In addition to visiting the Charlotte Air National Guard Base, students created miniature rockets they later launched and took a quiz that helped them consider future career options. (Tori Hamby/MIM photo)

Say the words “science” or “math” to the average elementary school students and you’ll likely hear groans of frustration or at least a sigh of boredom. But saying those words at one local elementary school might illicit a different response.

Thanks to Mountain Island Elementary School’s new approach to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – or STEM–education, science class isn’t just textbook reading assignments, mundane experiments involving paper mache volcanoes and homework, according to Joel Gilland, chair of the school’s STEM implementation team.

“Students really guide the learning here,” Gilland said. “If they want to learn something, we make sure that we can teach it to them.”

Although the school began the 2011-12 year officially designated as a STEM-focused school by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, its journey into STEM-centered education began the previous year when the school’s leadership team, a group of parents, teachers and administrators, decided Mountain Island Elementary needed something special to set itself apart from other area public schools. The proliferation of nearby public charter schools and magnet programs, which draw students away from Mountain Island Elementary, highlighted the need for a focus or specialization that could keep students engaged, principal Jeff Ruppenthal said.

The team also recognized that with the rise of technology, approaches to education needed to change. Students can’t just get away with memorizing tidbits of information–facts that would likely disappear from memory as soon as the school’s doors shut for summer, Ruppenthal said. Students need to learn to approach a problem and use the skills they’ve developed in class to create a workable solution. STEM education, which focuses on critical thinking skills, seemed the right way to go.

Here, a Mountain Island Elementary student works with a circuitry board to build an alarm.

“They learn to accept new information, digest that information and then use it to produce something, whether that be a solution, a product or something else,” Ruppenthal said.

With more than 1,600 total hours of professional development instruction from the school district and STEM-related businesses such as Discovery Place, Gilland said teachers have been quick to take up a style of teaching that relies more on a student’s natural curiosities, not a set-in-stone curriculum. While the end-of-grade tests given to students by the state to measure student growth and achievement in reading and math are given in a straight-forward, multiple-choice format, Gilland said he believes this kind of learning encourages success.

“If you successfully teach this kind of thinking,” Gilland said, “the multiple-choice tests will take care of themselves.”

In addition to having a closer working relationship with the district’s STEM department, the school has set up and staffed full-time science and computer labs, where students spend at least 45 minutes each week. In the science lab, teacher Doreen Weese leads students in studying everything from veterinary science–a rabbit, lizard, and other animals call the lab home–to the processes behind water filtration or aerodynamics.

Mountain Island Elementary fifth-graders watch as two of the rockets they built blast off toward the sky. The U.S. Department of Defense’s STARBASE science, technology, engineering and mathematics–or STEM–education program with the school culminated with the rocket launches. (Courtesy of Mountain Island Elementary School)

“We try to gear what we learn in here to their future careers and what they can do with these skills once they grow up,” Weese said “They might not realize that they are learning about things like aerodynamics, but we hope they develop an interest that could turn into a career.”

Outside of the classroom, Mountain Island Elementary has fielded two CyberKids Robotics Aquabot Robotics teams through a grant with the U.S. Navy. Students designed submersible robots that complete an underwater task with aquabot robitcs teams throughout the region. In the teams’ latest competition, their robots had to drop blocks of air into an igloo-. Teams of students also compete in LEGO Robotics competitions, in which they construct robots out of LEGO blocks.

Gilland acknowledged that it might be intimidating for a parent if their child came home talking about engineering, aerodynamics and computer science, so he organized a STEM parent information night at the beginning of the year where parents could see and experience STEM education. The turnout was amazing, he said, with at least 700 people attending – a figure higher than the number of students enrolled at the school.

“I think it shows that students are coming home motivated and excited about what they have learned at school, and parents want to know why,” Gilland said. “We are teaching a skill that kids never stop developing. They continue strengthening it every single day.”

For more information about STEM education at Mountain Island Elementary School, go online to

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