By Emily Townsend
Bringing families together, the Oregon Coast STEM Hub hosted a Family STEM Night at Warrenton Elementary on November 15. The Hub is one of 11 regional organizations that promotes Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). The event was recreated down the coast that week in Toledo on November 16, and Coos Bay on November 17, reaching as many families and educators as possible. These events were a unique effort by the STEM Hub to bring professional development and family engagement into one fun-filled evening. Educators arrived early to learn the rationale and method of hosting a STEM night in their home school, and then were able to observe and interact firsthand during the subsequent family event. Teachers from kindergarten through high school attended, all with a common goal in mind; student and family engagement in underserved subjects. “As a teacher, we are focused on reading, writing, and math,” explains Astoria teacher Kendal Long. “It leaves so little time for science, so nights like this introduce what there isn’t always enough time to expose students to in the classroom.”
The Oregon Coast STEM Hub serves schools from Astoria to Brookings in a partnership with Oregon State University, local community colleges, businesses, and nonprofits. It provides experiences for students and families to get excited and motivated about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.“We focus on educators so they can provide integrated, exciting, and contextual experiences for students,’ said Ruth McDonald of the STEM Hub. “We reach more students by being a resource for pre-K to college level classrooms.”
The speaker and host David Heil, author of Family Engineering, led the Family Engineering events. The goals of his program are to introduce engineering and science at an early age and to increase parents’ interest and ability to be involved in the learning, explaining that “we want to hit the sweet spot and start them early.”
McDonald agrees. “We all know interest starts in elementary; we need to lay a foundation.”
As for parents, David explains to teachers that they might see moms and dads shying away at first, but once they get comfortable, they dive right in. “It’s families together from start to finish” Heil explains. He has a goal for educators too, “…to walk out of here and say, ‘I can do that in my school’.”
Application of the pedagogy began once families began to arrive to the Family Engineering Night event. Everyone started with warm-up activities that encouraged 21st century skills like problem solving, collaboration, and critical thinking. Next, families were given larger STEM tasks to solve together. “The hallmark of family engineering is teamwork,” said Heil.
The first task was to build the tallest tower out of chenille sticks. Heil explained, “We want everyone talking and designing, doing things they don’t always give themselves permission to do on their own time.” This task’s difficulty was compounded with interruptions by Heil, with prompts such as “Now there were cutbacks and you lost resources, how does that affect your plan for the tallest tower?” Next came outsourcing which led to a ban on verbal communication, and last the families were told they were “short-handed” and had to finish the task with one hand behind their back. After the success or failure of the towers, Heil led a discussion breaking down the challenge.
“Does (the loss of materials) ever happen in real life?” Heil asked the group.
“No!” yell the students to the delight of their parents, who know the reality of setbacks in the workplace.
Overall, the students learned more with the support of their parents and everyone left with a better understanding of engineering and science and how it applies to them. When asked what they learned about engineering, the families responded, “It happens every day!”
Emily Townsend is an English Language Development teacher at Astor Elementary School in Astoria, OR. She participated in the November 15, 2016 “Family Engineering” professional development training and family event held at Warrenton Elementary. The Family Engineering series was held in Warrenton, Toledo and Coos Bay, and was made possible by the Oregon Coast STEM Hub.