Creating the Ideal Incubator for “STEMineers”
Ask an elementary kid, “Name one thing you love about your school,” and you don’t expect to hear “STEM lab!” Yet that’s exactly what’s happening at Donny O’Dell Elementary in Celina, TX, after only four months of having its STEM lab up and running.
“It’s awesome. We have kids begging to come to STEM, instead of P.E.,” reported Shana Kriechbaum (Miss K.), a former fifth-grade science teacher and current STEM instructor at O’Dell. “Even I underestimated the value of a STEM lab.”
That wasn’t always the case at the grades 1–5 public school.
A Space Waiting for Purpose
With 500 students, Donny O’Dell Elementary is one of two elementary schools in the rapidly growing Celina Independent School District (Celina ISD) 40 miles north of Dallas. The district’s student population is expected to double in five years, and double again in the subsequent five years. To help accommodate that growth, the district opened O’Dell in Fall 2017 and outfitted its classrooms exclusively with Smith System seating, tables, storage and more.
But there was one space where the district elected to delay the purchase of furniture, explained Rhonda Ellington, vice president of sales with Texas-based Lone Star Furnishings. As a Smith System dealer, she’s worked with Celina ISD to evolve the district furniture standards to address 21st century learning needs.
“The school had a beautiful multi-purpose space adjacent to the computer lab, very contemporary with great light, positioned above the library and overlooking the outdoor learning space. When the building opened, it was unclear exactly how the space would be used,” Ellington said.
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Private Funding Arrives
In 2018, O’Dell was fortunate to receive a private grant through Hillwood, a large real estate development company active in the Celina area. The funding would allow O’Dell to turn the unused multi-purpose space into a STEM lab outfitted with the right furniture, equipment and supplies to foster STEM’s higher-level-thinking benefits.
According to Miss K., the grant was unusual, in that most STEM-type grants are for grades six and up, or STEM labs that have been in place for a few years. For O’Dell, the funding would allow the school to launch its STEM lab in time for the Fall 2018 school year. It would also crystalize Principal Stacy Ceci’s vision for who could participate in the STEM curriculum and lab: every student at O’Dell Elementary.
“To make this work for us, we wanted all of our students to experience the STEM lab, not just students identified as ‘gifted and talented’,” Ceci explained. She added that O’Dell is the only public elementary school in Texas that is integrating a STEM curriculum into each of its 1–5 grade levels. Typically, STEM focus doesn’t begin until third grade, or it’s limited to the “G.T.” kids.
Ceci’s thinking aligns with studies that show the earlier schools introduce STEM education, the more children become interested in those subjects. Plus, starting at the elementary level can combat the stereotypes about who can be an engineer from taking root.
Furnishing the Lab
With funds secured, Ceci was ready to plan the lab. Working with Lone Star Furnishing’s sales person, Travis Taylor, Ceci reviewed the newest additions to Smith’s product lines. Taylor knew the fiscally conservative district would again want quality, durability and value. Mobility would be essential, so casters on all furnishings were standard. Ceci also wanted right-sized comfort.
“We took into consideration that this is a first- through fifth-grade space. With the little ones and taller ones, we wanted to make sure kids were comfortable during STEM activities.”
The school chose various work surface heights to accommodate all grade levels and fit one entire class of same-level students:
• Planner Studio Tables in 29”, 36” and 40” heights (each seats four)
• Interchange 3-2-1 Table, adjustable from 22-34 on glides, up to 36” high on casters. This table is designed to use as either three solo tables for two students or fit into a collaborative cluster for six students.
• Interchange Squiggle Table, adjustable from 22-34 on glides, up to 36” high on casters. This curved table can seat six when solo or many when tables are combined collaboratively.
• Elemental 5-Star Table (seats 5) with adjustable height legs and casters for added mobility.
O’Dell selected a variety of seating – chairs, stools and rockers:
• Flavors 18”-high mobile stack chairs
• Flavors fixed height stools in 24” and 28” heights
• Oodle cylinder-shaped stack stools, with optional rocking
To accommodate 500 STEM lab students weekly, Miss K. knew she would need ample storage. Even more so, because her lab doesn’t have closets.
The school chose several of Smith’s Cascade Storage System units, from the Cascade Mini-Case to the Cascade Mega-Case maker cart. All help to organize, store and distribute maker materials via a combination of shelves, cubbies and removable totes. All units are on casters. All have doors for a tidy look.
“I have a lot of stuff and many different kinds of supplies to keep track of. The new storage units make it easy for me to be organized and the room still looks good.” Just some of what lives in her lab: 3D printer, Ozobots to teach coding, wooden Keva planks and Keva Maker Bot Maze for engineering, Snap Circuits for electricity, STEM board games, race car tracks, building materials, craft supplies, and a lot of donated items, like cardboard and Styrofoam.
The lab furniture needed to be functional, but color mattered, too. Ceci had a strategy in mind when choosing bright apple green with pewter finishes for all furnishings.
“I wanted to signify the furniture for ‘STEM-lab-use only.’ Teachers tend to borrow items if they see that no one’s using them. So everything in there is apple green. Nothing can be taken out of the room, because it will ‘shine’ in other classrooms.”
Mining the Educational Magic
For Principal Ceci, she loves how the lab is reaching students who have not been identified as “G.T.” and watching them excel in the STEM curriculum. The Smith System furniture has been an essential tool in achieving that.
“The furniture has played a big role in the STEM curriculum. It allows for great collaboration and the ability to move the classroom around quickly, based on the project and activities.”
Miss K. agrees. She says 99% of students’ STEM lab time is spent working in groups and focusing on the Four C’s of 21st Century Skills: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communications.
“My students’ ability to collaborate has greatly improved, no matter who’s in their group. Their confidence in trying new things has skyrocketed, too. They’re given opportunities to explore, fail, and not give up. I love seeing that.” So much so that she has her eye on securing funding to create O’Dell’s first “STEMineers” afterschool STEM club for grades 3¬–5 next school year. The furniture will again play a role in opening up the space to focus on more challenging projects, like solar-powered cars.
“I’m constantly moving things around, but the kids can help because everything is so easy to move,” Miss K. reported.
Designing a new School Makerspace or 21st Century Learning Environment?
A Smith System Extra: Vision Planning
Over the past five years, STEM education and maker spaces have grown significantly. The educational benefits aside, Mark Simmons, a sales manager with Smith System offered an additional reason.
“There’s more grant money available from private funders and the government for STEM equipment and furniture. That’s motivating schools to apply.”
It’s also creating a new challenge that Smith is uniquely suited to solve. Simmons said that most schools know they need a STEM space, but they’re not sure what should be in it, or how a STEM lab is different than a science lab or makerspace (the latter of which Simmons classifies as part of a STEM lab.)
“It’s important for schools to work with a dealer who can help them refine their STEM vision first, and then advise on furniture and how it can be used as a learning tool,” Simmons concluded.
That’s sound advice for creating the ideal incubator for budding student STEMineers – of all ages and abilities.