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Creating critical thinkers

Sparta — Chareigh Kober thinks STEM is “really fun.”

“Mrs. Barber teaches us so much, especially the things I don’t know yet,” said the second-grader. “I really like when she says ‘you just haven’t figured it out yet.’”

Yet is key.  

Michelle Barber, STEM enrichment teacher at Sparta Ridgeview Elementary’s pre-K through second grade building, knows figuring out what you don’t know is learning.

“I love listening to kids’ conversations as they explore,” Barber said: “‘We’ll try this.’ ‘It probably is not going to work, but it might.’ The life skills they are learning are priceless.” 

From left: second-graders Sloan Biehl, Jonas Bradford and Khloe Cross troubleshoot an Ozobot path (courtesy)

STEM was the first choice of the entire Ridgeview staff when the district provided the opportunity for an additional enrichment class, said Principal Heather Guerra. 

“We know that STEM instruction creates critical thinkers, which in turn leads to new and innovative learning,” she said. “STEM develops students’ skill in thinking, reasoning, teamwork, investigation and creativity — all skills that can easily carry over to other areas of their lives.”

A grant from the Sparta Education Foundation provided funds for Ozobot robots, which are designed to teach young children to code. “Basically, they are little robots that follow lines students draw,” Barber said. “They read color codes to do various tasks, such as turn right, left, go turbo speed, turn around or spin.”

She said coding has pushed second-graders to persevere, troubleshoot, experience teamwork, and use creativity and critical thinking. “I feel as if they have tapped into a whole new part of their brains,” she said. “It is mind-boggling to think that one statistic I read is that 65% of the jobs these kids will have have not yet been created.”

Second-grade teacher Amy Smith agrees. 

“STEM has been extremely engaging for all of my students. They are so excited to go every time, and there is no pressure to be the best because there is no ‘best’ STEM student. They have learned that trial and error is OK, and that sometimes things don’t work out the first time. Students are learning to be risk-takers with their learning, and that is huge.”

First-graders experiment with baking soda and shaving cream to create indoor snow during a unit on winter weather (courtesy)

The new STEM program has been a highlight for all Ridgeview students, not just the second-grade coders. Activities for younger students have included making bird feeders, which are perched outside their regular classroom windows for observing. And with the 2020-2021 winter season starting out nearly snowless, students were able to make their own “snow” in Barber’s classroom.

“My students have truly enjoyed going to STEM each week. They are always eager to share what they have learned,” said kindergarten teacher Marcia Adams. “It’s wonderful that STEM can challenge their thinking and creativity in such a hands-on way. The positive impacts from starting this new STEM program are priceless.”

Barber was a kindergarten teacher for 23 years but was excited to take on the new responsibility. “I always loved the hands-on aspect of teaching kindergarten, and this program seemed like a good opportunity for students to be creative and learn to think critically,” she said. 

With no specific curriculum to follow and more than 400 students, she knew the job would come with challenges.

“At first it was difficult to find a balance with so many kids and figure a schedule so every student could benefit from the program. But seeing them solve things on their own has been so rewarding.” 

Added Guerra: “Hearing students exclaim, ‘Oh, it’s STEM today,’ as they see Mrs. Barber wheeling her wagon full of mysterious objects down the hallway, or as they enter her room with various objects they haven’t seen before, is a testament to how students feel about our new program.”

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Janice Holst
Janice Holst is a reporter covering Kent City and Sparta. She has been both a teacher and a journalist. A former MLive reporter, she wrote features and covered local government and schools for Advance Newspapers for nearly two decades. She also was a recipe columnist and wrote features for Mature Life Style and occasional entertainment pieces for On The Town magazines. She lives in Sparta Township and enjoys spending some of her retirement hours writing the stories of the northern Kent County school districts. Read Janice's full bio

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