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STEM class builds teamwork, creativity, problem-solving skills

Comstock Park — Olivia Bertoia’s favorite activity thus far in her STEM class has been working with a partner building a field goal with popsicle sticks. 

Biggest lesson learned: not succeeding on the first try is not the end of the world.

“It takes a lot of time and if you don’t complete it, it’s OK. We built it and it fell down,” said the Pine Island Elementary third-grader, who acknowledged that they should have used bigger pieces of tape.  

Olivia is one of 800 students in first through fifth grade at Pine Island and Stoney Creek elementaries taking part in STEM class. Students meet with teacher Olivia Bender once every four days, like music or art.

When considering science, technology, engineering and math, Olivia likes math best. “You get to learn a lot. When you get older you can help others learn addition, subtraction, multiplication and division,” she said.

Fourth-grader Connor Barnes enjoys building and making things and thinks he could become an engineer one day. Classmate Avary Bergakker likes science, because “you learn about different things.”

Bender, previously a math teacher, is in her fourth year teaching STEM. A scholarship while she was a student at Grand Valley State University helped spur her interest in teaching STEM.

“It’s more like the fun part of school,” she said. “I’m able to give them an end goal, and they have to figure out how to get themselves there. They’re able to do things their own way.”

How It Works

Bender works with students in fast-paced 30-minute blocks; they receive instruction for five minutes, then get to work on a specific hands-on project for 20 minutes.

One of the earliest projects this year began simply, with a piece of paper with a circle drawn on it. Students had to use their creativity to turn the circle into something: a donut, sunshine, flower, unicorn, cat or dog.

“My absolute favorite was a student who turned it into a minion,” Bender recalled. “They see the artsy side and use their brain to turn it into something else.”

In one activity in early October, students had to create pillars that could hold a heavy math book. A group of fourth-grade girls created four pillars that successfully held up 12 math books before crashing on No. 13.

Olivia Bender helps third-graders with their bat flyers as part of STEM class

Sometimes activities she thought might not work so well can turn into the best ones. During the early days of building closures due to COVID she tasked second-graders at home to make a boat that would float and gave some examples of materials they could use.

“I thought for sure this was going to fail miserably,” Bender said. 

But she was amazed, and said it made her realize she might not always have to provide all the materials. One student used a foam egg carton, another used LEGOs, another used aluminum foil. One used a plastic egg and fashioned a sail to it.

Bender also oversees a measuring unit for fourth- and fifth-graders, and recognizes that measurements have often proven difficult for students. She has students create their own smaller scale of a shuffleboard by giving them the measurements expected, and the rest is up to them. 

The month-long unit included a March Madness-type shuffleboard competition, where students kept track of numbers and the score.  

“That was a longer unit and definitely a crowd favorite,” Bender recalled. “They don’t even realize they’re doing math at the same time. It can get a little wild and competitive, but definitely a crowd pleaser.”

Challenges, Rewards

Students always work with at least one partner, which encourages teamwork. For supplies, Bender relies on the support of parents and friends. Last year she also received a grant from the  Comstock Park Education Foundation for classroom materials. She’s always looking for donations of materials such as paper towel and toilet paper rolls and tissue boxes.

She rewards groups that complete the task, then acknowledges the best: longest flying football, longest paper chain, and most pompon balls caught in a bucket via catapult.

“This is motivation to not only be the best, but just to complete the task in some way,” Bender said.

She said she enjoys seeing students who might not typically shine academically shine brightly in STEM class. They can answer their own question about why something works, she said, rather than following step-by-step directions as in a typical class. 

And parents don’t have to wonder what their children are doing in STEM class; Bender posts daily on Facebook.

“I am posting pictures throughout the day before the kids are even home from school,” she said. 

Third-grader Olivia Bertoia enjoys the math part of her STEM class at Pine Island Elementary
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Karen Gentry
Karen Gentry
Karen Gentry covers Comstock Park. She moved to the Grand Rapids area in the mid-1980s and has been a resident of Comstock Park since 2002. She understands the complexity, rewards and challenges of the teaching profession as she has five years of experience as a high school teacher at River Valley High School in Three Oaks, Mich. and St. Stephen High School in Saginaw. As a reporter for the Advance Newspapers and Mlive she covered Sparta, Kent City and Northview schools. She is happy to be a part of the great team of journalists at School News Network and writing about Comstock Park Public Schools. She is a graduate of Lake Michigan Catholic High School in St Joseph, Michigan and Central Michigan University. Read Karen's full bio


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