Full STEAM ahead: Central Elementary School turns playground into exploratory 'science park'
At first glance it looks like new playground equipment, but to the teachers, staff and students at Central Elementary School, it is an example of what a neighborhood school can accomplish through collaboration and school pride.
Central Elementary has successfully transformed its once-tarred backyard into what students now call a "science park," complete with a new playground, green space, trees and vegetation.
The aesthetic transformation took place over the course of four years, but this is the first year students get to use the new playground equipment, funded by a grant through the Minnesota Department of Education.
In May 2009, Julie Loxtercamp, a music teacher at Central, led a team of teachers and staff in planning, writing and submitting a grant for $94,900. The grant was called the Full STEAM Ahead: Learning Readiness through Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics.
The grant provided the school with funding to purchase a Weather Bug weather station, a new science-themed playground, new science equipment and the training and materials for a Stimulating Maturity through Accelerated Readiness Training, or SMART, Boost-Up program.
In designing the science-themed playground, a group of Central teachers looked at the district's science curriculum, state standards and school test score data. The group brainstormed ideas on how to incorporate district science curriculum concepts into equipment that would provide also students a fun experience.
Now completed, the playground has several unique features, including a three-sided board that displays information about weather. The board displays a thermometer showing the actual outside air temperature. Kids can move a similar thermometer next to it to match the real one.
Nearby, a balance beam moves up and down, demonstrating the concept of balance in motion. Several feet away, colorful monkey bars are hard to miss - they are disc-shaped and tilted at odd angles.
Third-grade teacher Kim Coequet-Hoff said as a class, she purposely has not gone outside with the students to the playground because next week her class will be studying simple machines.
"I want them to tell me if they know of any place where there is an axle, a wheel or a pivot," Coequyt-Hoff said. "They are supposed to be making a connection between what they are doing in the classroom and what they find in the world."
Loxtercamp said each new piece of equipment coordinates with the FOSS science curriculum, which the district has been using for three years.
Full Option Science System, or FOSS, is a research-based science curriculum for grades K-8 developed at the Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California at Berkeley.
According to Central K-5 Title 1 teacher Maureen Holmstrom, all teachers in the district were trained in FOSS curriculum three years ago, but the recent grant money gave teachers at Central one-on-one FOSS training for a day.
"Hopefully it will help our science scores," Holmstrom said. "They are getting better. Teachers are integrating it with their math now."
The grant also provided students and all Central school families a free membership to the HSC for the 2009-10 school year.
"The memberships brought in a lot of people who weren't familiar with the place yet," said Kitura Main, program coordinator at the HSC. "They got to be on the exhibit floor and it really sparked interest in a lot of the kids."
Volunteers from local Rotary clubs, a neighboring Homeless Shelter and the Central Elementary Parent Teacher Organization helped with the final installation of the playground pieces. Neighboring school groups, Early Childhood Family Education, Head Start and preschools will have an open invitation to use the science park in the future.
Holmstrom said grants allow schools to go above and beyond what schools can typically offer.
"We have one gem of a school that over the past 10 years has written, submitted and acquired almost $800,000 in grants by the diligence of their teaching staff," Loxtercamp said. "We want to make sure we have extraordinary opportunities for children to experience learning at a deeper level."
While grants give schools a much-needed boost in funding, new programs can sometimes also bring new challenges.
"The difficulty is time allotment for teacher training and teaching time, while trying to adhere to the district's scheduling requirements," Loxtercamp said.
Kathy Palm, Bemidji School District's director of curriculum, said grants are important to schools, but also very time consuming for the grant writer.
"I know some districts have paid grant writers, but we don't do that," Palm said. "Basically, if we want a grant, someone has to take the time to write one."
Palm said the district does not expect teachers to write grants; if a school wants something, the school has to take the initiative to get it. She added the district is particular in selecting grants because all extra funding must adhere to the district's curriculum policy.
"All schools have the same curriculum," Palm said. "If we have a kid who moves from one school to another, we don't want that student to see things totally different and become very confused. Whatever grant is approved must fit in the goals and objectives of the district."
These days, Palm said, grants are becoming more competitive with less state and federal dollars available to schools. This is the first year in almost a decade Central Elementary has not applied for and accepted a grant.
But according to Loxtercamp and Holmstrom, the break in attaining grants is much-needed.
"Everybody is exhausted," Loxtercamp said. "It is a huge commitment for staff to work through a grant. It's not a bad idea to sit back, reassess the focus of the grant and go deep."
"We're trying to go deep with everything," Holmstrom added. "We try to really go for understanding. This year is allowing us to do that."