LaGrange students embrace STEM with egg-citing experiment

© 2018-The Torrington Telegram

LAGRANGE – It wasn’t Humpty Dumpty, but eggs were definitely falling from the sky last week at LaGrange Elementary School.

But, unlike that storied egg, it didn’t take all the kings horses nor all the kings men to put them together again – mostly. 

It was all about the science, as students in Katrina Eisenbarth’s and Sheryl Spears’ Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics class designed and built devices to protect an egg from a 50-plus foot drop from the roof of the old high school
building. 

Sadly, there were a few casualties. But, by and large, the survival rate was pretty good. It was better, anyway, than the first time the students tried this particular STEM experiment, earlier
this year.

Some relied on heavy padding while others utilized different types of parachutes to slow the descent. There was even one, which looked for all the world like a giant’s version of a piece from a game of jack’s, made of over-size drinking straws and several feet
of tape.

Fourth-grade student Liam Haas, 10, said he used a similar design during the first STEM Egg Drop Test day at LaGrange Elementary earlier this year. At the time, though, there was a flaw in his design that allowed egg and ground to connect with predictable results.

“I learned I needed some more padding around the egg, or maybe put a parachute on it or to protect that weak side,” Liam said. “This time, I added more padding and I kind of covered the weak side – I added more straws.”

In the end, Liam’s alterations to his design made the difference. Bouncing when it hit the ground Thursday outside the school, his device came to rest safe and sound. And, when he’d peeled away the tape and extracted the drinking-straw cage he’d designed to hold its precious cargo, Liam found his plans had worked and the egg was, indeed, intact.

Trial-and-error

Eisenbarth brought the STEM projects idea to the school last year. Spears – spouse of Roger Spears, who coordinates science education programs for the Goshen County School District No. 1 – was familiar with STEM education from previous districts and campuses she’s worked and immediately embraced the idea.

Most of the week, Eisenbarth teaches math for second, third and sixth grades at the school while Spears teaches fourth, fifth and sixth grade reading. But, at least a couple of times each month, they diverge from a standard teaching curriculum into the sometimes-fanciful, always creative and innovative world of STEM.

Project they’ve worked on this year including building replica Mayflowers around Thanksgiving out of aluminum foil, and a snowball launch, with students building miniature catapults to fire marshmallows for distance and accuracy. One that really pushed the creative thinking of their students, though, was a challenge to see who could build the tallest tower out of a limited number of gumdrops and toothpicks.

“They only had so many gumdrops and so many toothpicks,” Eisenbarth said. “But they came up with ideas and solutions, including if they broke the toothpicks, they’d have double the toothpicks.

“I really like the students can work together,” she said. “I feel they can learn more from each other with trial and error.”

That, after all, is the basis of most of the great discoveries – try something and, if it doesn’t work, try something else. Thomas Edison, when asked why it took so long to invent the lightbulb, reportedly said: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Creative approaches

STEM projects also offer different ways to learn. Not everyone learns in the same way, Eisenbarth and Spears said. Students who may not grasp ideas from reading in a book shine when presented with the same concepts in a hands-on format.

“You can really see the leaders come through,” Spears said. “Also, it’s fun to see the students who might not do as well academically in regular classes are thriving on something like this. They’re really getting into the creative aspects.”

One of the initial challenges, though, was when the students wanted to get it right the first time. It took some convincing to get them to understand that, just because something didn’t work, it wasn’t necessarily a failure, a concept they will need over and over again moving forward in life.

“When we started this last year, we had several kids with the mindset, ‘I’m not going to do it. If I fail, it’s bad,’” Eisenbarth said. “Now, we’ve definitely grown them into the mindset of, ‘Okay, I’ll try it.’

“Now we don’t have any issues,” she said. “If they get a problem wrong, they can look at their error analysis and they’ll see there’s another opportunity to get it right.”

There’s a danger to that “must-be-perfect-the-first-time” mindset, Eisenbarth and Spears said. If they aren’t, they won’t have any idea how to fix it, to move on from that initial setback toward success.

But learning to take a wide view of problems and solutions is at the core of the STEM educational curriculum.

“I learned there’s several ways you can go about things,” sisth-grader Shiloh Carson, 12, said. “You can’t just go straight at something, you have to learn to work around the problems.”

© 2018-The Torrington Telegram

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