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Heritage Prioritizes STEM To Equip Students For The Future

by Lisa Abbott

Though it may be hard to spot some of them just yet, there likely are future scientists, tech leaders, engineers and mathematicians in the making at Heritage Christian School. It’s with that knowledge that the school’s academic team is taking a strategic approach to the expansion of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education at all levels of instruction. Fulfilling the school’s mission of equipping students for workforce and ministry opportunities in their future means providing them with relevant and progressive learning approaches today. In a plethora of ways, Heritage is making STEM an integral part of the academic excellence for which the school is well known.

Cultivating Interest and Developing Critical Skills

“Starting STEM education at an early age is critical to preparing students for success in high school and the workplace,” explains Heritage’s academic director and K-6 principal, Brenda Klingerman. “We need to get it to them early on by creating interest in it early on.”

Starting STEM education at an early age is critical to preparing students for success in high school and the workplace. We need to get it to them early on by creating interest in it early on.

Megan Murphy, Heritage’s newly appointed director of academic innovation, is spearheading creative opportunities for all Heritage students to engage with STEM subjects. “It’s great to see kids getting excited about things that, 10 years ago, weren’t even available,” she says. She’s constantly scouting new opportunities to integrate STEM-focused resources and learning opportunities within and outside of the classroom because, she says, “That’s where the world is headed.” Murphy explains that project-based learning develops important life and 21st century skills for this generation of students. “They’re learning the ‘four Cs’: collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and communication skills,” she says.

Introducing STEM to Heritage’s Young Learners

So, what does STEM education look like for the youngest of Heritage learners? Often, it’s plain fun. Each K-6 grade has access to an iPad cart, making technology-based learning an option for teachers. Through an iPad-driven educational program called Osmo™, even the littlest students learn tactile and tech skills, turning old-fashioned tangrams into an interactive experience. Second and third graders learn how to calculate change through another of the program’s applications, called “Pizza Company.” Elementary students’ library rotation now includes a tech focus and an introduction to basic coding skills.

Last year, the school introduced several new opportunities for students in kindergarten through grade six. Students across the entire school will participate this fall in the global Computer Science Education Week and “Hour of Code” tutorial, where they are introduced to computer science and basic computer programming.

Hour of Code
Hour of Code

Dash the robot made his debut in 2016, in grades one through four, teaching students how to code while they make him sing, dance and navigate around the classroom. This year, grades one through four will incorporate a dedicated STEM class as part of their weekly rotation schedule.

Several new after-school clubs formed for this same age group: Club Invention, that engages students in creative invention projects; Bricks4Kidz®, that provides educational play and enrichment with LEGO® Bricks; and STEM Connection, facilitated by an Indianapolis non-profit organization that facilitates outdoor and hands-on STEM experiences.

STEM-Related Clubs
STEM-related clubs are very popular in the Elementary School.

The popular, after-school VEX IQ Robotics program includes fourth and fifth graders. The elementary teams have earned several awards. Suzanne Nutt, who recently retired from her role as Heritage robotics program coordinator, says, “The real win comes in students learning critical thinking skills and gaining confidence in themselves.”

Fifth- and sixth-graders now receive STEM-based classroom instruction as part of their “specials” rotation. The project-based class focuses on real-world STEM challenges and is grounded in curriculum from Project Lead the Way (PLTW). The educational non-profit is nationally recognized for its transformational learning experiences that are designed to engage, empower and inspire students. PLTW trains and certifies teachers to deliver the curriculum, which Heritage integrates with a solidly biblical worldview.

Making STEM a Part of the Middle School Experience

Seventh- and eighth-grade students have a wide spectrum of STEM options, too. The Introduction to PLTW class is a popular elective on their roster. This year, the middle school has adapted a 1:1 technology initiative, making iPads part of everyday learning across subjects.

The middle school robotics program, launched in 2014 with four VEX IQ teams, now boasts 12 teams. The City of Indianapolis, itself a huge supporter of robotics, asked Heritage to host the 2016 Indiana middle school VEX IQ state championship that drew over 40 teams from across the state to the Heritage campus.

The middle school STEM focus prepares students to pursue even more knowledge as they prepare to enter high school.

High School STEM Exposes Students to Future Opportunities

Heritage secondary principal, Phil Nikirk, says high school STEM opportunities are critical because they expose students to potential vocational avenues. “Students get to see the impact of things that used to only be in textbooks. It takes learning off the whiteboard and into real life,” he explains. “Concrete, real-world applications at the high school level help students to see the value of STEM.”

Students get to see the impact of things that used to only be in textbooks. It takes learning off the whiteboard and into real life.

Heritage high school teacher, Lisa Foster, couldn’t agree more. The former chemical engineer sought out and helped to implement many of the high school’s STEM-focused options for students. She teaches Exploring Engineering and facilitates an online Engineering Roots elective class, as well as high school chemistry and Honors Physics. Guest speakers frequent her classes, out of Foster’s desire to expose students to as many potential STEM career options as possible. She also was the catalyst that fueled the school’s initial involvement with robotics, when she formed the first after-school high school robotics club in 2013.

Foster seized an opportunity to get Heritage students involved with Purdue University’s M-STEM3 (Motorsports STEM for Manufacturing and Medicine) High School Go Karting Series. Similar to the International Collegiate GrandPrix, the high school program puts academic and racing skills to the test for students. Heritage student response was overwhelmingly positive. “It’s another avenue for our students to be curious, to problem solve and see things in 3D,” Foster explains. “It’s something with a real-world application.” The Heritage team placed second at the inaugural 2016 competition. The team finished fourth overall in 2017’s competition, sixth in race placement, third place in design review and first place in community outreach.

HCS Go-Karting
The Heritage Go-Karting team placed second at the 2016 High School Go-Karting Series.

STEM Resources and Professional Development Equip Teachers

Teachers benefit from several new classroom resources and ongoing professional development opportunities that have sprung from the expanded STEM focus. Murphy has developed twice-a-week, optional professional development sessions for faculty, expanding their knowledge on everything from the latest Google apps to classroom best practices.

She also introduced teachers to BreakoutEDU kits, which they can check out for their classrooms. Each locked box contains a game based on age-appropriate, STEM-focused mysteries and problems. Students use creativity, critical thinking and communication skills to solve the puzzles and open the locks. The new Google Cardboard viewer and accompanying smartphone apps give teachers a fun and affordable way to bring students an educational virtual reality experience.

“Our goal is to give students more variety in their learning experiences, so they’re not just sitting all day,” says Murphy. Murphy’s team created “Maker Space” in the high school library, as a creative outlet for students. Students supply their imagination and the school provides all kinds of supplies to spur their creativity; everything from circuits to origami paper.

Klingerman says Heritage’s academic team cast its vision a couple of years ago, for a definite and intentional focus on science, technology, engineering and math across all grade levels. In a short period of time, the school has made rapid progress toward its goal. And it’s just the beginning, she says. “We’re going to continue to expand our focus on STEM,” she explains. “It’s what our kids need to be successful.”