Providence Elementary Students Use STEM Lab To Think Critically and Collaborate

Providence Elementary School uses the STEM Lab to solve problems.

Students in Ms. Forsyth’s 5th grade class had a problem. The Providence Elementary students were instructed to build two-story structure using 30 mini marshmallows and 30 toothpicks. The structure would have to survive a Jell-O simulated earthquake. The 21 students, grouped in teams of 4-5, had five days to design, build, test and improve their structures, with the last day reviewing what they learned and analyze their work.

The project, devised specifically for their age group, was created by STEM teachers Sarah Phillips and Diana Schmiesing. The STEM program at Providence is a multidisciplinary approach to problem solving, incorporating science, technology, engineering and mathematical reasoning. Each class at PES rotates through the STEM lab 1-2 weeks per quarter, each time working on a different project.

Classes are presented with a problem and with guidance from Schmiesing and Phillips, collaborate to find viable solutions. Projects include kindergartners learning to sort and classify to sixth graders creating a lunar craft out of cardboard to keep safe two marshmallow astronauts from falling out when dropped.

Using the Five Steps for Engineering Design, students are
presented with a challenge and work as a team to:

  • Ask and Pose Questions
  • Imagine  and Brainstorm Solutions
  • Develop a Plan and Diagram Possible Solutions
  • Create and Build a Their Designs
  • Improve the Design Based on Experience


“The trial and error piece of STEM is a crucial aspect of the program. We need the students to work through failure, to keep refining and improving,” said Phillips. “It is only through challenges that kids develop the resiliency that will help them succeed in every aspect of their lives.”

The STEM Lab is a high priority for Principal Jesse Kraft.  “With STEM we are not only able to maximize the current curriculum, but also expose all students to high level problem-solving and other important skills they can use throughout their lives.”

Another important facet according to Kraft of the STEM Lab is its inclusion to all students, not just advanced level academics or students with special needs. “It is a great equalizer,” says Kraft. 

Ms. Forsyth agrees. “I observed my natural leaders stepping down to facilitate while my quieter students stepped up and took some meaningful risks.”

All students at Providence are exposed to the STEM challenges and must work together to solve problems. The projects are designed to be hands-on and difficult as they work through their week in the lab. The students also use journals to work independently and use writing skills to help analyze their work at each step.

“For so many years, curriculum has been taught in silos – essentially in isolation,” says Dr. Peter Noonan, Superintendent of the City of Fairfax schools. “The STEM Lab at Providence is providing opportunities for multiple areas of contact and transferring knowledge to a number of subjects. All students are collaborating to answer challenging questions and developing important 21st century skills that will prepare them for the future.”

Ms. Forsyth’s class was up to the challenge. By the end of the week, the teams created structures that held up to the powerful gelatin earthquakes.  But for Hillary, a student in the class, the success was not found in the lesson. “The most interesting thing I learned in STEM lab was that if you try hard you can do it. No one was really taking over and we all put work and ideas together. It became one big, successful project.”

For more information on the Providence Elementary STEM Lab,
please go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4QhcuEmxViI&feature=youtu.be

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