STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is considered a vital area of education in today's competitive job market. The focus of STEM, beyond the hard facts of numbers and scientific theories, is to teach people how to identify problems and come up with solutions.

“... it’s more important than ever for our youth to be equipped with the knowledge and skills to solve tough problems, gather and evaluate evidence and make sense of information. These are the types of skills that students learn by studying science, technology, engineering and math.” The U.S. Department of Education wrote on their website about STEM education.

When many people think of the acronym “STEM,” they may imagine high school or college-level education. However, in Cherokee County, elementary school students are given a head start in the STEM field.

Cindy Slovacek, Principal at Joe Wright, explained why STEM was being emphasized at such a young age. For the past three years, she said, the school collectively decided to begin emphasizing a STEM education to their kids.

“We feel like it's the best way for our kids to learn,” she said. “We feel like our kids learn best hands-on, in the real world, where they can see how they're going to use this.”

In a room called the “STEM lab,” there is a diagram hanging on the wall that visualizes the problem-solving steps students learn via STEM:

1. Problem: What's the problem? What are the constraints?

2. Imagine: Brainstorm ideas and choose the best one.

3. Plan: Draw a diagram and gather needed materials.

4. Create: Follow the plan and test it out. And

5. Improve: Discuss what can work better. Repeat steps 1-5 to make changes.

“Really, if you think about it, we have careers now that we didn't know we would even have 10, 15 years ago. So, by the time our kids graduate from high school there's going to be new jobs out there; new careers that we don't even know exist yet. So, we want them to be open-minded, to be creative and to be able to plan those things,” Slovacek said.

To help further Joe Wright students' STEM education, the school is constructing an outdoor classroom that will be primarily for STEM-related projects. The Wilson Folden Outdoor Classroom is designed to provide students an area for “active, hands-on, inquiry-based learning in a real world setting.” The classroom is still under construction, but Slovacek hopes it will be ready for use soon. The school plans to host a number of educational activities in the outdoor classroom, such as a weather station, garden beds, insect viewing areas, a music station, recycling areas and much more.

Carmen Fiscal is a fourth-grade teacher at Joe Wright. She and two other teachers recently attended a conference in Galveston where they gave a presentation on the importance of STEM in elementary education. She said that while many people may imagine STEM to be a bunch of boring facts and numbers, the school is putting emphasis on the creative side of things. STEM is also good for teaching kids how to collaborate to solve problems.

“I just want people to know it's fun, and the kids are learning,” she said. “The kids don't even realize they're learning. Every day they're like, 'Is today STEM?' ”

Joe Wright offers several STEM programs for their students, such as science labs, “super-science Fridays”, STEM labs and STEM clubs.

“If we can teach them now that we can all work together, we all have different strengths and have different qualities then we can figure anything out,” Fiscal said.

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