This is the first in a series of monthly columns about STEM in Juneau: what it is, why it’s important, and what it looks like in Alaska’s capital city.
The Challenge: Design a boat to hold as many pennies as possible
The Materials: One 12”x 12” piece of aluminum foil, hundreds of pennies, and a tub of water for testing.
Two weeks ago at the Juneau Maritime Festival, the Juneau Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics Coalition offered the STEM challenge above to all comers. One young girl folded and twisted her piece of aluminum foil into a boat-like shape and estimated that it would hold 25 pennies. In her first test, her boat sank with just 15 pennies. I offered her a fresh sheet of foil and she eagerly tried again. And again. And again.
Meanwhile, I was busy explaining STEM and the Juneau STEM Coalition to any passersby who would listen. Some people had no idea what STEM means and others knew far more than I.
My spiel went something like this: STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. It’s a “buzzword” these days in education and economic development circles, and it means different things to different people. At the most basic level, STEM teaching (and learning) means focusing on the content of those four specific subject areas. On an economic level, our state and country are in a bit of a crisis. There are far more jobs in STEM fields than graduates with the skills to fill those jobs. We need to figure out how to get more students choosing to study the STEM fields. A 2016 U.S. News &World Report found that “STEM jobs have increased … 28 percent since 2000 compared to 6 percent for all jobs” but there was only a “5 percent increase in all STEM degrees granted.”
On a broader level, as our world becomes increasingly complex, we all need to increase our basic “STEM” literacy, regardless of our actual professions. Still more broadly, STEM instruction refers to teaching these subjects through an interdisciplinary and hands-on approach that is active and engaging. STEM experiences help students learn the content and the process skills of closely observing, questioning, experimenting and finding ways to communicate their discoveries. STEM activities foster collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, curiosity, and, as this girl was demonstrating right before our eyes, flexibility and perseverance. Undaunted by her initial “failure,” she kept trying, becoming more and more confident as she became more and more engrossed, adjusting her design and analyzing its strengths and weaknesses until she eventually engineered a result she was happy with — 115 pennies! Along the way, she figured out quite a bit about buoyancy and water displacement.
Although very simple, this activity is an excellent example of STEM instruction and the engineering design process, specifically. There was a problem, some constraints, and plenty of time to imagine, plan, create and improve - just like an engineer. If she’d done this activity in school, a teacher would have encouraged her to describe her observations and the conclusions she drew, either out loud or in writing and to compare notes with other builders. And, finally, but very importantly, this activity was fun.
The young girl — whose name I never thought to ask — and her mother both wanted to know if there were other ways and places for kids to do more of these types of activities. Yes! STEM activities are happening already throughout Juneau — in schools, at libraries, in camps, at the Juneau Makerspace and at home — in and out of doors. Furthermore, the Juneau STEM Coalition is working to increase awareness about and support for STEM in Juneau. We are a recently formed group of teachers, administrators, scientists and community members. We have efforts underway to build job shadowing opportunities, facilitate easier access to community resources and presenters for the classroom, support school science nights and host networking events to build relationships between teachers and STEM professionals.
If you’re interested in volunteering with or receiving emails from the STEM Coalition, please contact email@example.com. And if you’re interested in a challenge, get a piece of aluminum foil, some pennies, a tub of water and start experimenting.
• Brenda Taylor is the co-chair of the Juneau STEM Coalition and a math teacher at Juneau Community Charter School.