Tobi Kreifels' first-graders spread out into the patch of woods behind Sigurd Olson Elementary School in pairs. They were hunting for sets of objects -- such as two rocks or five trees -- and photographing them with iPads so they could present their finds to each other back in the classroom.

Kreifels said the exercise was designed to teach the students counting, science and computer skills all at once. It's part of a new approach to education being explored at the School of Engineering and Arts in Golden Valley (SEA).

The K-5 magnet school's first academic year began about a month ago and principal Kim Hiel says its 423 students have quickly adapted to the new classroom structure.

"Back when I was in school, the teacher was always in the front giving lessons," Hiel said. "You sat there and listened, you regurgitated the information back to them. This is just a different way of learning."

Hiel compares SEA's methods to those of the other magnet school in the Robbinsdale district, a Spanish language immersion school in New Hope. She says SEA's STEAM program -- science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics -- immerses the students in these fields of study and offers them a hands-on education.

Kreifels says SEA's approach to elementary education is unlike any she's seen in her 18 years of teaching.

"The structure here is just different," she said. "Before, I would just follow what the textbook said to do."

The STEAM program's coordinator, Cara Rieckenberg, says it employs an integrated curriculum, rather than dividing the school day into periods for science or history, teachers blend several subjects into each lesson.

While SEA is subject to the same standards as other public elementary schools in the state and still offers a well-rounded education, it approaches other academic subjects "through the lens" of STEAM, Hiel said.

Adding 'A' to STEM

In 2010, the Robbinsdale School District began researching alternatives to traditional curricula after witnessing the success of its Spanish immersion school.

A survey of the parents of school-age children in the district made it clear that there was a desire for such an immersion school with a focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. And the 322 names on its enrollment waiting list suggest interest in SEA remains high.

The STEM subjects -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- have been a popular focus in American schools lately, Rieckenberg says, and finding a way to incorporate the arts was important to the advisory committee appointed by the district to provide feedback during the design phase of the program.

But the inclusion of the arts component doesn't necessarily mean the kids will be painting and putting on plays.

"In our 'A,' we put more emphasis on media arts," Hiel said, "so our kids will be doing everything from graphic artwork to blogging and podcasts."

Other Minnesota schools are looking for ways to integrate the STEM fields into their curriculum, too. Edgewood Middle School in the Mounds View Public School District has even implemented a STEAM program of its own. That program was also launched this fall, according to the school district's website.

"If you look at other districts statewide, most of them are having that conversation right now if they haven't already," Rieckenberg said.

Nick Woltman is a Twin Cities freelance writer.