Kids can be restless on the last day of school before Thanksgiving break, but the students at East Union Elementary in Carver County put their extra energy to good use last Tuesday, answering such important questions as: How are gummy bears made? And why is silly putty sticky?
Experiments like these were part of a day-long exploration of the STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- organized by the school's faculty.
"This is a great opportunity, we felt, to really engage the kids on a day that they are kind of squirrelly and excited," said East Union Principal Brenda Vogds. "It gives them a full day to really be a part of this type of thinking."
The school invited representatives from the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Minnetonka-based agricultural corporation Cargill to present a handful of interactive experiments to get the kids excited about science and engineering.
Situated near the southern edge of the Carver County School District, East Union is surrounded on three sides by farmland. The rural school is tiny -- just 22,600 square feet -- compared with other schools in the district. Its 206 students crowd the building's single hallway between periods.
But the school finds many advantages in its size. Jenny Killian, the school's second- and third-grade science teacher, said it's often less expensive for the district to outfit its classrooms with the latest technology, such as interactive whiteboards and iPads.
"I think, because we're so small, we can kind of be guinea pigs," Killian said.
That it also makes organizing all-school events, like the STEM day, less cumbersome., she added.
East Union prides itself on its integration of STEM fields into its curriculum,Vogds said. She said the exercises were designed to teach the kids key concepts of these subjects without stifling their natural curiosity, which sometimes happens with more traditional teaching methods.
Experts lend a hand
Vernon McIntosh, a senior molecular biotechnologist at Cargill, led an experiment to determine the electrical conductivity of modeling clay in the school's gymnasium.
McIntosh, who discovered his love of science early in life, said he hoped to reach students who didn't necessarily share his enthusiasm.
"Personally, I'm more interested in engaging the kids who have very little to no interest in it, because those are the ones that you're really going to make a big difference with," McIntosh said.
Fifth-grader Luke Mische, whose favorite subject is math, says McIntosh's love of science was contagious.
"I didn't really think much about being a scientist, but after today, it seems like a good job," Mische said.
As a science teacher, Killian said, the STEM day was very exciting. She prefers interactive learning to just handing students a textbook to read, and she said she hopes the school will organize more events like it. Vogds said they're planning another one in January.
"It's not just a day of fluff," Killian said. "They're having fun -- they're making gummy bears -- but learning all along the way."
Nick Woltman is a Twin Cities freelance writer.