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LBJ Institute brings hands-on STEM experiences to elementary and middle school students

LBJ Institute brings hands-on STEM experiences to elementary and middle school students

Emma Carberry | August 8, 2019

The mission of The College of Education’s LBJ Institute for STEM Education and Research is to lead research initiatives that explore interventions in the curriculum and pedagogy to transform science, technology, engineering and mathematics education while increasing the participation and success of diverse communities of educators and students. This mission is carried out through a variety of education and grant-funded initiatives, one of which is the NASA Future Aerospace Engineers and Mathematicians Academy (NASA FAMA). NASA FAMA, now in its fourth year, has been funded by over $500,000 in NASA research grants since 2016. The research faculty and staff who lead the FAMA program provide enriching teacher professional development and motivating NASA-based student programming to high-need communities in the San Marcos area. This academic year, FAMA faculty and staff introduced a new program called NASA Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Saturdays, which has impacted more than 300 K-12 students in Lockhart and Seguin ISDs.

a student poses holding a set of virtual reality goggles over the bottom half of her face, hiding a smile.

NASA STEM Saturdays bring LBJ Institute staff and students into local schools to provide elementary and middle school students the opportunity to learn about STEM principles weekly in fun, hands-on ways. In Lockhart ISD, 208 students participated in NASA STEM Saturdays during the six-week fall program. In the spring, the LBJ Institute brought eight STEM Saturdays to Seguin ISD, where 114 students participated. During each four-hour day, students rotated through activity centers that featured new themes each week. A familiar, structured experience allowed students the opportunity to repeat and practice skills by "retrieving" certain ideas each week. For example, students get to revisit and repeat the use of the engineering design process when working on different activities - one week in the field of NASA earth science, and another week in the field of NASA space science.

During NASA STEM Saturdays, the schools are lively and abuzz with excitement. At Jim Barnes Middle School in Seguin ISD, a group of elementary students worked on their engineering skills in the cafeteria with NASA’s “On Target,” challenge, which asks participants to modify a paper cup that will travel down a zip line and drop a marble onto a target. The activity is meant to resemble the Lunar Crater Observation Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) that is used to search for water on the moon by crashing a rocket into the lunar surface. Engaging in the design process allowed students to learn about LCROSS while also tapping into their STEM understanding and imagination. Meanwhile, in the gymnasium, middle school students worked with EV3 Lego Robotics kits to program a color-sensing vehicle to respond to commands associated with different colors. During this activity, students revisit the engineering design process to improve their robotic vehicles.

a Texas State student helps a child with her 3D printing project on her computer
Texas State students who work with the LBJ Institute assisted children with their STEM activities
high school students show a group of younger students a robot that is positioned on a table in the middle of the group
Students on the Seguin High School robotics team demonstrated their robots to the younger students

During the final STEM Saturday, which was a showcase of everything they had learned over the previous seven weeks, students were given the opportunity to travel around the world using Homido virtual reality headsets before being taken far beyond our world in a Digital StarLab mobile planetarium. The introduction to technologies like these is one of the many reasons NASA STEM Saturdays are unique, academically valuable, and exciting for students. These events are designed to supplement in-school STEM experiences and give students access to tools they may not regularly use. “It was an amazing opportunity to do things that classroom teachers sometimes don’t have the resources for,” one parent said. Another unique benefit of NASA STEM Saturdays is that classroom teachers learn and work alongside their students each week, providing guidance and support throughout each lesson. By participating in this way, teachers are then able to bring these lessons back into their own classrooms.

Beyond the wide variety of activities included in each Saturday's learning experience, each NASA-themed session also featured a guest speaker. On Meteorology Day, students were visited by San Antonio’s KFox 19 meteorologist Brad Sowder and Austin’s KVUE meteorologist Jason Mikell, as well as Texas State’s Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Dr. John Beck, who is a former meteorologist himself. On Physical Science Day, Seguin Firefighter Garrett Sanders demonstrated to students how oxygen affects fire, and on Technology Day Seguin High School’s robotics team, along with coach Fernando Mora gave a demonstration of their robots to the students, who were then allowed to take the controls themselves. According to Dr. Araceli Martinez Ortiz, director of the LBJ Institute, "It's important for young students to see near-peers as well as teachers, and professionals who look like them in the community discovering and learning together." She adds, "This encouraging experience keeps them motivated to explore interests in the aerospace field and to continue developing skills in mathematics. They also learn the relevance, importance and joy in learning the 'why' in the STEM phenomena of our daily lives!"

NASA STEM Saturdays will continue in Lockhart in Fall 2019 and Seguin in Spring 2020. For more information, visit the LBJ Institute for STEM Education and Research.