In order to produce the next generation of successful engineers, science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, literacy must begin at the youngest grade levels.
That's the position of the U.S. Army's Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center, or CERDEC, which has championed this cause through its STEM Superstar program, an in-school partnering program educating elementary school students in northeast Maryland.
The program combines pop culture, movie references and hands-on fun to teach STEM principles. It was designed to run in a five-year cycle, so it could reach every student, 20,792 students to date, first through fifth grade throughout the 50 elementary schools in Cecil and Harford counties.
"One of our most important national resources are our children. For many years, CERDEC has taken a leadership role in our community, helping to cultivate students' creativity and provide opportunities to learn, discover and to get excited about science, technology, engineering and math. This is why STEM is an integral part of CERDEC's mission. The students we inspire today could be CERDEC's, the Army's, or the nation's leaders of tomorrow," said Jonathan Keller, CERDEC's deputy director.
"For a brief moment, these students get to be engineers working on an intergalactic problem where, as a team, they have to come up with a very creative solution. To solve this problem, the students have to work through the engineering design process which is part of the Maryland Science Standards," said Frank Cardo, science and STEM program coordinator for Cecil County Public Schools.
The STEM Superstar program, developed by CERDEC, had its first full year in the field during the 2012-13 school year. It was designed to complement and support the local school districts' education programs.
"The goal of the program was to put the word 'engineering' into the kids' lexicon, to demystify it and make engineering less scary," said Erica Bertoli, CERDEC Outreach program team lead. "We wanted to bring it to their level and make it something engaging and fun."
Alan Loman, Chesapeake City Elementary School principal, appreciated the collaboration with what CERDEC brought into his school. "(STEM Superstar) makes it real for the kids. They start to see real-life examples of what we're trying to teach them, as well as what their future is going to be like," he said.
And Loman said the timing couldn't have been better. "We have a first grade class right now studying engineering and engineers, and they're going to have think about how to build a wall for Humpty Dumpty that will withstand the pressure of a hair dryer," he said.
The first thing Ashley Pierce's CCES second grade students saw during their STEM Superstar presentation was a picture of Iron Man and Tony Stark, which instantly sparked a lively discussion.
"It's not science, we're talking about superheroes," Bertoli said.
After running through the most powerful superheroes of all time, the students were brought back to Tony Stark, who wasn't bitten by a radioactive spider or born on planet Krypton, and who, without his armor, can't fly.
"Tony Stark has no inherent 'super power,' he is an engineer. He built himself a suit and he can hang with the 'best of the best,' with the Avengers," Bertoli added.
After a brief introduction to what engineering is all about, students were given a mission as astronauts to design and develop a space vehicle to explore the moon using a "box of stuff." They were given a few minutes to discuss the various requirements and, with pencil and paper, sketch out an idea for how to design their own space vehicle before building a prototype, refining their build and presenting it to the class.
"Teachers were just as engaged as the students in the activities. Many commented on how the program supported what was being taught in science," said Leslie Matassa, reading specialist from Red Pump Elementary School in Bel Air.
"The STEM Superstars program is yet another APG outreach program that reaches so many of our students. These experiences build on our science and math program in ways that motivate and excite every student. HCPS greatly appreciates the incredible effort and work that goes into making this program possible," said Andrew Renzulli, supervisor of science, Harford County Public Schools.
If students are able to answer the question "What is an engineer?" at the end of the class period with something to the tune of "engineers solve problems," Bertoli considers STEM Superstar a success.