Waynesville R-VI promotes STEM education with help from DoDEA

Kyran Wilson, a fifth grader at Freedom Elementary, programs a robot at the after-school coding club Jan. 28. The school district receives funding from the Department of Defense Education Activity to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. (Photo Credit: Photo by Courtney Long, Waynesville R-VI School District)

FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — In December 2018, the Department of Defense Education Activity awarded the Waynesville R-VI School District $1.25 million in a grant meant to uplift science, technology, engineering and mathematics education.

Today, that grant funds multiple school activities like coding and robotics clubs, where elementary- to high school-aged students learn to build and program software and hardware.

According to Tina Rowden — the school district’s grant money coordinator — the funding has allowed for increased access across grade levels.

“The grant afforded us the opportunity to bring STEM education and experiences to a wider audience of students,” she said. “Our students are excited about the opportunities they have to participate in coding and robotics.”

And now that the programs have had a couple years to get the word out, they are growing.

“Interest in coding has increased greatly this year from when it was first introduced last year,” Rowden said. “One elementary building tripled their participants from last year — about 20 — to this year — over 60.”

Rachel Rodriguez, who advises the weekly coding club at Freedom Elementary, said most of her students are new to the field of computer science.

“I feel the coding club allows students to participate and learn skills that they otherwise may not have had the opportunity to,” Rodriguez said. “We are working on coding a robot called Dash. Students use their knowledge of block-style coding to code the robot to tackle a variety of challenges.”

Rowden credits the popularity of the new curriculum to the emphasis the district has placed on science and technology in some of its courses.

“The STEM-infused classroom began this school year, and as more students learn about it from their peers, the more interested they are in STEM activities,” she said. “The students enrolled in the STEM-infused classroom were introduced to the (pre-engineering) program recently and quickly became hooked.”

District employees said interest has peaked enough to house coding and robotics clubs at nearly every one of its buildings: five elementary schools, a sixth-grade center, middle and high school.

Sara Allen, a robotics club advisor at Partridge Elementary, said most of her students have one or more parents in the military, indicating DoDEA has accomplished its effort to support military-dependent students.

“Students choose a project, listen to a scenario and follow step-by-step instructions to build and code their project,” Allen said. “It’s amazing to be able to watch students’ excitement as they watch a completed project move.”

While more than 75 percent of the district’s students classify as military-impacted, not all of the clubs’ members have the same goals for the future. Cameron Knuckles and Savannah High are both fifth graders involved with Freedom Elementary’s coding club.

Knuckles said he wants to become a paleontologist, while High has her sights set on computer science.

“Coding club is actually really fun,” High said. “I would definitely rather play with code and robots than watch TV. I would do it in my free time if I had the materials.”

She said she’s proud of a video game she created where the player-character dashes over obstacles toward a goal.

According to DoDEA’s article on the 2018 series of grants, part of its goal was “supporting the social and emotional learning needs of military-connected students.”

The grant given to the Waynesville R-VI School District was one of 36 allotments to military-connected schools across the country, amounting to $29 million in total funding for the series.

For more information on DoDEA and STEM education, visit https://content.dodea.edu/teach_learn/curriculum/stem/stem_website/index.html.