ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (Feb. 20, 2013) -- "Can someone tell me why Iron Man is the best superhero, what his true super power is? -- Iron Man is the best superhero because Tony Stark is an engineer! Tony Stark made himself a superhero."
This academic year, students across Harford and Cecil counties have become 'STEM Superstars', learning how they too can leverage science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, principles everyday to accomplish tasks, solve problems and even change the world.
In its inaugural year, the STEM Superstar program, the brainchild of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command's communications-electronics center, or CERDEC, Educational Outreach Team engages students from kindergarten to fifth grade in stimulating activities challenging students to think creatively and solve problems like an engineer.
"Building, imagining, discovering -- these are all things kids do naturally when they play," said Erica Bertoli, CERDEC Educational Outreach team lead. "No one ever puts the word engineering next to it, but that's what they're doing. We hope that STEM Superstar shows students that engineering is truly a creative science."
Traditionally, STEM outreach initiatives target older students in middle school or high school who have a greater general knowledge base and more advanced math skills. The STEM Superstar program aims to reach students earlier in their academic career -- before they learn to be fearful of math or science that can often deter students from STEM career paths -- and set a foundation for a future that might involve the statement, "I want to be an engineer when I grow up," said Bertoli.
For the program to be successful it had to be tailored to the younger students' interests and level of understanding. Connecting popular movies and superheroes to STEM and engineering, like the invention in "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" that makes it rain food and its engineer creator, or Tony Stark and the suit he engineered to become the superhero Iron Man, allows students to connect fun and entertainment to the seemingly daunting ideas of engineering and STEM.
"What sets [STEM Superstar] apart, is that marriage between creativity and engineering," said Bertoli. "We're trying to demystify math and science and give students the confidence to believe they can do it."
STEM Superstar began as a pilot program in November 2011 at Hickory Elementary, Bel Air, Md. and evolved into a five-year, county-wide initiative to bring STEM to elementary students in the area surrounding Aberdeen Proving Ground, or APG. During the 2012-2013 school year, the program will serve 12 schools and approximately 6,000 students.
"Piloting a STEM program with local elementary schools allows CERDEC to demonstrate to students that engineering is an enjoyable, attainable and rewarding career path," said Jill Smith, CERDEC director. "Encouraging students to pursue science and math early in their education can help ensure our country has a competitive and successful S&T workforce in the future.
The program is broken into hour-long sessions spread across four days at a specific school. During that hour, CERDEC Outreach team members lead a short lesson designed to show students the basics of STEM and engineering, followed by a STEM mission that will leave the students STEM Superstars by the end. There is no requirement for teachers to prepare students prior to the program, ensuring more information does not have to be placed into already-full lesson plans.
During a STEM Superstar lesson at Lisby Elementary in Aberdeen, Md., CERDEC Outreach team members asked a young student why he doesn't use a baseball for dribbling during a basketball game -- because the ball is solid and won't bounce well, unlike a basketball. They asked a student what happens if she doesn't run fast enough heading into a gymnastic flip -- she won't make it all the way around, she'll fall. Helping the students connect what they think is just "sports stuff" to physics principles like force and momentum is another way the program makes STEM more approachable.
After the lesson, students participate in 30-minute missions specific to each grade level that challenge them to work as a team to solve a given problem. The missions, while centered on STEM, are rooted in creativity and imagination. They work together to create a design and bring that design to life, building a prototype from a box of unusual items like reflective bubble wrap, small wiffle balls, PVC pipes and plastic beakers.
"Too long there has been a paradigm in this country that you're either a math and science kid or a creative, artsy kid," said Bertoli. "It's a disservice to the kids and our country. Engineering, innovation -- it's driven by creativity."
The missions allow students to engage in problem-solving, group work and the application of several subjects, which has multiple benefits according to Meadowvale Elementary Principal Debbie Freels.
"Students walk away from STEM Superstar with an understanding of STEM, but they also see how all the skills they've learned in different subjects can come together to create something new and solve a problem," said Freel. "As an educator, it can be difficult to show young students that we aren't just teaching them addition and subtraction because it's in the math book. It all has a greater purpose and a real life application."
Younger students have missions surrounding aliens and space travel while older students have missions asking them to solve real-world problems. Fourth graders need to design something that gives an ordinary person a 'super power,' much like Iron Man. Fifth graders are challenged to create something that would make the world a better place or make life easier.
"Students need experiences like these to let them know it's okay to not have the right answer the first time around," said Dan McGonigal, a 4th grade teacher at Lisby Elementary. "It's okay to think outside the box, it's okay to be wrong; they can come out of their shell and learn to solve problems in a risk free environment."
After completing their prototypes students are asked to present their idea to the class, explaining how it works, its benefits, problems they ran into during the process, and, for the older students, any potential unintentional harm their idea could cause and how much of their budget they used.
"We wanted to make a super powered router so you can take the Internet wherever you go," said one fifth grader at Lisby Elementary. "It's solar powered and portable. You don't have to be in your house to use it and everyone can use the internet for free."
Another team created a prototype that would collect fish in a river in hopes of efficiently collecting the fish for food, while keeping in mind the live animals.
"The wheels spin from the river current and power the arm that sucks up the fish," said another Lisby fifth grader. "But we have to be sure the wheels don't hurt the fish and that the fish can escape if it gets full."
"This program truly is special," said Freel. "It brings the program into our classrooms, into a familiar setting, and provides a unique opportunity for our students to actively participate in a fun and engaging lesson that they will remember. Not only that, but for the teachers it serves as an anchor point that they can refer back to in future lessons."
Harford and Cecil county officials were critical in the successful launch of the program, said Bertoli, citing the positive relationship between APG, county officials, and principles and administrative staff at the county schools. Over the next four years, the STEM Superstar program plans to visit every elementary school in the two counties, ensuring every student has taken part in the program at least once.
"The program is a reflection of the dedication of Harford and Cecil counties to provide the best opportunities and further the education of their students," said Bertoli.
A number of elementary schools include STEM into the curriculum by way of school-wide programs or teachers including it in lesson plans. McGonigal is involved in a STEM Cohort at Towson University, looking into a possible STEM certification for teachers. Meadowvale Elementary, with the aid of a Department of Defense grant, has created an after-school STEM Club program for its 4th and 5th graders which had to be restructured in its second year to accommodate the high level of student interest.
"STEM is the way of the future and we have to ensure we are laying a foundation for our students," said Karen Jankowiak, Meadowvale assistant principal. "The discussions we have with Harford County high school and middle school administrations reaffirm the need to prepare students for upper level math and science courses, now, at the elementary level. If they aren't prepared, it just closes doors for their future."
CERDEC Educational Outreach works to support STEM education through other means outside the STEM Superstar program. CERDEC worked with the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command, the Army Testing Center, the Army Research Laboratory and the entire APG STEM community to bring an annual STEM Expo to APG, which brought more than 400 high school students to learn about various organizations located at APG in November. An annual Math and Science Summer Camp is hosted by CERDEC Outreach, continuing STEM education into the summer months for area fifth-10th graders. CERDEC also participates in the Army's eCYBERMISSION program and the Maryland Junior Science and Humanities Symposium.
Throughout the STEM Superstar curriculum are messages that relate back to the work CERDEC engineers, and the countless engineers from other R&D organizations, do at APG, located right around the corner for most of the students, and where many of their parents work.
"We show them the amazing things engineers at CERDEC do -- creating night vision goggles to let Soldiers see in the dark, making Sense Through the Wall that lets Soldiers see what's on the other side of a brick wall," said Bertoli. "To a kid, what CERDEC engineers do can seem like really giving Soldiers super powers and that's a powerful message."