CERDEC’s STEM Superstar program uses pop culture, superheroes and everyday activities to show elementary school kids that STEM is everywhere.
by Ms. Erica Fineman-Bertoli
One afternoon when my son was five, we started talking about what he wants to be when he grows up.
“What about an engineer like your dad?” I asked.
“I know Daddy’s an engineer,” he said. “And he has never shown me his train, not once!”
Confused, I said, “Your father doesn’t have a train.”
“He doesn’t?” he asked. “Then what’s an engineer?”
Seven years later, that simple question from a 5-year-old boy evolved into a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) program that has so far served 20,792 students in 937 classrooms.
STEM education is a national priority as the U.S. looks to secure its economic future beyond the 21st century. It is particularly critical within DOD, where STEM professionals are necessary to ensure national security. Yet selling kids on STEM can be difficult, as they often perceive it as too hard to attempt or too “uncool” to pursue.
In addition, an analysis of existing STEM programming conducted by the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) in 2009 showed a tendency for programs to target middle and high school students, providing skill-based activities, classroom-like seminars, lab experiences and internships. While these programs are critical to shaping the future STEM workforce, they can ignore younger students. This lack of early exposure can discourage participation in middle and high school, as by then students see STEM as intimidating or “other.” CERDEC’s STEM Superstar program, along with its STEM Outreach portfolio, aim to overcome those perceptions and introduce the youngest students to STEM.
AN EVIDENCE- (AND SUPERHERO-) BASED STEM
Most kids don’t like homework. They like sports, music, television and playing outside. If you ask them to choose between their favorite activities and studying, play will win every time. Knowing this, STEM Superstar asks every student, “What if I told you that every time you play, you are practicing STEM skills?” Suddenly, science homework doesn’t seem so bad.
CERDEC Outreach began writing the core curriculum for STEM Superstar in 2010. We decided early on to combine a traditional “lesson” element with a hand-on design activity. Wanting to keep it simple in deference to a targeted audience of first- through fifth-grade students, we identified two key concepts: “Engineers build things to solve problems” and “STEM is part of what you love to do every day.” With our key concepts in hand, we began the process of creating the lesson segment, using a narrative-based design that would leverage stories and activities the students already know and enjoy to develop an attitude of “I can.”
In the field of communication theory, Walter Fisher’s “narrative paradigm” states that effectiveness in communication relies on storytelling. This approach to narrative or content design supports persuasive communication design, and ties easily to research into the use of popular culture in the classroom. Teaching complex ideas through popular culture is rooted in research that links literacy outcomes to the effective use of prevalent narratives and learning to students’ self-identity. The practice dates back more than 15 years and has been explored in academic journals, including the Journal of Literacy Research and the Harvard Education Letter.
STEM Superstar combines these two approaches by linking STEM lessons to stories children already know, identifying the characters as part of the STEM world and presenting information as part of an overall story arch as opposed to in individual content-based chunks. Specifically, the program uses superheroes and popular children’s movies to tell a story and help students to see themselves in terms of STEM success.
In designing the hands-on portion, we drew from “instant challenge” models used by programs such as Destination Imagination, where students are given a specific task with limited time and resources to complete it. The activity or “mission” we ultimately designed drew on the popular-culture reference points already introduced while also including grade-level math or science concepts, teamwork and presentation skills.
Following completion of the program design, we did a program pilot in 2011 to fine-tune the material and then approached Maryland’s Harford and Cecil county school systems to launch STEM Superstar. With a combined 50 elementary schools, we decided that STEM Superstar would be a five-year program, visiting 10 schools each year, to ensure that every public elementary student would participate at least once.
BECOMING A STEM SUPERSTAR
“Iron Man is the best superhero ever because he has no super powers,” every class of STEM Superstars are told. “No one in this room has super powers and neither does Tony Stark. He gets his powers from the Iron Man suit that he designed and built. He is an engineer. And since with hard work any of us can be engineers, then that means that like Tony Stark, we can all be superheroes.”
Each lesson begins with a discussion of superheroes. From there, we move to children’s movies with engineering themes, such as “The Lego Movie” and “Despicable Me” to help students see that they already understand some aspects of engineering. This discussion leads to the first core concept: Engineers solve problems.
Once they master this simple definition, we place engineering within the larger STEM framework, showing pictures of children participating in sports, music, cooking, computer games, etc. We encourage them to identify and explain their favorites. From here, we discuss how these activities reflect the characteristics of each core STEM area. This leads to our second concept: STEM is part of what you love to do every day.
After the formal lesson, we discuss the engineering design process, place the students into teams and present the “mission” that will make them STEM Superstars. The engineering design process used correlates to the Engineering Is Elementary curriculum developed by the Museum of Science, Boston, and taught in Maryland schools, creating a bridge between the program and what students are taught in the classroom.
Missions include such challenges as designing a moon vehicle (second grade), designing a superhero technology (fourth grade) and envisioning new technology to help students succeed in school (fifth grade). Each team receives a “box of stuff” containing odds and ends readily available at any home improvement, craft or dollar store. Students tackle each step, from concept and design to test and improve, to develop their technology prototype.
At the end of each session, teams discuss their process and present inventions to the rest of the class. Inventions range from the second-graders’ “super-moon-buggy-party-limousine 3000,” to the fourth-graders’ telekinesis-granting “mega-mover helmet,” to a “gym-bot” created by fifth-graders to help special needs students participate during physical education class.
“Every engineer must be creative, smart, hardworking and one of a kind,” I tell each class as we wrap up our time together. That is the formula for success. And for those students who worry that they might not be smart, we tell them that being smart is about believing in yourself, because the one thing every engineer has in common is that they never give up.
At the conclusion of each classroom session, whether they completed an entire project or were stuck at the initial design, the students have succeeded in creating something and are declared “STEM Superstars.” This is intentional, as one of the key barriers to STEM is the idea that it is too difficult; program success reinforces that they are smart, creative and capable of being engineers.
THE LONG GAME
While there can be no direct 1:1 correlation between a program like STEM Superstar and long-term success in STEM fields, feedback from teachers shows that there is an immediate increase in interest among participants. Their input also demonstrates that the program design is successful from a conceptual and an educational standpoint. The final data for the full five-year cycle is not yet available; however, results from the first four years point to the program’s success in meeting its objectives.
At the close of each weeklong program, all participating teachers receive a survey to rate STEM Superstar on five criteria:
(Q1) Overall program satisfaction.
(Q2) Grade-level appropriateness.
(Q3) Increase in student interest in STEM.
(Q4) Effectiveness of presentation of key concepts.
(Q5) Educational validity.
Over the first four years, we achieved a 62.34 percent response rate among participating teachers, and program results were consistently in the upper ranges of the five-point Likert scale used.
The lowest-scoring response across all grades was to Question 3, which measured a visible increase in student interest in STEM following the program. Yet even as the lowest scoring question, the overall score was 4.24 out of 5, with the greatest increase recorded among second-graders and the lowest occurring among fifth-graders. The remaining four areas all scored within the 4.6 range. Of particular interest was teacher response to the educational validity of the program (Q5), which was 4.66 out of 5, demonstrating that the teachers found the program beneficial.
A review of the total data for each question supports the summary, showing consistency in response between the 4 and 5 range. Selecting zero corresponded to “no comment,” so the more important signifier of problems within the program would be scores of one. Teachers gave only eight scores of 1 from 2,210 total responses (442 completed surveys with five questions each). If you add in the scores of 2, you get a total “dissatisfied” score of 18, or less than 1 percent of all responses.
In addition to the quantitative responses, teachers suggested what they would change about the program. The overwhelming recommendations are that we extend the program to a two-hour session or that the program visit each school annually.
From its conception, the goal of STEM Superstar was to introduce engineering in a low-threat, high-entertainment environment that promoted the idea that STEM is for everyone. In the same spirit, we designed STEM Superstar to be easily duplicated and executed anywhere with minimal financial resources or material support. One need only to pick a popular, age-appropriate movie or theme that reflects the STEM concepts they want to teach, gather a dozen random items such as paper plate holders, sponge hair curlers, pingpong balls and potato chip bag clips, give the students a “mission” and stand back. From concept to supplies, schools, youth centers or even home schools can easily replicate STEM Superstar, and the data gathered over the initial four years justifies continuing the program locally and encouraging its implementation in other communities.
As the United States moves further into the 21st century, the need to continue the historic pace of American innovation necessitates an ever-increasing focus on creating a pipeline of qualified STEM professionals. Without such a pipeline, the country risks economic security and its place within the global community. Through STEM Superstar, we are building that pipeline one child at a time—no trains required.
For more information on CERDEC STEM Outreach, or to contact the author, go to www.cerdec.army.mil.
ERICA FINEMAN-BERTOLI is the team lead for the Educational Outreach Program at CERDEC, located at Aberdeen Providing Ground, Maryland. She holds an M.A. in communication and leadership from Gonzaga University and a B.A. in communication and public relations from Rutgers University. She is a graduate of the Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Maryland.
This article is scheduled to be published in the July-September 2017 issue of Army AL&T Magazine.