A robot, designed by the hands and mind of a 10-year-old, sped across the gym floor of A. Dorothy Hains Elementary School on Wednesday.
As it approached a foam wall, sensors built to look like beady eyes prompted the robot to turn 180 degrees to avoid a crash.
Fifth-grader Rayon Huff smiled. His invention worked perfectly.
“When it gets close to something, we programmed it to turn and come right back to you,” Huff said. “It’s exciting.”
The day at Hains is starting to become more hands-on and geared toward problem-solving as the school develops its Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics magnet program. Set to launch officially next school year, the magnet program is part of the district’s efforts to expand specialized learning in every school and the only one to have a STEM focus.
“Elementary students still have the creativity. They still ask why,” Hains Principal Gordon Holley said. “That’s what STEM is about. It’s not about the right answers; it’s about asking the questions.”
Beginning last year, the 23 teachers at Hains have been learning even more about STEM than pupils. They have had to learn new ways of teaching and presenting concepts to incorporate science or engineering into subjects.
Instructional coach Connie Courtwright said that in two professional learning sessions a week, teachers are being trained how to teach STEM concepts while keeping in line with the new Common Core Curriculum being implemented this year nationwide.
The new curriculum requires second-graders to learn about properties of matter in the first nine weeks. Instead of reading about the subject in a textbook, though, the STEM pupils will create matter by combining ingredients to make Play-Doh.
Instead of just learning about weather in a book, first-graders will become engineers and build a windmill to master the concept.
“You can’t just throw it in where you think it’s interesting,” Courtwright said. “It has to fit.”
Holley said the integration of the STEM magnet has energized the campus. Since last year, Hains’ 400 pupils have been housed at the old Tubman Middle School building on Bungalow Road while a new school is built.
The original 51-year-old Hains building on Windsor Spring Road was demolished in 2011, and the new building constructed in the same spot is expected to be completed at year’s end.
Holley said he hopes to be in to the new building in time to coincide with the launch of the magnet program.
“I’ve had teachers not retire,” Holley said. “They want to stay. They’re excited about what we’re doing.”
Benton Starks, the senior director of facilities services, said the $10.8 million building will have specialized classrooms with extra sinks for science experiments and collaboration areas where children can work in groups.
“It won’t be your typical elementary layout,” he said.
While housed at the temporary building, the school has started using new technology for the STEM teaching, which will grow when they move to the new school.
Using the school’s federal Title I funding, Holley has begun purchasing Nook tablets and laptops for pupils to use in class.
Superintendent Frank Roberson said Hains’ STEM focus is part of his vision to use magnet programs to help engage students. He said most principals are speaking with their faculty and community to determine what subjects interest students most.
The district has four magnet schools – Richmond County Technical Career Magnet School, John S. Davidson Fine Arts, C.T. Walker Traditional and A.R. Johnson Health Science and Engineering. There are about four magnet programs incorporated at other traditional schools, ranging from an Advanced Placement focus to International Baccalaureate.
Roberson said the goal is to have some type of magnet program in almost every Richmond County school. Putting a STEM focus at the elementary level was intended to create an interest early in areas that are becoming more vital to the economy.
“The emphasis on math and science is a growing emphasis that has taken on a national perspective,” Roberson said. “That’s where the jobs of the future are.”
He said creating a magnet program is an easy way to enhance learning and achievement while giving students lifelong skills.