S.T.E.A.M at Painted Oak


written by Patricia Haddad


What it is:

Science - Intellectual activity involving systematic study of the physical and natural world through observation and experimentation. From Latin - scire - to know Technology - The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes. From Greek - Techne - art, craft; logia - study Engineering - The action of working artfully to bring something about. Designing and building. From Latin - ingeniare - contrive, devise Art - The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power. Mathematics - Study of numbers, shapes and patterns. From Greek - Mathema - science, knowledge, or learning

What we do: Socratic Discussion: Beginning with a curiosity or question expressed by one or more of the children a teacher leads a discussion to first assess the level of interest in the subject, then to

elicit further questions or responses designed to gauge current knowledge and create a plan for investigating the subject of the students’ curiosity. By asking open-ended questions like: “What do you think about that?” “What would you like to know about that?” “Why do you think that happened?” “How can we figure it out?”

The teacher offers no answers, instead allowing the students to answer each other’s questions or offer further statements or questions on the topic. At the end of the discussion which may take one or more sessions, the teacher can propose a course of inquiry based on the questions and knowledge offered by the students. In this way the students are the architects of their own learning. The teacher is first guided by the children, then becomes the guide to facilitate further investigation. A unit of study can begin with a base of knowledge on which to build. The students are invested in a project they themselves have laid the foundation for. I have observed and participated in this process throughout my journey as an early childhood educator and nowhere have I seen it analyzed, evaluated, and implemented on an ongoing basis like at Painted Oak which I joined in the winter of 2015. This type of exchange provides an excellent starting point for S.T.E.M. learning. This multi-discipline approach to learning involves the integration of a variety of skills from several disciplines to solve problems and investigate questions.


A perfect example of this is a project the Roots worked on this year. On finding a hairband sitting on a log in the Pine Grove, one child offered the observation, “That’s not nature.” immediately this was followed by other observations and questions about how it got there, whether it belongs there, what should be done with it, and what happens after it’s disposed of. This provided an excellent basis for a discussion and a sharing of literature about garbage and recycling to support further inquiry. By listening to the children’s questions and observations their teacher was able to gather information about what the children knew and what they wanted to find out. Then she was able to propose steps to guide the children on a path to a greater understanding of what happens to trash and recycling after it’s disposed of.

A proposed ‘not nature’ walk was greeted with great enthusiasm. The children were eager seekers and collectors of anything along the way that was not part of nature. They delighted in this work and expressed their pride in helping the Earth as they picked up every piece of ‘not nature’ they could find. As a demonstration of the impact of this on the children, they carried this habit throughout the year, noticing and collecting ‘not nature’ on our daily hikes and encouraging their classmates to do the same. Several items of various materials were then identified by the children as nature or not nature (a piece of plastic wrapping, aluminum foil, a cardboard container, a banana peel, a leaf). The children helped to nail these items to a wooden board, bury the board in Sapling Woods, and mark the spot with a sign. This all happened in the middle of autumn and the children were told that we would revisit the spot and dig up the board in the spring. Each visit to Sapling Woods throughout the winter prompted a pilgrimage to the spot where the board was buried, speculation about what it looks like now, and expressions of anticipation about what it will look like when we dig it up. With the campus being closed due to circumstances beyond our control, our Earth week e-learning unit provided an opportunity to solicit assistance from a friendly Gnome (Digger) who dug up the board and got it back into the Ms. Michelle’s hands. Via video conferencing, the results of the experiment were shared so the children could observe that the leaf and banana peel had disappeared completely, the cardboard was only partially there, and the plastic and aluminum foil were completely unchanged. Immediately, the children began to speculate about what had happened to the disappeared items. The children could be heard


wondering out loud whether they had been eaten by an animal or accidentally dropped by the helpful Gnome. So the project concluded with further curiosity and more questions.

This is just one example of how a discussion begun by children and facilitated by their teachers can lead to a profoundly impactful journey extending the children’s knowledge of a subject and laying the groundwork for further inquiry and investigation. It demonstrates the importance of practicing and developing the skills required for investigating questions and solving problems. As the children grow, so will the depth and complexity of their questions and their box of tools for solving problems and finding answers.


I can think of several other examples: The Leaves’ bee inquiry of fall 2018 which saw the children investigating bee behavior, examining their structure, exploring where they live, counting and identifying their body parts, and finally creating their own bees to occupy a hive constructed through a collaborative effort is one. This integration of science, technology, engineering and mathematics culminating in the creation of works of art and engineering is typical of a unit of study here at the Oak.

The following spring the Branches embarked on a study of amphibians focusing on frogs, toads and salamanders. They engaged in weeks of tadpole observation, critter searches and investigations, and literature sharing leading to a greater understanding of the biology, habitat, and habits of these creatures. Drawings of developing tadpoles, frogs and salamanders were created throughout the study. Many similarities and differences between frogs, toads and salamanders were observed and investigated. The unit culminated in a creative expression of learning guided by Ms. Meta where the Branches created their own frog ponds and amphibian models. They also spent a day sharing their learning with the younger Roots looking at books, showing off a tank of developing tadpoles, helping assemble frog skeleton puzzles, assisting at a ‘draw an amphibian’ table, facilitating an investigation of the frog life cycle and leading an amphibian jam session. Sometimes a S.T.E.A.M. lesson can be entirely child-directed, spontaneous and brief. A couple of years ago a spring rainstorm caused a sudden stream to appear in the Backyard. As a group of Branches and Acorns entered the yard, an exuberant cry: “Stop the water!” prompted the immediate formation of an engineering crew. Working with the feverish intensity of beavers desperate to repair a broken lodge, some children collected materials like wood planks, milk crates, tires, sticks, and rocks. Others worked to lay them strategically in order to stem the flow of the rushing stream. Still others used shovels to fill in the gaps with dirt. A couple of the children supervised the work and offered suggestions about additional materials and how they should be arranged to strengthen the dam. This industrious group of children managed to stop the flow of water and create a pond. They then looked over what they had built and engaged in a discussion of whether it was finished. Upon concluding that they had successfully accomplished their stated goal they shared expressions of pride in their accomplishment and gratitude for the hard work of their fellow crew members. This entire exercise took under 30 minutes. It occurred with no guidance or input from a teacher. The children made use of the materials at their disposal and their ingenuity and collaborative skills to solve a problem in short order. They were able to make use of familiar materials and adapt them to a situation nature offered them and a project of their own choosing. The children seemed to integrate this ingenuity with an understanding of each other’s strengths to take advantage of a fleeting opportunity. The next morning they continued to admire their work and shared memories of what they had accomplished despite the fact that the pond had all but disappeared. These

veteran Oakers were using skills honed through the experience of many units of inquiry and collaborative projects they had engaged in since their earliest days at Painted Oak. The constant process of evaluation, analysis, and implementation that I referred to earlier continues to improve us as teachers/mentors and our Oakers as engaged, curious and ingenious investigators of the world around them.

a school for children who are serious about dirt and squirmy things

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174 Lambertville Hopewell Road 

Hopewell, New Jersey  08525

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