Arista Alejandro, left, and Michelle Wong, right, build a cup tower with the help of rubber bands in the STEAM lab at Tukwila Elementary. HEIDI SANDERS/Tukwila Reporter

SmartLabs expand learning opportunities for Tukwila students

The Tukwila School District is investing in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) education.

This summer, several classrooms in the district will undergo a makeover — converting them to SmartLabs.

The SmartLabs, which will be purchased through Denver-based Creative Learning Systems, will provide students hands-on STEAM opportunities.

“Each one of the labs will consist of five to six peninsulas or islands, and each island will have different technology that the student will be investigating,” said Vivian Palmer, the district’s executive director of accountability, assessment and technology. “One may be robotics, another may be civil engineering. The students at that very low level have that technology where they have to think through the process. They also test different theories that they have — not thinking from the adults’ perspective. … As they move through the modules, they can assist the other students. It is always engaging your peers. Ask two (classmates) before the teacher. I think that is the real ideal component — student ownership of learning, and then personalizing it based on what their strengths are.”

Tukwila Elementary has already incorporated STEAM into its curriculum. This year, the school added a STEAM lab to the rotation of physical education, library and music classes students take during their teacher’s planning period.

“We do a variety of different things based on what the teachers are doing in the classroom, and build up on that,” said Marcy Rice, Tukwila Elementary’s technology specialist. “The third-grade teachers are working on extreme weather, so we are creating flood walls to try to stop some of the extreme weather. … We are also working on building technology skills, so that when they go back to the regular classroom, they know how to open a Google document.”

The SmartLab will allow Rice to expand her curriculum.

“In grades 3 through 5, the students will be able to pick their own learning path,” Rice said. “Maybe they pick to learn how to make a robot learn to pick up an object. They work by themselves with a partner. They build the robot together. They have online instructions that tell them what to do, step-by-step, instead of the teacher being in front of the room. The students are kind of in charge of the learning, and they build their own project. We would eventually get second-graders doing that, but it might take a little bit longer to get them comfortable with that. Kindergarten and first grade would be doing more of the teacher-driven activities.”

Adding the SmartLabs allows technology to be incorporated into the regular curriculum.

“A lot of the extracurricular activities or the arts and the science, technology and music extensions have always been after school, and funding for that has been very limited,” Palmer said. “The goal here at the district now is to bring those opportunities back in the school so we can fund them with our basic education dollars, and then there can also be after-school programs or clubs. But, it doesn’t require as much funding because we have the resources built into the classroom environment.”

That approach exposes every student to STEAM curriculum.

“A lot of kids didn’t get the opportunity to work with the robots because they can’t stay after school,” Rice said. “This opens it up to every student, which is huge.”

The Tukwila School Board approved implementation of three SmartLabs this year — one each at Tukwila Elementary, Thorndyke Elementary and Showalter Middle School. The cost is about $470,000 and will be funded primarily through the Technology Levy.

The SmartLabs at the elementary and middle schools will help prepare students for the 55,000 square-foot science and technology wing being planned for Foster High, which will be funded by a bond measure voters approved in February 2016. The district hopes in the next three to four years to add four Career and Technical Education (CTE) pathways — information technology, health and human services, manufacturing and business and administration — for high school students to explore.

“Once the kids have been introduced to (STEAM at the elementary), as they get to middle school, the concepts and the application increase in rigor,” Palmer said. “By the time they get to the high school, they will be better informed as to which pathway they want to take.”

District officials will regularly evaluate the pathways from the perspective of job outlooks, Palmer said.

“That focus will push all the way down to elementary school, and then we will help to mold some of the thinking to all of the different positions that are available in the realm of engineering, in the realm of health care, in business and management,” she said. “We will be on this continuous cycle of improvement and enhancement of the course offerings we will have in each one of those programs. … Skilled trades are in high demand right now. We want to influence some of that by introducing kids to it and helping them to understand that a two-year degree is just as relevant as a four-year degree, or having a certificate saying you have the experience and you have mastered the job skills that job demands.”

Early exposure is key to getting students interested in careers in STEAM.

“Those littler kids, they want to put their hands in the dirt and get dirty and get into it,” Rice said. “By fifth grade, they kind of start backing off from it, so if we teach them early, they won’t be afraid to experiment with new things.”

Access to technology and science also helps with standardized testing.

“We want to give kids opportunities to practice all the way up to the time of that state assessment,” Palmer said. “I think we will also see some expansion, improvement and growth in their academic level in math. Science is going to be really new to the kids because the focus here has been more math and reading, but science is also one of those areas students are evaluated on according to the state. We have very limited science resources in our elementary schools now.”

Steve Salisbury, Tukwila Elementary principal, said the investment in technology is long overdue.

“This is awesome that this is really happening,” he said. “I believe our kids are behind other districts that are souped up with technology. We need to catch up, and this is going to be a great step in the right direction in combining what happens in (the STEAM) classroom with what is already happening in our library.”

Jordyn Hester works with a classmate to place a toy lizard on top of a cup tower without touching it in the STEAM lab at Tukwila Elementary. HEIDI SANDERS/Tukwila Reporter

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