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A story about STEM.

When I was a young man going to middle school in 1989. I remember my first introduction to a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) activity. It wasn’t known as a STEM activity back then; instead, it was a woodworking project to occupy time in the woodshop. The project was building a bridge out of wood and seeing how much weight it could hold before breaking. Simple enough since back then, the details didn’t matter too much. You threw together some wood and watched it break under the weight. We spent a week cutting little pieces of wood to make beams and used glue and tiny nails to hold it together. In less than an hour, all our bridges were in pieces. Some broke from setting them up between two tables; others held strong, holding books almost to the ceiling. Everyone had fun and learned a little bit through the process.

While the term STEM may be relatively new in the world of education, the concepts certainly aren’t. But what exactly is STEM? STEM is defined as “an interdisciplinary approach to learning where rigorous academic concepts are coupled with real-world lessons as students apply science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in contexts that make connections between school, community, work, and the global enterprise, enabling the development of STEM literacy and with it the ability to compete in the new economy” (Tsupros, 2009). Another way to look at STEM is that it integrates concepts that are usually taught as separate subjects in different classes and emphasizes the application of knowledge to real-life situations.

Fast forward to today, and that little bridge lesson in middle school shop class means so much more now. By using Science to learn about the laws of motion and downward force, I can then use some of the Mathematical concepts of geometry to determine which shapes are the strongest for building (triangles, by the way). Engineering concepts will be used to draft the design of the bridge with the proper shapes. Finally, Technology could be used to simulate the design to see how it might hold up. Using Math and Engineering again, we can build a model of the real bridge and wait for the crack of wood as our bridge breaks under the weight. Bridge building is such a fantastic STEM activity that there are even competitions and events held all over the United States.

Last year, I organized a week-long 4H STEM Camp and used the Popsicle Bridge Challenge as one of the activities. It was hands down the favorite of all the campers. This year, we will be revisiting this activity in our 4-H Maker’s Club. The club meets on the first and third Mondays of each month, from 5-7 PM at the Extension Office. We hope to see you there!

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