Lake Havasu Unified schools and ASU inspire STEM leaders of tomorrow

The United States became a global leader through its innovations and inventions during the 20th Century. They included the automobile and airplane, space flight and the lunar landing, the radio and television, laser and fiber optics, the Internet and Wi-Fi communications.

Thunderbolt Middle School science teacher Kathleen Weber greets students with a handshake.
Starline sixth grade student Sylvan activates a battery-operated robot she made from a kit.

Americans led the world in creativity using science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). So, how will America fair in the 21st Century and beyond?

When it comes to STEM proficiency, the United States is falling behind internationally, ranking 25th in mathematics and 17th in science among industrialized nations, according to the U.S. Department of Education Web site.

They report that “only 16 percent of American high school seniors are proficient in mathematics and interested in a STEM career. Of those who pursue a college major in the STEM fields, only about half choose to work in a related career. In our competitive global economy,” they say, “this situation is unacceptable.”

When Dr. David Young and Dr. Ryan Nangreave of ASU Colleges at Havasu discussed those statistics, they wanted to do something to make a difference. “We thought, ASU is here, we have the resources and we should reach out and engage the students, working from the bottom up,” Nangreave said.

Havasu’s public schools agree that STEM education is crucial and are working on many fronts to enhance STEM knowledge and engagement.

S.T.E.M in the elementary schools allows students to open a world of wonder and seek answers to some of the most fascinating details of how the world works. If students are 'sparked' with curiosity, they will seek to solve some of the problems we are faced with.

At Starline Elementary, the STEM club meets each Monday after school. Fourth through and sixth graders can choose activities in technology or engineering/robotics.

Smoketree, Nautilus and Jamaica elementary schools are working with faculty and students from ASU Havasu, on a variety of STEM activities.

Smoketree is developing a STEM lab which is anchored by the school district’s first 3D printer which was donated by ASU's Dr. Young and his wife Sheila. The elementary school is developing lab modules with emphases in future city design, sustainability and robotics with club mentor Jeremy Abbott, civil engineer for Lake Havasu City.

Thunderbolt Middle School science teacher Kathleen Weber greets students with a handshake.
Starline STEM advisor Robert Filipiak with his robotics team members (L-R) Logan, David, Diego, Darleen, Courtney, Sylvan, and Ashlyn.

Fatima Mu, Smoketree’s STEM club advisor said, “S.T.E.M in the elementary schools allows students to open a world of wonder and seek answers to some of the most fascinating details of how the world works. If students are 'sparked' with curiosity, they will seek to solve some of the problems we are faced with.” 

All fifth grade students from Nautilus are bused to the ASU campus twice a month to work on scientific experiments alongside college students. Nautilus faculty Amy DePuydt and Kerry Shettko accompany their students and assist during the experiments. “Last visit we extracted DNA from a strawberry and the students got to put it into a plastic container and take it home,” said DePuydt.

She added, “I think the ultimate goal is to develop STEM skills in our young people and prepare them for the work force. The four fields are taught together instead of in isolation.”

ASU’s professor Nangreave, along with fellow ASU faculty and students attend STEM club meetings at Jamaica Elementary and play a critical role in educating students on renewable energy.

Jamaica third grade teacher Jamie Thuneman said, “Through a combination of lecture and engaging hands-on activities, Jamaica students are getting real-world experiences that will enhance their educational journey. The amazing people at ASU who have volunteered their time and funded our project are making a difference in our community.”

Lake Havasu High School, through the Career/Technical Education program, offers many courses outside of the traditional math and science that fall under the STEM umbrella. These include allied health biology, medical terminology, automotive technology, drafting and others, according to science faculty member Chessa Frei.

The different genders approach the problems in different ways. The boys tend to go hands-on into the problem and the girls tend to be more collaborative.

She added that LHHS is also part of RECON, Research and Education Collaborative Occultation Network, which is a research project through Cal Poly - San Luis Obispo and the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo. Frei said students who participate in RECON are “generally more engaged, not only in class, but in current science topics outside of class. They are excited to share new discoveries or stories they’ve seen in the news.”

LHHS STEM advisor Stefani Chase said of her 139 students only 52 are female, “so there definitely is still some work to do in promoting science education with our girls. As a department, we have three male educators and eight females, which I believe is helping us to step away from the stereotype that science is a male dominated subject area.  

Thunderbolt Middle School science teacher Kathleen Weber greets students with a handshake.
Skyler, a member of Starline’s STEM club technology team manipulates images in an illustration program.

“I encourage all of my students to take interest in STEM; but a goal of mine is to increase the number of female students who participate in science education and learning. I want them to see that this is not just a field dominated by males and that science is a meaningful subject that needs more insight from females,” Chase added.

The gender imbalance is not evident at the elementary level. Robert Filipiak, who directs the engineering/robotics activities at Starline said his group is split five and five.

“The different genders approach the problems in different ways. The boys tend to go hands-on into the problem and the girls tend to be more collaborative. STEM education lays the foundation for problem solving and critical thinking skills that are important for innovations,” Filipiak explained.

Frei said, “I believe that to be leaders in the global economy, our graduates need to be ready to take on highly skilled jobs. Health care continues to be one of the most in-demand jobs in our country. Manufacturing, which has historically been the boon of our economy, is not the assembly line of yesteryear; today it involves the integration of software, engineering, and modeling.

“We are preparing our students for jobs that certainly didn't exist 20 years ago, and may not even exist yet today. What an exciting time,” Frei added.

I am amazed that we can do experiments with Arizona State University professors and students. I am very grateful that they have taken time out of their day to come here and teach us these amazing things.

Mu from Smoketree said, “I am a strong believer that engineers, scientists and technology (experts) need inspiration that can begin in kindergarten and be nurtured in elementary. If this curiosity is enforced and more fully developed in middle school, more high school students will take STEM-related classes in anticipation of STEM careers.”

Jamaica Elementary teacher Nancy Stoops added, “The early adoption and hands-on training of STEM education that we are doing at the elementary level, will give the students the comfort and understanding of the STEM principles and trades that will allow for an easier transition to STEM related fields of study in secondary education.  

Thunderbolt Middle School science teacher Kathleen Weber greets students with a handshake.
The Smoketree Elementary School Science Expo gave students an opportunity to display the results of their scientific experiments. Students worked with their STEM club advisors and mentors from the community.

Avery, a sixth grade student at Jamaica, and secretary of the school’s chapter of the National Elementary Honor Society said, “I am amazed that we can do experiments with Arizona State University professors and students. I am very grateful that they have taken time out of their day to come here and teach us these amazing things. The officers and students in NEHS are very grateful for this opportunity and we will not let it go to waste."

Nangreave mentioned the gap from elementary to high school. “We need to engage the middle school. If we lose them for a couple of years, their interest will diminish before they get to high school. You need a university that can help give them the cool experiments that can get them excited; and the ASU students couldn’t be more engaged. Every one of them was eager to volunteer to work with the STEM clubs.”

Just 15 years into the 21st century, American scientists have produced the Large Hadron Particle Collider, the Mars Opportunity and Curiosity explorers, a Sky Crane to lower the explorer to the surface of the planet and Space-X’s reusable launch system, to name just a few advancements.

“With students as young as elementary school embracing STEM education and pursuing it into college, even the sky is not the limit for the future of invention and innovation for our country,” said Gail Malay, superintendent of the Lake Havasu Unified School District.