Introducing Engineering to Lower School Grades

Introducing Engineering to Lower School Grades

Our STEM curriculum in the 5th and 6th grades has been a resounding success. In February of this year when the Discovery Museum Try It Truck came to campus, our kindergarten through fourth graders had the opportunity to participate in a range of STEM activities. The engagement of our students during the Try It Truck week and the importance of hands-on engineering experiences led us to hire a new engineering teacher to support our students in grades K-4 starting this fall.

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When we talk about preparing children for this ever-evolving future, we want our graduates to enter the next phase of their lives with the confidence to tackle novel problems. Exploring, developing, and refining these skills starts from the first day our students walk into kindergarten. This is why we’re infusing more project-based learning into all of our curriculum and why next year our kindergarten through fourth grade will take an engineering course alongside their science, technology, and math courses. The engineering process – repeatedly planning, sketching, prototyping, testing, and critically thinking–is another way our students will grow and develop into innovative thinkers.

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Teaching this new course is Anastassia Radeva, our first Lower School Engineering and Math Teacher. Prior to joining MTS, Anastassia was a driving force in developing the Discovery Museum’s Try It Truck program, and she comes to us with a natural instinct to captivate elementary age children. We asked Anastassia to fill us in on her background in the interview below.   

Q: In your last position, you were heading up the Discovery Museum Try it Truck, which came to MTS this past spring. Can you tell us a little bit about your background, how the Try It Truck came to be, and your role in its program development?

AR: The Try It Truck has definitely been a labor of love for the last two years! Two years ago, it was an idea and a question: knowing that there are many barriers that keep elementary school students from being able to access the high-quality STEM education that the Bay Area Discovery Museum (BADM) provides, how can we create something that can bring those experiences straight to their schools? Specifically, how can we engage elementary school educators, students, and families in the “E” in STEM – engineering – which can be intimidating and alienating to many? Our answer was to purchase and build out a vehicle of some kind that could travel directly to children and families and bring a fun, educational, hands-on engineering experience to them. While I had no previous experience in building and equipping a truck, I was able to bring my background in classroom teaching at the elementary school level and learning space design to this challenge.

I joined BADM to develop and start this new engineering-lab-on-wheels and was able to write the curriculum for the program, test drive and purchase the truck itself, participate in a collaborative graphic and interior design process, and then pilot the program at 10 schools and 10 libraries last year. This school year, I’ve been more focused on building out the program with more curriculum, establishing deep partnerships with schools – like MTS! – and libraries in all 9 of the Bay Area counties, and, of course, teaching during programs. While there is much still to be done in really establishing this mobile educational program, I am excited and proud to leave it in great hands here at BADM and to still be able to continue partnering with BADM for field trips as a classroom teacher.

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Q: Your amazing rapport with kids was evident when you were working with MTS students during the truck visits. What’s your previous experience teaching primary age students?

AR: Thank you for that praise! I had an absolute blast at MTS in January and loved working with all of the students in grades K-4. I first started out as a kindergarten teacher through the Teach for America program at a school in San Jose and quickly learned a lot about classroom management, curriculum planning, and the importance of establishing a positive, collaborative classroom culture. After several years there, I took a year off from teaching to complete the Learning, Design, and Technology Master’s program at the Stanford Graduate School of Education before jumping back into teaching at BADM for the last two years as the Try It Truck Program Manager. My favorite thing about teaching STEM at the elementary school level is that it allows me to work with students from many different grade levels and always pushes me to think about what’s best for a specific group of kids and to differentiate and modify lessons based on student needs.

Q: What are you most looking forward to with the new role at MTS?

AR: I have loved visiting over 50 elementary schools throughout the Bay Area with the Try It Truck but the thing I have missed most about being a classroom teacher – and what makes me most excited to join the MTS team – is being a deep part of one single school community. I can’t wait to truly get to know students, staff, and families at MTS, to learn about traditions that already exist and to start new ones, and to help define what engineering education can look like at MTS.

Q: Are there any projects you’re currently developing that you’re particularly excited about? How do you see the work you did on the Try It Truck translating into a STEM class curriculum for K-4 students?

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AR: I’m working on expanding the hand tools stations that we offer to young students beyond hammering and using screwdrivers to take apart electronics. I’m thinking through how we can have children working with hand drills and power drills! I think that engineering is really creative problem-solving with math and science, and I know that students love learning how they can use tools to solve problems in ways they cannot just by using their hands. I’m definitely going to be integrating hand tools, measuring tools, and gardening tools into the MTS engineering curriculum. If you have experience with woodworking or tools – please get in touch with me next school year, I would LOVE to collaborate and welcome families' ideas! I’m also planning to really focus on the engineering design process and how it can be used to solve real-world problems in our own backyard and community so that students can participate in tangible problem-solving on topics and problems that matter to them.

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Q: What programs went particularly well on the Try It Truck? Were there any projects that didn’t go so well when you first started the program?

AR: Some specific stations that are always student-pleasers are our hammering station, our fort building station featuring PVC pipes and old cardboard boxes, and our water pollution station that engages students in taking plastic trash out of the “ocean” (aka the water table). There have definitely been projects that didn’t go as well, such as our first try at bridge building (all the blocks got stomped on or broken so easily!) or our first iteration of a 3-day program (it was WAY too long for young students!).

Q: What has impressed you most about seeing younger age students getting involved in hands-on STEM projects?

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AR: I’ve been amazed at how powerful it has been for students to truly drive their learning during Try It Truck programs by choosing which stations they want to go to, how long they want to spend at a station, and which students they want to work with. While these can be high expectations for young students, I’ve seen that when students feel in control of their learning, they are focused, creative, and enjoy the experience.

I think that as a society, we can sometimes get really nervous about giving young children very open-ended problems to solve because we are worried they won’t get the “right” answer and will feel disheartened by that. My work in early hands-on STEM has shown me that given the right supportive environment, young children are more than able to make mistakes, fail, or crash their first prototype and then dust themselves off and jump right back into redesigning and trying again. For them – and for me – the process of making a plan, building a solution, testing it out, and redesigning is often far more important than the actual prototype a student builds.

Q: Is there anything that students and parents might not know about you?

AR: I am a first-generation immigrant to the United States and bilingual. I immigrated to the U.S. when I was 8 years old from Sofia, Bulgaria and could not speak a word of English when I first started 2nd grade in the U.S. Since then, I have lived in Florida, Ohio, and New Hampshire (talk about swing states), and have called California home for the last six years. I live in San Francisco with my fiancé – who is a fourth grade teacher – and feisty dog named Poncho!  

Q: Anything else you’d like to tell us?

AR: As the school year kicks off, I will absolutely be looking for ways to connect with families and would love to partner with you all to find meaningful ways for you to be involved, particularly with the school garden! Please look for information about this in September, and don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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