Nearly 600 students and parents attended the Tama County Family STEM Festival on March 30, doubling last year's attendance and matching a growing trend nationwide of an increased interest in STEM education.
The second annual event was the result of much hard work and dedication by the many faculty members and volunteers who have been working to bring North Tama and other county schools to the cutting edge of STEM education. North Tama's Lisa Chizek got the idea rolling with a trip to the iExplore STEM Festival in Coralville in fall 2012.
"It was amazing. STEM experts from all over were there at the STEM Festival doing short educational activities with children," Chizek said. "The children were having a great time and learning all kinds of things related to STEM. I knew then that we needed to make something similar happen for Tama County children."
A young student watches a demonstration by the Black Hawk Soil and Water Conservation District at this year’s Tama County STEM Festival.
STEM - an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math - has become one of the focal points in the restructuring of America's education system to prepare students for a 21st century workforce.
After a sharp decline in students studying in STEM fields during the 1990s and early 2000s, a 2006 report by the United States National Academies recommended an increase in science, technology, engineering and math training for students at all levels of the K-12 system.
The American Competitiveness Initiative of 2006 and the American COMPETES Act of 2007 started a trend of increased funding for STEM education in local schools, which has grown to over $3 billion in 2014.
That funding has made a big difference in the amount of students entering college with a desire to work in STEM fields. According to a UCLA study, after reaching an all-time low of 20.7 percent in 2005, 28.2 percent of students in 2011 were majoring in STEM fields.
Encouraging students to enter fields where they can find stable and rewarding careers is just one of the benefits for younger students. The skills elementary and middle school students gain through STEM education can be applied across a variety of disciplines.
"I believe quality STEM education helps develop critical thinking and problem solving skills. It also helps children connect what they are learning with the real world," Chizek said. "When children are engaged in hands-on STEM learning, they see themselves as scientists and engineers and they gain confidence in themselves and what they can do."
"They learn that making mistakes and sometimes failing is a part of the learning process and that is essential for them to understand," Chizek said.
This year's festival brought even more activities for students and parents to participate in. Among the many activities were fossil digs, flight simulations, learning about electrical circuits, computer programming, energy bikes and even the chance to see how minimally invasive surgery is performed.
The festival has been accompanied by an increase in STEM activities throughout the year.
"Through workshops and other professional development opportunities, teachers are gaining ideas, experience and resources for teaching STEM throughout the year," Chizek said. "Energy education is an example: students are learning about energy, potential energy resources and connecting it to the real world with what TMU [Traer Municipal Utilities] has been doing."
"[Traer mayor] Pete Holden has been working with high school students preparing for the Science Olympiad, and TAG classes have been involved in problem-solving events," Chizek said. "Our community Space Camp Scholarships also provide wonderful STEM education learning experiences for two North Tama students each summer."
Next year, North Tama will implement a new "Innovative Calendar" in which students will have two half days each month to be involved in enrichment activities during non-regular school days. The new calendar is something all North Tama faculty members are working toward.
"Every teacher at North Tama is working to develop classes for these days," Chizek said. "I believe these classes will offer a variety of wonderful opportunities including many STEM education learning experiences for students who choose to get involved."
The increased focus on STEM hasn't taken away from other educational pursuits, like the humanities or English, but has enhanced them through thinking and critical reasoning, which will help students with writing, reading, analyzing and interpreting curriculum in their other classes.
The variety of events at the festival and year-round initiatives also sets North Tama apart from other small schools, giving the kids skills that many students at larger districts take for granted.
"We are a rural county. We don't have all the resources, opportunities and experiences available for our students that larger communities do," Chizek said. "We need to make sure our students have the knowledge and skills necessary for the technologically advancing world in which they will live and work."
As technology increases and the workforce evolves, schools will be looking for ways to stay ahead of the curve and prepare students for ever-changing career fields. The change in focus from offering STEM activities as a niche to an all-encompassing educational philosophy has made the program at North Tama stronger.
"STEM is everywhere and STEM education should be for everyone. I believe we have a unique and critically important model for STEM education at North Tama Elementary with our STEM Expert Day and STEM Fair each year," Chizek said. "It includes all children in elementary grade levels - it is not just for some students of only for after school programs - it includes all of our students."
After doubling attendance from last year, the Tama County Family STEM Festival continues to grow and improve - and thanks to the support of the faculty, students, parents and community - looks to be a fixture for years to come.
"I appreciate the support of the North Tama administrators, staff and school board," Chizek said. "The STEM education experiences at North Tama wouldn't happen without their open-minded, forward-thinking faith."