Some high profile visitors are putting the spotlight on environmental and STEM education at a GCPS elementary school.
On Sept. 19, Mason ES was one of two Gwinnett stops on the U.S. Department of Education’s Green Strides Tour. The importance of outdoor learning is the focus of this year’s tour, which will visit Green Ribbon School award recipients to highlight promising practices and resources in the areas of sustainable school environments, nutrition, outdoor activity, and environmental education. Mason earned the national distinction in 2015 and Pharr ES, also a tour stop, was named a U.S. Green Ribbon School in 2016. Click here to see a slideshow from the tour.
At the start of the school year, Mason got another visit— this one from State School Superintendent Richard Woods and a team from the Georgia Department of Education. The visit recognized Mason’s designation as a state STEM-certified school. STEM education is an integrated curriculum of mathematics, science, technology, and engineering that is driven by problem-based learning and exploration. STEAM adds the fine arts to this instructional mix. (See the box to the right for more on STEM/STEAM-certified schools and programs in Gwinnett.)
“The great thing about STEM instruction is that it truly prepares students to tackle problems in a manner that they will be asked to do in their future work,” says Mason ES Principal David W. Jones. He notes that employers are looking for employees who can think, collaborate, communicate, and solve problems as they arise. “STEM teaches students to ask the questions necessary to design solutions within the constraints that exist,” he says. “Many of the problems our students will face in the workplace don't even exist yet.” Mr. Jones says that experiential learning— essentially, learning through hands-on experiences— reaches more Mason students in relevant ways because they are engaged in the classroom and interested in learning the AKS curriculum.
STEM Teacher Shay Buchanan agrees, “The content that students are learning becomes meaningful and relevant when they can apply it to solving problems that impact their world.” And she says that the school’s environmental focus provides a natural connection to STEM learning that pumps up the engagement for students. “Using the environment as a platform for STEM learning experiences enables our students to work towards designing solutions to real challenges in their community.”
The school’s STEM approach allows students to experience connections across content areas with real-world science and math applications. So-called “soft skills” like teamwork, collaboration, and perseverance are embedded in classroom instruction. “Our students have learned through STEM education to collaborate in teams to design solutions and persevere despite obstacles encountered along the way,” says Ms. Buchanan. “Our students simply stick with their learning.” And those learning experiences are designed to stick with students— in today’s classroom and beyond— as Mason works to build a strong STEM foundation.
A number of STEM-focused activities helped Mason earn its recognition as both a Green Ribbon School and a state-certified STEM School, including:
EcosyTEM Labs The farms of the future don’t look much like red clay farms we’re used to seeing in Georgia. At Mason ES, students are exploring a new type of farming with three hydroponic systems called tower gardens and a number of zip towers that use aquaponics. The systems are indoors and capable of growing produce year-round.
Monarchs and Mason's Outdoor Garden Mason's outdoor classroom includes a specialized habitat to attract butterflies. As a certified Pollinator Habitat, the garden includes nectar sources, a water source, a basking site, and shelter.The habitat itself is largely self-sustaining. Students participate in maintenance during the fall, including a clean-up of the outdoor classroom. In late fall and early winter, the garden will yield leafy greens for the school cafeteria and a local food pantry.
All Gwinnett schools provide STEM-focused activities and you’ll learn more about STEM/STEAM in our schools in the coming months. Watch for the upcoming Essentials newsletter where we’ll explore innovative practices at Mason ES and other schools in the Peachtree Ridge and Meadowcreek clusters, 2017 winners of the school district’s Innovation and Transformation grants.