Elementary Students Learn STEM, Compare Notes with Northrop Grumman Volunteers

Sixth graders at Patterson Elementary School in Gilbert, Arizona, weren’t the only ones taking notes during their STEM class. They soon noticed a volunteer from Northrop Grumman brought his own notebook and was writing down everything during their AWIM® Gravity Cruiser STEM challenge.

Asking students to take notes and show their work is often no small feat for teachers. However, when they see engineers taking notes in real life—writing out calculations, capturing observations, and constantly referring back to their notes—that can send a powerful message, especially to the group of sixth graders at Patterson.

“The thing I pushed while I was volunteering was modularity and build early and test early and often to verify design changes. By breaking down larger, more complex problems into manageable pieces, the students were able to find new, creative solutions and use their note-taking as a communication tool to simultaneously solve different aspects of the challenge—just like we do as engineers in our daily work,” Northrup Grumman volunteer Jonathan Jennings explained.

Beyond modeling positive behaviors, volunteers also open the door to potential career paths. When new volunteers from Northrop Grumman are introduced to the class, teacher Jane Wood asks them all to talk a little bit about their backgrounds. Students learn there are many different types of engineers, each requiring different skill sets. As the students soon realize, not everyone has to be an aeronautical engineer or an engineer at all to fully embrace a love of STEM.

As they work in teams throughout the academic quarter, students also learn firsthand about the engineering process and, most importantly, how to work together. The hands-on, team-based structure of the AWIM STEM challenge encourages collaboration between students and with volunteers. Initially students thought the engineers would just tell them the answers. Instead, they were encouraged to ask questions when they needed help.

Based on the success of AWIM for students in Patterson’s Student Enrichment Program, during the 2022-2023 school year students in first, third, and fifth grade will now also participate in AWIM STEM challenges across complete grade levels. This Phase 1 expansion coincides with Patterson being named a candidate for the prestigious International Baccalaureate (IB) Primary Years Programmer, a student-centered approach that builds conceptual understanding through an inquiry-based, transdisciplinary curriculum framework.

“Expanding AWIM to three grade levels is taking it to another level. Gifted students will now be in the same classroom. Regardless of labels or skill sets, students will learn how to collaborate in groups and have empathy for different learning styles. High achievers will have a chance to work with special education students. By third grade, our young learners will already be pretty well versed in inquiry, and it won’t be something that’s scary to them,” said Wood.

By encouraging social interactions with industry volunteers and classmates of all learning styles, the AWIM experience is helping to boost student confidence and improve 21st century workforce skills like communication, negotiation, and collaboration. They’re also learning the value of asking questions throughout the entire process so they can keep things moving forward and stay focused on inquiry and critical thinking—crucial skills that will translate to future education, careers, and life.

“Patterson will eventually be a full inquiry model school. We will create opportunities for students to think critically, persevere, exceed expectations, collaborate effectively, and learn valuable executive functions through the use of AWIM’s Engineering Design Experience™,” added Lucas Blackburn, Principal at Patterson Elementary.

Additional phases planned for future years will deliver the AWIM program to all PreK – 6 teachers and students in the school. The SAE Foundation is actively raising funds to support this expansion to provide AWIM curriculum, materials, training for educators and volunteers, and support at no cost students, families or school. Contact joy.lancaster@sae.org to learn how you can get involved to bring the AWIM learning experience to more students as a corporate partner, donor or volunteer.

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