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Partnership bonds college engineers with local elementary school students

Biological engineering sophomore Claire McMenamy works with Thomas Hart Benton Elementary third grader Merrick Wells, 9, on programming his version of a computer file with instructions for a LEGO robot.

Demonstrating the importance of science and math education to students in the early years of school has become the goal of one local educator who has formed a partnership between the University of Missouri College of Engineering and Columbia’s Thomas Hart Benton Elementary, where she teaches. Her efforts also  have garnered recognition from NASA.

Kathryn Arnone received the NASA Endeavor Fellowship, which provides the online training needed to earn Science Technology Engineering Math (STEM) teaching certification from Teachers College, Columbia University.

Her fellowship will teach her how to effectively implement STEM education and leadership in her classroom, as well as teach her about the STEM history and goals. Only 51 applicants nationwide were selected for the fellowship this year. Arnone said she was surprised to find out she received it.

“I wasn’t picked for being the best science or math teacher,” she said. “But I had the desire to learn and said if we’re going to do this, let’s do it right.”

Arnone teaches a fifth grade class with 33 students, 28 of which are male. However, girls in her class, which Arnone says can get competitive at times, are equally as interested.

“Some of the female students I thought would dismiss the STEM units are the ones who jumped the most into it,” Arnone said.

Arnone has become a key player in a partnership formed between Benton Elementary and the College of Engineering. Arnone, whose husband, Josh, is an alumnus of MU Engineering, initiated contact with the college to get MU Engineering  students connected with her class to further expose them to STEM-related fields.

Electrical engineering senior Tyler Mironuck helps Benton Elementary third graders Takashi Hogg (middle) and Logan Morris figure out how to get their program to pilot a LEGO robot along a black line.

One day each week, two to five engineering students volunteer with Benton’s LEGO Club, providing the opportunity for the younger students to interact with someone with an engineering background.

“It’s nice to have people come in, and we can say, ‘here’s someone who is an engineer,’” Benton Elementary Principal Troy Hogg said.

For MU Engineering students, such as biological engineering sophomore Claire McMenamy, the opportunity combines two interests.

“Teaching was something I seriously considered studying before I chose to go into engineering,” she said. “I was definitely into math and science.”

Hogg said the school began its STEM initiative in November 2010. The school was looking for a way to address how it could improve the students’ annual test scores.

“We were looking at our options,” Hogg said. Considering other schools in the district, such as the Lee Expressive Arts School, that had specific focuses, “the practical arts seemed to be the way to go.”

The school received a $10,000 grant from the Columbia Public Schools Foundation to purchase the Engineering is Elementary curriculum from the Museum of Science, headquartered in Boston. In the last year-and-a-half, teachers and administrators have gotten the school’s STEM initiative into full swing, even setting up a STEM lab in the school.

STEM provided learning opportunities not only for the students, but for some teachers, as well. Hogg said the engineering aspect was daunting because of unfamiliarity with the subject.

“At first, we asked, what exactly is it?” he said. However, that changed once the students and teachers became more involved. He said teachers at Benton incorporate at least two engineering units in their classes per academic year.

“We’ve been teaching the kids what the engineering process is,” Hogg added.

It’s a process some MU students also remember learning at that age. Senior Tyler Mironuck said he was always taking things apart when he was elementary school age.

“But for every 10 things I took apart, I put one or two back together,” Mironuck said. What prevented him from putting objects back together, the electrical engineering major said, was the intricate circuitry he couldn’t piece back together at that time.

Working with the LEGO Club was a blast from the past for Mironuck, who said he had the same LEGO kits growing up. He said he hoped that explaining engineering to younger students would inspire them to take more interest in engineering.

McMenamy said being able to work with kids was one reason she volunteered to work with the LEGO Club.

“These activities get them interested in math and science, and those are skills that carry over into many aspects of life,” she said.



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