The issue: Students in the United States are falling behind their counterparts in certain academic areas.

Local impact: Focus on STEAM programming is helping local students find interest in science, technology, engineering, art and math.

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series focusing on STEAM programming in the community centered on how schools and other organizations are incorporating the concepts into what they offer to students.

Walking into Mark Buyck’s classroom at Reede Gray Elementary School, one can tell right away it is not what would be considered a traditional classroom. Granted, there is a white board and teacher’s desk, but there are no student desks lined up in rows nor are there any textbooks.

Rather there are four tables surrounded by chairs allowing students to sit and work together in groups on more hands-on projects.

Buyck, who is in his sixth year as a teacher at Reede Gray, started out as a traditional fourth-grade teacher, but during the 2016-17 school year he transitioned into a new specialist role in the district that has him teaching every student in Grades K-4 concepts in science, technology, engineering, art and math.

Known as STEAM, the idea behind the time students spend in Buyck’s classes is to reinforce what is being taught in the traditional classroom as it relates to those areas but also to provide more of the application of what they are learning by doing it. 

If there is one lesson Buyck hopes each student learns before they leave his class it is that there is more than one way to find a solution.

“I want students to think outside of the box,” he said.

As an example, students have currently been learning about robotics in their STEAM classes. Rather than just read about them, the students actually have been able to build robots and then program them to perform certain tasks. Buyck said the school received a $10,000 Monsanto grant to purchase the robots.

This past Monday morning, fourth graders came into the classroom and found a maze on the floor that Buyck had built.

The task the students were called to accomplish was to program their robot to make all of the turns needed to get their robot through that maze. Through the use of what is known as coding, the students program each turn their robot makes, and they must also calculate how far the robot must travel from one turn to the next to ensure the robot can successfully navigate the maze. Along the way, they are using all sorts of skills in all of their core subjects along with the STEAM concepts.

For Buyck what is just as important is the amount of time the students are spending working together to come up with common solutions.

“They are learning to work as a team and collaborate on a solution,” said Buyck, adding each member of a team may have an idea, but in the end the group has to find a way to work together to come up with a plan to achieve the goal.

Sometimes the ideas work, and other times they don’t said Buyck.

That, he added, is exactly what he hopes will happen, because the students can grow not only from seeing success but also in times when things don’t go according to plan.

Darcy Josephson, Redwood Area School District director of teaching and learning, said the school district opted to move forward with a STEAM specialist concept to help meet established state standards in science and to help prepare students for the world that is waiting for them after they earn their high-school diploma. Josephson said the skills the students are learning in the STEAM class are those they will be using for the rest of their lives, whether it be working with others, problem solving or just being flexible.

Josephson added the program at Reede Gray builds on the concepts the students are learning in other classes. Josephson said she enjoys the chances she has to visit Buyck’s classroom to watch the students as they interact and work on tasks.

As an example Josephson said she recently watched students working on a task to have their robot travel across the room from a designated spot toward the wall on the other side of the room. The challenge was to get the robot as close as possible to the wall without touching it.

“I love being there on those days,” said Josephson.

Josephson said the idea of STEAM is about real-life application, adding the school district has seen the benefit of providing specific class time for students to apply those skills they are learning.

Not all that goes on in Buyck’s class is about robotics. He said there are a variety of ideas he has been teaching, with the lessons geared to each grade level. Whether that is understanding the concept behind a water filter or using technology to make graphic designs, the students are gaining skills in their STEAM class they may not have discovered any other way.

Students meet with Buyck for a half an hour each time they come, and each half hour builds on the previous one.

“When the kids come in they are excited to be here,” said Buyck. “As a teacher, that is what you want.”

Buyck, who considers himself a math person, said he was involved in robotics as an educator in South Dakota, adding he said having the chance to help students understand and enjoy the concepts he is teaching is what drew him out of the traditional classroom.

As the students worked their way through the first few turns in the maze, there were times when they did see success as they achieved the outcome they desired. When that success happened there were cheers and pats on the back.

When the goal did not occur, there was never a moment when students just gave up. One could see the wheels turning as they picked up their robot, went back to their table and came up with another plan of attack all the while working together as a team.

Buyck said he anticipates the students will spend a couple of weeks in class working on finishing the maze, and then they will move on to the next idea.

“For me this class is more than just about teaching concepts, it is about building a mindset in each student to never give up and to keep on trying until they find a solution,” said Buyck.