Let students choose their favorite topics to study and then seek out the best hands-on STEM curriculum and activities that meet the students’ interests. That’s how Indiana GEAR UP officials are ensuring high student engagement within their program, according to Executive Director Dr. Virginia Bolshakova.
“We surveyed our students to get feedback from them,” Bolshakova said. “When we asked what they enjoyed the most in the out-of-school programs, it was using tools, it was creating things with their hands, it was designing not just an idea but actually making something or doing something with that idea.”
Indiana GEAR UP is a seven-year pilot program operated through Purdue University that aims to improve the performance of about 7,000 students in nine low-socioeconomic and under-resourced school districts across the state. Ultimately, the goal is for more of these students to successfully complete college, career certifications, or other postsecondary options that best align with their aptitudes and interests.
“When we asked what they enjoyed the most in the out-of-school programs, it was using tools, it was creating things with their hands, it was designing not just an idea but actually making something or doing something with that idea.”
Indiana GEAR UP recently implemented in their after-school and summer programs several Pitsco Education hands-on STEM activities of highest interest to students including robotics, renewable energy, coding, CO2 dragsters, structures, and makerspaces.
“They gave us lists of what they really wanted to have more of, and these were things that they felt they didn’t have as many opportunities in the school to do,” Bolshakova said.
GEAR UP works with students after school, during the summer, on competitive teams, as well as during the regular school day through professional development and mentoring of classroom teachers by trained master teachers. The STEM materials will be used in all of these settings.
Many of Pitsco’s solutions are team based and student centered and include standards-aligned curriculum, easing the requirements on teachers who might not be well versed in all the math, science, and technology involved but are eager to learn right along with the students. “When we go to the out-of-school day, they really are learning together,” Bolshakova said. “If the teacher is fumbling and the students are fumbling, they’re fumbling together and figuring it out. When it’s done the best, it’s truly a collaboration where the student is on the same level as the teacher as they’re working through these different projects.”
Because the STEM activities are cross-curricular and laden with career-specific tasks and experiences, students learn real-world applications of technical concepts without the worry of passing or failing a course based solely on a written test over facts and information delivered via lecture and text.
All students, regardless their gender, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status are on equal footing when working collaboratively on projects of their choosing that could spark interest in specific career paths. Said an eighth-grader in the Indiana GEAR UP program, “I like how this program makes everyone feel like they can do something. Everyone has a chance to do everything they want to do.”