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Hands on Minds on
‘Hands-on, Minds-on’ Approach to Learning Builds Special Bond Between NETL and Local School

On a brisk winter morning, teachers Jill Jakub and Kelly Bandik spoke in warm, glowing terms about the strong partnership between their school and NETL.

The second-grade teachers at Clara Barton Elementary, part of the West Mifflin Area School District, praised NETL’s K-12 STEM Education & Outreach team for helping them infuse lessons with hands-on approaches that open young minds and make it fun and exciting to learn about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) topics.
“Children, especially in early grade levels, learn better when they are engaged, working with their hands, even moving about in the classroom,” said Jakub. “NETL has provided us with a lot of opportunities, ideas and resources to develop and lead lessons that use this approach.”

For instance, the NETL team helped the school seek funding from the Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh, which the school used to help fund their Collaboratory, an innovative learning area. Collaboratory lessons are often based on a book. After reading “Max and Marla,” a children’s story about two friends who set out to become sledding champions, students conduct experiments to see how the steepness of an incline impacts the speed of a sled. For this activity, the sled is represented by a bottle cap placed on its smooth top. The angle of the incline is adjusted, requiring the students to figure out how much weight (small washers) to place in the bottle-cap sled before it slides down the incline at various grades.

“Clara Barton Elementary is very excited and grateful to work so closely with NETL. We look forward to many more STEM opportunities, which we hope will encourage our youngest learners to reach higher and farther,” principal Brian Plichta wrote in a thank-you letter to NETL leadership.

NETL’s K-12 STEM program consistently earns positive comments and survey ratings as it works with schools across western Pennsylvania and West Virginia to promote STEM, improve energy literacy and prepare the next generation of American scientists, engineers and energy researchers, and some of the best accolades are from Clara Barton.

Ken Mechling, K-12 STEM Education and Outreach Program lead for NETL, and his team provide all services at no cost to local schools. Priority is assigned to helping schools in underserved communities. As part of these services, the team spends an entire day at a school teaching STEM classes. Teachers and administrators are encouraged to remain in the room so they can see how this approach engages students.

In one activity, Mechling and team members Alicia Delmastro and Mario Rybacki divide children into small groups and ask them to build a model roller coaster using foam pipe insulation and other inexpensive supplies capable of supporting a marble as it travels. When that task is completed, the students determine the speed of their coasters using a simple equation (distance divided by time equals speed).

Students then redesign their coasters, often relying on the trial-and-error method to add a loop or increase speed and keep the marble on the track. At this point, students begin learning on their own by experiencing challenges and successes.

The lesson grabs the students’ attention. “No child at this early stage of their education should find that math or science is so hard or boring that they can’t or don’t want to do it,” Mechling said. “Students need to take part in projects where they can experience success. Otherwise, they will very likely opt out and give up on STEM learning.”

“For a child, there’s a lightbulb moment when they realize that, ‘Hey, I understand this concept, it’s fun and I want to learn more.’ For a teacher, it’s the realization that, ‘Although I only had a college course or two about teaching science, I now have the tools, enthusiasm and confidence to develop lessons that motivate my students to embrace STEM topics,” Mechling said.
Inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers is just one component of NETL’s work to discover, integrate and mature technology solutions to enhance the nation’s energy foundation and protect the environment for future generations.