Using cardboard, imagination and "anchor" topics assigned throughout the school year, third-graders at Herbert Mills Elementary STEM Elementary School are designing a future Reynoldsburg.

CORRECTION: Reynoldsburg High School's eSTEM Academy is at the Summit Road campus. Because of a reporter's error, the print and earlier online version of this story said it was at the Livingston Avenue campus.

Using cardboard, imagination and "anchor" topics assigned throughout the school year, third-graders at Herbert Mills Elementary STEM Elementary School are designing a future Reynoldsburg.

At the beginning of the year, each student received a "plot" of land in the imaginary Reynoldsburg of 50 years from now and must plan for life in that future city.

They've already focused on aspects of "smart cities," including zoning, transportation and energy efficiency. They've heard from city representatives and members of the Reynoldsburg-Truro Historical Society about the area's history and how land use drives development.

"This quarter, the focus is on energy and they have to write an energy plan for their piece of the city," Principal Mary Ellen Weeks said. "Nobody believes that third-graders can do that type of work but they are. It's very authentic and real world."

And it's why Herbert Mills, 6826 Retton Road, was named the 2019 winner of the STEM Excellence Award in the elementary category at the national Future of Education Technology Conference, held in Florida in January.

STEM describes education with a science, technology, engineering and math focus. The FETC award evaluated schools on the types of STEM experiences they offer, as well as other criteria such as using an interdisciplinary curriculum and course design.

Rickelle Viney volunteers in her daughter, Abigail's, second-grade classroom at Herbert Mills. She said technology such as Smart Boards, combined with new approaches -- like chants and songs to help students remember concepts -- have helped provide a "very vigorous and complete" curriculum.

Second-graders have spent much of the year focusing on ways to end poverty and hunger, partnering with the Mid-Ohio Foodbank on projects that include a school garden and using cardboard to design play spaces for children who may not have access to playgrounds in their communities.

"I've found myself saying 'Why didn't they teach us this way?' Teaching in ways that really stick and make more sense as to why it is that way -- versus how we were taught -- which was to just memorize things," Viney said. "What she's (Abigail) going to remember the most are her design projects. She feels like she can be herself and do it her way. She loves being able to dream and really gets into working things out."

Herbert Mills STEM Elementary School serves a diverse population of about 500 children in kindergarten through fourth grade, Weeks said.

Students as young as kindergarten and first grade are learning engineering and research concepts by connecting lessons about living things to real-world such issues as climate change and pollution. Fourth-graders this year have been tackling sustainability, Weeks said.

Students often are asked to write about possible solutions and often present their findings to their peers; for example, first-graders made a film using a green screen to talk about the destruction of arctic wildlife habitats.

"We root our STEM (curriculum) in the humanities and social sciences, so it's an extra layer on top of a more traditional STEM approach," Weeks said. "It allows the students to solve real-world problems.

"When kids are invested in what they're learning, they tend to do better," she said. "Our kiddos can make the world a better place."

In addition to Herbert Mills, the Reynoldsburg district has four other STEM-designated schools: Summit Road Elementary; Baldwin Road Junior High School; and two high school academies - (HS)2 STEM at the Livingston Avenue campus and eSTEM at the Summit Road campus.There are only about 50 STEM-designated schools in the state, according to the Ohio Department of Education.

The agency's website says STEM schools will be "vital to Ohio's future economic growth and prosperity" because they help students "become innovators and inventors, self-reliant and logical thinkers and technologically proficient problem-solvers."

The ODE requires those schools to submit applications detailing public-private partnerships that support the curriculum and evidence of "a rigorous, diverse, integrated and project-based curriculum ... to prepare those students for college, the workforce and citizenship."

An inventor herself, Viney has a U.S. patent pending on a product for nursing mothers. She said she enjoys watching that same entrepreneurial spirit come alive in Herbert Mills students.

"It's been cool to see my daughter go down that road and through that process as well," Viney said.

"The kids are very bright and creative and (Abigail) is learning to think outside the box.

"She's confident about having an idea and working through it and seeing it come to fruition."

Weeks said she "about died right there on that stage" when Herbert Mills was named the elementary winner at the FETC conference.

The award is on display at the school.

"It validates the work that we're doing," she said. "I believe that if the model works, it can work anywhere. I have an incredible staff. They are go-getters and they work so hard. They are all about creating innovative experiences for kids so I can't take credit for anything."