The classroom topics of science, technology, engineering and mathematics may seem geared toward older students, but for the Olentangy Local School District, providing younger students with STEM experiences has become an important part of elementary education.

Chief Academic Officer Jack Fette said the district has no "vertically aligned K-12 STEM program" and doesn't have any specific track for would-be STEM learners.

Instead, he said, the district wants students to be exposed to a wide variety of possible career paths and interests at an early age.

"We think it's a good thing to introduce students to STEM and careers and what their future possibilities are going to be as early as possible so they can start to imagine their own futures," he said. "So at that young age, we're really interested in exposing kids to that and letting them know they can be whatever they want and there aren't limits on them."

In elementary schools, STEM introductions tend to veer away from textbooks.

On April 15, Alum Creek Elementary School students watched a 30-minute presentation from Ohio State University's underwater-robotics team.

The OSU students brought a baby pool to the school and demonstrated their robot, dubbed the STEMbot, for the students to see.

Principal Brandy Worth said she is a big fan of these types of experiences. She said STEM learning in an elementary school setting is "a lot of hands-on" learning.

She said she finds once students can get their hands on something, the lesson already has begun.

"It's not really hard; it's what they want to do," she said. "They want to create; they want to be creative and think of new ways to do things. So it's really tapping into that first at a younger age."

Worth said Alum Creek has a variety of similar programs. A group of 10 students is on the school's First LEGO League team, where they program LEGO robots to complete tasks and challenges.

The school also has "maker mornings," during which students come in and simply "make something," she said. Some days they'll learn to make a craft, while others they'll spend taking something apart and putting it back together, she said.

The best thing they learn in those activities, Worth said, is resilience.

"It's that whole trial-and-error part, which is really hard because they want things done right the first thing and they learn quickly that it's not always that way," she said. "The biggest thing for kids is getting their hands on it, learning that you are going to fail and how to assess, look at it and fix it and try again. That's what STEM brings you."

Fette agreed with that focus. He said Olentangy wants its students' STEM experiences to be less about a narrow lesson and more about broader understanding.

"People in the field, in those engineering and STEM fields, they want to expose more students and want students to be involved in their business as students," he said. "They want to create students who have the aptitudes they feel are necessary to be successful in those careers, and that's less about content knowledge and more about bigger concepts, like not being afraid to fail and try again."

From the district level, partnerships and collaborations such as the one with OSU are key to bringing more STEM experiences to the classroom.

"We have limited resources as a school district, so it's the same thing as bringing in COSI on Wheels or the Columbus Zoo," Fette said. "We want to take advantage of the resources of our partners outside the district who provide those opportunities. It's just another way to broaden (students') vision of their own future."

While Fette said there are no plans to put rigorous STEM requirements on students or create specific paths, he said he and district officials hope introducing the ideas early -- as with any other subject -- will help create well-rounded students.

"We want students who are persistent, who aren't afraid of failure, who are creative and who have big ideas," he said. "That's what I'm hearing the industry wants. What that looks like at the elementary schools is starting to introduce those concepts while exposing them to career fields they may not have known about."

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