Students become engineers for a day at Coral Cliffs Elementary School

ST. GEORGEMason jars, plastic cups and coffee filters littered tables at Coral Cliffs Elementary School as students created their very own water filtration systems.

Fifth grade students in Camille Cottle’s class experiment with water filtration during a STEM Day activity, St. George, Utah, Aug. 17, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

From first through fifth grade, classrooms were abuzz on Tuesday with excited conversation as the students tried different materials and designs. Teachers made their way between groups, discussing students’ progress and helping them record observations and results.

“Our problem today was, ‘If you have dirty water, how are you going to clean it?’” said Pamela Christensen, a fourth grade teacher. “They had to choose between coffee filters, cotton balls, sand, gravel and some cloth. They had a jar and a cup with a hole, and they added the materials they chose, poured the dirty water in and discovered which materials were able to filter best.”

Christensen, who also serves as the STEM coordinator for the school, worked with other teachers and administration to organize the STEM Day held Tuesday. With similar events planned for each month of the school year, the focus in August was on engineering and water conservation.

“Our goal was to teach the kids about engineers and how engineers solve problems,” Christensen said. “I feel like all kids can benefit from learning with STEM – there are so many careers out there that integrate some kind of engineering or technology use. It’s not just for fun, but we want to really tie it into the curriculum.”

An experiment in progress shows students’ early attempts at water filtration systems, St. George, Utah, Aug. 17, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

When their classroom activity was complete, students heard from Julie Gillins, water conservation manager with the Washington County Water Conservancy District. Gillins encouraged her audience to reflect on what water meant to them and talked with students about the ways water is managed in the county.

Principal Steve Eves played a supporting role as the STEM Day progressed. He delivered supplies to classrooms, set up for the assembly and even created a short video to introduce the day’s theme to the students.

Since he was hired as principal in April, Eves has been working with Christensen and district staff to help the school earn recognition from the Utah STEM Action Center. If successful, Coral Cliffs Elementary would join 37 other schools in the state that hold STEM designation.

“STEM is a focus for us as a school, and we’re fortunate to be able to bring in best practices and use the expertise provided by the professional development team,” Eves said. “I’ve asked teachers to be flexible and adaptive, because we’re going to be the guinea pig. We’re going to be the one testing things before they decide to do it districtwide.”

Coral Cliffs Elementary shares half of its building with the Professional Development Center for the Washington County School District. This unique arrangement means development coaches and district administrators are often observing classes in the elementary and testing new approaches in the school.

Julie Gillins, water manager with the Washington County Water Conservancy District, spoke to the students during an assembly, St. George, Utah, Aug. 17, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

While it may take some time for the young children to learn to ignore the observers, collaboration with the Professional Development Center is mutually beneficial, Eves said. 

During the STEM Day, several professional development administrators popped into classrooms to see the students’ experiments and to watch the teachers’ instruction. Kathy Hall, elementary literacy coordinator, said she was eager to watch students learn and highlighted the advantages of teaching STEM from a literacy perspective.

“With STEM, the students get a lot of speaking and listening, reading the instructions and writing about their results,” Hall said. “It’s really exciting to see how you can use STEM and integrate all the pieces of literacy.”

The school’s next STEM Day is planned for Sept. 14, with the goal to use rollercoasters to teach students more about engineering. Eves said he’s particularly excited for November’s STEM Day, when the elementary school plans to partner with Dixie State University faculty and students for an in-depth science experience.

“Obviously I’m going to tout our school, but we’re just fortunate to be part of our district,” Eves said. “All our schools are doing something right, and we’re just lucky to be involved with the professional development center and the university.”

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Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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