An autonomous rover. A solar-powered carousel. A tough forensic case to crack. These are just some of the projects that you’d see students working on in Evan Mirenberg’s classroom on any given day.
In previous years, Mirenberg, who works at P.S. 188 in the Coney Island neighborhood of Brooklyn, was a self-contained special education teacher and the school’s STEM facilitator. He brought STEM lessons to his students with special needs and to other children in after-school and enrichment programs. Most of his projects involved LEGO pieces, robotics, and a lot of imagination. Mirenberg’s work in this capacity earned him the National Science Teachers Association’s 2013 PASCO STEM Educator Award.
But this year is his first as a dedicated elementary STEM teacher. We talked to Mirenberg about how he builds his students’ science, technology, engineering, and math skills from the ground up.
Q | Tell us about your role as a STEM educator today.
A | Now that I’m a 100 percent STEM teacher, I’ve been taken out of the classroom and I’m in the technology lab with 32 computers. I’m creating this curriculum. It isn’t like someone handed me a textbook and said, “This is STEM education.”
It’s starting out really strong. We’re doing forensics, we’re doing robotics, and we’re integrating all of that.
Q | You use LEGO Education kits in your classes. How does that work?
A | LEGO Education is a cross-curricular, multiple-subject system that teaches children everything from science, technology, engineering, and math to problem solving and self-assessment. My principal invested in the LEGO Mindstorms NXT kits, allowing kids to create autonomous robots that use multiple sensors to perform any function students program them to do.
The LEGO StoryStarter kit was piloted at our school before it was even released. The kids are given an overview of what their story should be about, and they then build a beginning, middle, and end before writing about it online. It gives them a good jumping-off point. The kids will have great ideas, but by the time they get it from their head to the paper, it’s a different idea. Having their story in front of them, using a model that they created, allows them to recall specific details.
Q | What are your students working on now?
A | Right now we’re doing space and aeronautics in four classes. I showed them how autonomous cars are being designed. They couldn’t believe there are cars that drive themselves. That motivated them to want to create something that drives itself. So they started creating their own Mars rovers. No blueprints, no directions to follow. They just have a list of objectives they have to meet: [The rover] has to travel four feet, and then turn right. Once it turns right, it has to travel another four feet and approach a red bowl. It uses different sensors to know which bowl is red, which one’s blue, which one’s yellow.
Q | How do your projects develop 21st-century skills?
A | It’s inquiry based, very much problem solving. Sometimes when students build a robot, they’ll program it the way they think it should be programmed, but it won’t function the way they want it to. It’s a lot of problem solving to reprogram the robot and try out the new program. If that doesn’t work, then they have to find out where they went wrong by troubleshooting. Is it difficult? Very much so. They’re learning a lot, which is key.
Q | How do you introduce your elementary-age students to STEM careers?
A | I don’t just throw STEM jobs out there that they can have. I connect it with the project: These are the careers you could perform if you master this project. When we learned about space and exploration, we learned how engineers designed the parachute that landed the latest Mars rover. I showed them videos of how [engineers] were constantly testing the rovers on Earth to see how they would function. But the surface of Earth and the surface of Mars are different, so that [meant] another artist, another engineer, another scientist.
Q | Give us an idea of how popular the STEM program has become at your school.
A | Every Friday for the last two periods of the day, the kids get to select which class they’d like to go to. Every teacher picks a different hobby [to teach] that excites them. Obviously, I do LEGO robotics. There’s a teacher who does scrapbooking; another does yoga. The robotics program fills up first every single time. It used to be that chocolate making was the hit at our school. Now the chocolate making has taken a backseat to the robotics. I think it’s a huge hit because the kids are designing their own things; it’s not like they’re given an instructional model and told, “Do this.”
Q | Do you make an effort to recruit girls into your program?
A | This year we entered the Junior First Robotics competition. We have three girls and five boys involved in that. The girls approached me; I didn’t have to seek them out.
Sometimes I’ll take girls who didn’t sign up and have them do robotics. They will come by my room and they will see the project that we built, how robotics works in their everyday lives. For some of them, it gets them amped up and makes them want to participate. Others, they don’t really care. But it’s like that with every subject. The fact that you were able to target one, two, or three kids, those may be three kids who’d never thought about STEM education.