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Experimenting With STEM

Learning opportunities abound during a Massachusetts school's Crazy for Science week.

by Abigail Forget


What started as a PTO’s idea to bring more enrichment to its school became a weeklong event that showed everyone—students, teachers, and parents—the importance and fun of offering more STEM learning opportunities to elementary-age kids.

The Crazy for Science week at Northeast Elementary in Waltham, Mass., in February 2017 featured dozens of experts who brought dynamic presentations and hands-on experiments for classroom demonstrations and a STEM expo.

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PTO president Melinda Hallisey, along with event committee chair Kara DiGiacomo and principal Meghan Welch, agreed that although most STEM curricula have been introduced in middle and high schools, the concepts are just as valuable to elementary students.

“It’s about starting that dialogue,” Welch says. “With elementary school kids, you can plant a lot of amazing seeds early on. It is an opportunity to really shape their interests.”

With Welch’s blessing, Hallisey and DiGiacomo got to work. As president, Hallisey oversaw planning at a high level; DiGiacomo, whose professional background is in biotech, handled programming and logistics. Throughout fall, DiGiacomo recruited “visiting field trip” providers—traveling education programs and parents who work in STEM fields—to give presentations tailored to each grade’s curriculum.

The 2nd graders were divided into teams to build robots while 1st graders learned the science behind volcanoes and created their own. Other students learned about the importance of oceans, the relationship between electricity and magnetism, and how reptiles adapt to live in their environment.

The PTO scheduled the expo in the middle of this week of classroom presentations so that by Wednesday, every student had gotten at least one hands-on opportunity. The expo featured about 15 educators, a combination of corporate and nonprofit representatives, college students, and parents working in STEM fields. Students learned about how to build an app as well as about tornadoes, 3-D printing, and the science behind ice cream. They also had the chance to engage with research and experiments by students and professors from local colleges.

“The kids just lit up,” DiGiacomo says. “They didn’t want to leave. They were curious, they were thinking, and they were challenged. Science is everywhere in our life and scientists come in all shapes and colors, male and female. They are right in our backyards.”

Presenters donated their time; no one charged a fee. The PTO contributed seed money to help pay for the traveling field trips that came into classrooms, and Hallisey reached out to businesses for sponsorship opportunities to supplement these funds.

Other PTO members and parent volunteers were eager to help, too. A few dozen parents chaperoned children at the expo, helped presenters set up and clean up, and provided snacks for attendees. A parent built a Crazy for Science website, and another who works in graphic design created a logo.

The event planners say that while they’re lucky that Northeast’s Boston-area location is a hub of technology and innovation with top universities nearby, a STEM week is feasible for all schools.

“We live in a part of the country where this may have been easier to do, but one thing to remember is that so many things are related to science and math,” Hallisey says, adding that every community has chefs, carpenters, retired teachers, civil engineers, and auto mechanics who use science and math every day and may be willing to share their knowledge and talents. “The whole idea was to remind kids that science could be many things, and interesting and fun.”

Northeast Elementary PTO

Waltham, Mass.
523 students, grades preK-5

Planning Crazy for Science Week

Back-to-School Time

  • Meet with PTO board to formulate a plan
  • Begin regular event planning meetings
  • Start reaching out to businesses for sponsorships

Throughout Fall

  • Recruit presenters for expo and visiting field trips
  • Communicate with science teacher and presenters to ensure that topics complement curriculum
  • Create event website
  • Select inclement weather date

Before Crazy for Science Week

  • Build excitement with science-theme decorations

Day of STEM Expo

  • Help presenters with table setup and breakdown
  • Chaperone students so teachers can enjoy event with classes
  • Assist custodial staff with cleanup

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