Uncovering the Language Lessons of STEM

Uncovering the Language Lessons of STEM
Carroll School

Surrounded by a tantalizing heap of planks, ramps, pulleys, screws, chutes, wheels, axles, propellers, and more, a group of eager Grade 4 students dives in. Their challenge: Create an object or structure that moves without manipulation. As experimentation gets underway, ideas are shared, batted down, refined; kids collaborate and problem solve; mistakes are made; lightbulbs go off; chatter is constant.

And in this seemingly straightforward STEM-based exercise, it is the chatter that’s most illuminating.

This school year, eight Grade 4 students are piloting the use of a large-scale building kit known as Rigamajig, originally developed for New York City’s High Line Park by toy designer Cas Holman, featured on Netflix's Abstract: The Art of Design (season 2, episode 4). The kit—filled with every imaginable type of building material—is designed to encourage collaborative, hands-on, open-ended play. But when Head of School Renée Greenfield first ran the idea by Carroll educators last summer, Lower School science teacher Kelly Sampar and Lower School speech language pathologist Jen Amos immediately honed in on a secondary benefit: building communication skills.

“For kids with language-based learning differences, dyslexia and a language challenge are highly comorbid,” Mrs. Amos explains. “Rigamajig offers this really cool proxy for getting at metalinguistic skills—how we talk about language concepts. As a result, as students play with it, they’re developing their speech and language skills.”

Case in point: At the start of the school year, before telling students the names of the different pieces in the building kit—a gear or a pulley, for example—Ms. Sampar and Mrs. Amos asked students to group similar parts and come up with their own names. Some groups chose to categorize by shape, another by color, a third sorted pieces with moveable parts. One group created a “Mickey Mouse parts” category, an apt name for a series of screw and bolt pieces shaped like the famous character.

“We were able to have a whole conversation about naming—does this name make sense? Is it a name based on what the piece does or how it looks? Will the name make sense to other people?,” explains Mrs. Amos.

What’s more, because many Carroll students are naturally gifted creators, tinkerers, and scientists, Rigamajig draws them in. Without realizing it, they’re not only working on their communication skills, but their executive function skills, impulse control, and social emotional awareness, too.

“You can see how playing with Rigamajig relaxes and grounds them, alleviating the anxiety around the piece that is hard for them—language,” says Ms. Sampar, noting that, for this reason, Carroll’s science classes have taken an experiential, STEM-focused approach well before STEM became a buzzword in education. “With Rigamajig, their thinking has a visible anchor, so we are able to hear some of the language that they might otherwise clam up on in a language-specific class.”

A collaborative approach that leverages our educators’ understanding of the whole child is a pillar of Carroll’s educational philosophy. And it’s another reason why Rigamajig—and the various challenges Ms. Sampar offers up to her students—is so appealing. As Mrs. Amos adds, “It’s a great opportunity to see problem solving in action in a language realm, a science realm, and a social realm, in real time. It’s very aligned with how we think about thinking at Carroll.”

Observing and documenting the language students use when engaged with Rigamajig is Chantei Alves, a graduate intern from the Angela Wilkins Program of Graduate Studies in Education, a Carroll partnership with Lesley University. Her bird’s-eye view reveals not only the ease with which students collaborate, but increased levels of leadership, too. “I’ve definitely noticed kids who were quieter in the beginning of the semester show more leadership skills now,” she says. “They take all the challenges Kelly gives them very seriously. It’s not competitive; it’s ‘this is our task and we want to do it well.’”

While it’s currently being piloted in one Grade 4 science class, it will expand to a second Grade 4 cohort in the spring. Ms. Sampar and Mrs. Amos see a host of possibilities for students’ use in the future, well beyond science.

By all accounts, Rigamajig is a hit with students.

“There is so much inner dialogue that comes out while they’re working, so many ‘Ah ha’ moments,” reports Ms. Sampar. “I’ve had to learn to shut my mouth and let those conversations flow. It’s a safe place for them to struggle and overcome and figure things out, and that has been so interesting and rewarding to watch.”

Watch this short video to see how a student discovers how a clock works after experimenting with Rigamajig.

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