For three weeks in June, elementary school students from in and around Lee County engaged in activities designed to improve their skills and knowledge in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). This was done through a wide variety of integrated activities in areas such as structures and robotics, all designed to promote STEM learning while having fun and getting to know the Auburn campus.
But it wasn’t just the rising third, fourth, and fifth graders who got their game on. The STEM Elementary Camp at Auburn University also provided the first live teaching opportunity for 25 preservice teachers in the Elementary Education program in the College of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Teaching. According to camp director and clinical faculty member Stacie Finley, the camp provided preservice teachers with a unique field experience.
“These students were mostly juniors and seniors,” she explained. “Once they are admitted to our professional program, they take methods courses in math, science, and reading. The next semester they take methods courses in social studies and language arts. All preservice teachers receive field placements in each of these two areas. This summer, our social studies and language arts cohort was in the Auburn City Schools summer program, so our math, science, and reading cohort was able to work with our camp students.”
Finley, along with other faculty members from Elementary Education, provide the preservice teachers with basic classroom concepts, but it is the preservice teachers themselves who develop the lessons and activities, formatively assess and analyze student data, and determine follow-up instruction.
“These preservice teachers ensure that everything they do is aligned with the state standards,” Finley said. “These preservice teachers decorate the classrooms, arrange large group and small group seating arrangements, and develop classroom management standards. They take a lot of ownership in this camp, even more so than they would in a school placement. Why? Because normally they must follow a classroom teachers’ lead. In the camp setting, however, they get to explore and learn through experience. So this is a very valuable and exciting opportunity.”
Once camp breaks for the day, the preservice teachers spend the afternoon with faculty members discussing what worked well, along with solving problems in areas where they were challenged. This could be anything from issues of instructional and management topics, addressing student needs, and how to deepen understanding through questioning and engaging activities.
The STEM camp requires a lot of time and focus and effort from the preservice teachers. Finley believes that as preservice teachers become classroom teachers, they will realize what an impactful experience this summer camp had on their professional development.
“Our program prepares preservice teachers to make a difference wherever their teaching career takes them,” she said. “We ask our preservice teachers to think critically about how they can be the positive change in a school system. The more we can do to plant those seeds, the better.”
A lot goes on behind the scenes in the year leading up to the summer camp program. About 100 elementary-aged students attend the camp and approximately 60 of those students are on scholarship based on student need. They were identified by their teachers as someone who is engaged and has a love of learning. Interest in this program was so high, that students within the Auburn/Opelika area and beyond were involved. Parents drove from Notasulga, Chambers County, and other surrounding areas each morning in order to provide this opportunity for their children. Clearly, the need and desire for a STEM camp is there.
“Our actual classroom teachers in and around Auburn obviously played a big role in getting deserving students to camp, and we appreciate their dedication, talent, and concern,” Finley noted. “And our preservice teachers got terrific feedback from students and parents. This generation gets a bad rap. If you saw how hard these teachers work, they break all of the negative stereotypes. What they do is not easy. We ask a lot of them, but they rise to the occasion like real professionals. And underneath it all is a love for the children.”
The students loved the camp and asked to come back next year. To that end, the preservice teachers not only aligned the material to state standards, but also planned activities so next year the same students will not do the same activities.
“This year we built bridges and checked their stability,” Finley said. “Our wonderful Agricultural Education professors and graduate students built life-size Jenga blocks! This allowed students to explore elements related to structural integrity, and have fun while doing it. There was always a lot of hands-on activity in the classroom.”
Similar innovations came with the many robotics activities.
“Everything was undertaken with an integrated approach,” she said. “It’s not like this is reading time and this is math time. For example, the fourth grade class explored angles, protractors, and measurement through hands-on stations. They researched the themes they were exploring through technology and texts. This provided the necessary background knowledge that was needed for building structures, coding robots, and working with rockets. It was a new learning adventure every day.”
At the camp’s conclusion, the preservice teachers did reflections on various ways teachers can effectively respond to different types of learners, and how teaching styles must change depending on student needs. While classroom management was not a central focus, it remains critically important. This camp provided experiences for preservice teachers to adapt to the changing needs of their students. It also allows them to learn ways to connect to the diverse population of students.
“The learning that occurred was very powerful for them,” Finley said. “I could see how they really loved their students, and that even within the short timeframe of the camp, they were able to know their students and build strong relationships.”
Another great advantage to the summer camp is having it on campus. This allows the young campers to feel like they are at college. It’s a big difference from being in a traditional schoolroom, seeing the campus buildings and professors. It excited the children to be part of Auburn for a few weeks.
“Our unique structure promotes collaboration, observation, and feedback among our preservice teachers,” Finley concluded. “It’s important to remember that we can always grow as educators and learn from our peers. This camp gives preservice teachers a chance to learn from each other, from experienced faculty, and from the diverse population of the camp. All of these experiences combine to make our preservice teachers more passionate and that’s very exciting.”