STEM Scouts’ lab lessons redefine what’s fun

Lisa Johnston |

Nico Balassi, a fourth-grader at Assumption School in south St. Louis County and a Cub Scout, talked about a STEM program and gave an example of what's "cool" and "fun."

It involves a MaKey MaKey, an electronic invention kit that turns everyday objects into computer touchpads and interfaces them with the Internet as computer programs.

"You use wires and hook it up. If you touch something it will go off," Nico explained.

Henry Fister, also a fourth-grader and a Cub Scout, said he helped make an obstacle course and completed a circuit by staying on the path. Evie Dalton, another fourth-grader at Assumption, said "you make stuff you didn't know could happen. It excites you and makes you want to keep on doing it."

It's all part of a new program called STEM Scouts with weekly hands-on lab sessions about science, technology, engineering and mathematics presented in a fast-paced, thought-provoking and fun way. On this Tuesday evening, the Scouts used boxes, aluminum foil and wires to make an Operation-type game. The game made sounds when attached to a computer program that the Scouts made by writing a code.

The co-ed Boy Scouts of America program is a good fit for Assumption, said Mark Kenniston who has a background in electronics and computers and coordinates the program there. The Assumption Scout troop wanted to incorporate STEM activities and was pleased to learn about the new offering.

It is the first year for the program at Assumption, which has 10 children in third through fifth grades enrolled. Five are from the Scouting organization at Assumption, another is from another Scouting program and four are not Scouts.

In the Greater St. Louis Area Council, the program has 28 elementary and middle-school groups meeting for 90 minutes once a week at various schools including two Catholic schools, Assumption and St. Norbert in Florissant. Field trips and visits from STEM professionals can be a part of the program.

The 30-week program has eight modules, with the current one at Assumption involving a device hooked up to a computer and anything that conducts electricity. Other modules cover bridge-building, urban ecology, vertical farming, circuits, bubbleology (physics), robotics and more. The curriculum changes each year, so a student who starts in third grade won't repeat lessons in succeeding years.

After a successful pilot in Knoxville, Tenn., the Boy Scouts of America expanded the program to 12 additional councils in 2015. From fall 2015 to spring 2016, STEM Scouts grew by more than 30 percent. The values-based learning experience builds on a child's understanding of concepts they learn in the classroom.

The Assumption group begins its program with prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance and Scout Oath. Tying science with religion may be something to explore later, Kenniston said, especially how the two areas work together and complement each other.

The program is popular at St. Norbert, which has 21 students in the elementary group and 15 in the sixth- to eighth-grade group. All the participants attend St. Norbert School. It's the first year for the program there as well, and the first lab session was Nov. 16. Rebecca Nestor, principal of St. Norbert School, said school parents were impressed with an afterschool robotics program offered last year and wanted an expanded STEM offering. A parent had experience with the STEM Scouts program in a public school and helped set it up at St. Norbert. A half dozen or so parents assist with the program.

Joey Stokes, coordinator of the program for the St. Louis council, said it shows that STEM "is much more than a guy in a lab making chemicals. It's everywhere." 

>> STEM Scouts

• STEM Scouts is offered by the Boy Scouts of America for girls and boys in grades 3 through 12, though no high school group has formed yet in St. Louis.

• STEM Scouts meet weekly in groups called labs. They work with lab managers, and STEM professionals to do hands-on experiments that teach concepts related to science, technology, engineering and math.

• STEM Scouts have the opportunity to develop their skills in leadership, communication, creative problem-solving, teamwork and research.

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