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West Jordan Journal

Problem solving, observation skills at core of new STEM curriculum

Jun 06, 2024 09:52AM ● By Jet Burnham

Chloe Nguyen prepares her unicorn car for racing. (Jet Burnham/City Journals)

Hawthorn Academy’s first year as a STEM-focused school culminated in an Explore the World and Observe With Wonder themed STEM Night with 27 activities for students and their families.

At both the West Jordan and South Jordan campus, activities were provided by staff members and community partners from Rocky Mountain Power, Red Wolf Technologies, Spy Hop, Sub Zero, Schmidt's Farms, Women in Mining and local ham radio operators.

Fourth grader Trillian Jensen made a lava lamp, experimented with elephant toothpaste and built a block tower that nearly reached the ceiling. Kindergartener Chloe Nguyen planted seeds and designed a unicorn racing car, giggling with glee as it flew down the racing ramp and lost a wheel.

Chloe’s parents, Maria and Marco Nguyen, said Hawthorn Academy has been a good fit for their daughter’s curious nature.

“A lot of public schools, they put you into a box where it’s ‘this is what you’re going to learn,’” Marco Nguyen said. “Here, they encourage you to learn new things, and that’s something I really always wanted for her.”

The fact that Hawthorn Academy, a K-9 public charter school, followed an International Baccalaureate curriculum was one of the reasons the Nguyens enrolled their daughter. However, after 13 years as an IB school, Hawthorn Academy switched to a STEM skills curriculum at the beginning of the school year.

Hawthorn Academy STEM Coordinator Joy Leavitt said it has not been an extreme change—most parents haven’t even noticed a difference because the philosophy is similar, even if the terminology has changed.

“We're still inquiry-based, we're still trying to problem-solve, we still want our kids to communicate, and be creative, and be inquirers,” she said. “But instead of calling it ‘inquirer,’ we say ‘curiosity.’ We are working to teach students to notice things, make observations and then question their observations.”

While students work regularly with a STEM specialist and every teacher incorporates STEM skills in their classrooms in every subject, it doesn’t mean everything is all about science and math, Leavitt said. The focus is on teaching STEM skills, such as observation and problem solving.

“When you really dive into what STEM is, it's problem solving,” Leavitt said. “We problem solve every day and we want our kids to be able to be independent and functioning and be able to critically think and solve the problems that they’re faced with. By focusing on STEM, we’re teaching them skills to problem solve.”

Fourth-grade teacher Nicol Navarrete said transitioning from an IB philosophy to a STEM-based curriculum allows her to provide more hands-on, critical thinking activities for her students.

“Before, we were just trying to incorporate it into the IB parameters,” she said. “Now it's more like getting to explore and really look into it.”

As her students observe fossils, program robots and build roller coaster tracks, they learn the skills for critical thinking, planning and finding solutions, which she said encourages them to think more about what they’re doing and increases their understanding of the world around them.

“When they're on video games, everything is just planned out for them, or when you give them an assignment, everything is just there,” she said. “STEM allows them to step out of those parameters and actually explore and try out things and fail, and try again and succeed.” λ