Riverview STEM Academy helps prepare students for 21st-century jobs

In an older Rancho Cordova neighborhood, not far from Aerojet Rocketdyne and Intel, a new school dedicated to teaching science, technology, engineering and math is helping prepare the youngest students for the tech-intensive jobs of the future.

In the third grade at the Riverview STEM Academy last week, two dozen students and teacher Troy Martinez each combined warm water, glue, Borax laundry powder and food coloring to explore how matter changes from a liquid to a solid. In this case, the solid was a sticky blue goo.

“Did we see a physical or a chemical reaction?” asked Martinez.

“Chemical!” came the chorus of answers.

In the education landscape, STEM is one of this decade’s hottest topics. And the Riverview STEM Academy, in only its second month of operation with 128 students, is already a sought-after campus.

Principal Tony Peterson has a waiting list of 150 candidates and said that by 2015, the kindergarten-through-fourth grade school is expected to double in size and add a fifth grade. Applications come from throughout the region. About 15 percent of this year’s students come from outside the district, as far away as Rancho Murieta and West Sacramento.

Third-grader Alexa Loh, 8, takes the school seriously. “I think it’s a good way to learn to do science if you want to become a scientist in the future,” she said. She called the blue goo “a cool experiment” and a “fun way for kids to learn.”

Martinez said he has plenty more on tap for the third-grade students.

“We’re going to build airplanes and talk about draft and drag,” he said. “I’m going to incorporate math” to analyze costs of projects. Later, he said, students will use vehicles to explore stored energy, design solar ovens and build bridges.

Steven A. Schneider, senior program director for STEM at WestEd, an education policy research group, said teaching the youngest students science and engineering dovetails nicely with their natural interest in exploration.

“I think young students, when they start school, are almost scientists themselves from curiosity,” Schneider said. “That’s what scientists really do.”

The question is, he said, “How can we build on that natural curiosity?” For the youngest students, he said, teachers should focus on exploring natural phenomena and work toward theoretical science as students grow older.

In teacher Lari Miller-Powell’s first-grade class, students explored sound waves with two ice cream sticks, rubber bands and straws. Bound together, the sticks and bands became simple harmonicas. The straws, fed between the sticks, varied the pitch as the students blew through the instruments.

“We’re letting them feel and explore the concept” of sound waves, Miller-Powell said.

“Science is supposed to be unpredictable,” she said, adding that students are supposed to be able to problem-solve. If one approach doesn’t work, they learn to persevere and try a new approach.

Riverview has five teachers – one for each grade level through fourth grade. Each stays with the class throughout the school day and also teaches core subjects such as social studies and reading. Each class is divided evenly by gender, although boys’ applications to attend the school outnumbered those from girls by 3 to 1, Peterson said.

“We fill with 12 boys and hold spaces until we fill with 12 girls,” Peterson said. The move, he explained, is aimed at countering a long-standing tradition of grooming boys for STEM pursuits and pushing girls in other directions.

Fourth-grader Alara Paschall and a younger sister applied for seats at the school after her grandmother, Sheilah Paschall, learned about the STEM school from a colleague.

“A co-worker asked me, ‘Did you hear about the STEM Academy? They are targeting girls because of a lack of girls in engineering and sciences,’ ” Paschall recalled. “I said, ‘Really? I have all granddaughters.’ ”

Alara, 9, works hard at learning the basics of computer code.

“My grandma is really proud of me right now,” she said. “I am working really hard to get all this done.”

Learning the coding is designed to be fun, said fourth-grade teacher Matthew Chan. Students explore coding games such as puzzle drawings or Angry Birds through the website

“They try to engage using the app games,” Chan said. “They either control their bird or control their zombie. They have to get it to move forward, left and right to navigate through a maze.”

Long term, he said, the goal is to enable students to prepare for the jobs of the future, to build a STEM background so they can solve problems on their own and collaboratively.

“Our goal is to expose them to science, technology, engineering and math and get them excited about it and have it carry them forward as they go into junior high and high school so they will seek out (STEM-related) clubs and activities and hone those skills,” Chan said.

Peterson came equipped for the school’s top job.

He taught science and math at the Evergreen School District in San Jose and at Folsom Middle School before he became a principal 15 years ago.

Riverview is his third post as a principal. He also selected all five teachers.

First-grade teacher Miller-Powell said Peterson initially screened teaching applications for their science background. He interviewed the principals of teachers he thought had potential. He went to their schools and watched them in action. “If you passed that, you would get an interview,” Miller-Powell said.

Peterson said he also looked for commitment from teachers to add to their knowledge over time, with emphasis on two STEM resources – Project Lead the Way, a national nonprofit that has developed training for teachers, and Next Generation Science Standards for teachers.

Local businesses and government agencies are offering support, from Aerojet Rocketdyne, Intel and Caltrans to the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. They provide mentors, engineers and technical experts.

“We want to tap into their expertise,” Peterson said. “We want the role models, the engineers, the techie people to come in and share with our kids what drove them to go down this path.”