Graham crackers, marshmallows and toothpicks might not be standard tools for civil engineers, but they’re adequate stand-ins for fourth- and fifth-graders in Clemson College of Education doctoral student Abby Baker’s STEAM workshop. Their objective, using food as construction materials, is to create buildings that can withstand the forces of a gelatin earthquake.
The workshops are part of a Clemson Creative Inquiry project that finds Baker and undergraduate students translating concepts related to science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics (STEAM) to a young audience. The lessons are a valuable extension in the education of Clemson students and the fifth-graders they teach, but Baker is also using them to test a model she hopes will address a growing need for students interested in science and math.
Baker had the perfect venue for a STEAM workshop after she and a small group of community leaders transformed the closed Holly Springs Elementary into Holly Springs Center in 2017. She attended the elementary school as a child and now is the center’s director.
“It felt like the space should be used,” Baker said. “Its purpose is to do something good for the community, and providing quality science and math education falls right in line with that.”
The project measures how effective a team of education and engineering students can be in increasing interest in STEAM fields among K-12 students. Engineering students bring concepts to the table, while education students act as the filter for the younger audience.
If the sessions aren’t reinforcing concepts fourth- and fifth-graders have already encountered in the classroom, they’re introducing what’s to come. The marshmallow towers on gelatin actually cover two state education standards. In the case of sound waves, students learn how different variables affect properties of sound. They also analyze and interpret data to describe and predict how natural processes affect the Earth’s surface.
Baker hopes to one day use a similar model in the students’ own schools and spread the workshops to other parts of the state.
“For many students from under-resourced schools or areas, the concept of college can be a vague thing, but it gets clearer when someone from Clemson is in front of you making these concepts exciting,” Baker said. “This is just another way Clemson can serve all of those students and let them see that a future in these areas is attainable.”