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Kinder Garden School demonstrates STEM excellence during uncertain times

Amid the turmoil, disruption and uncertainty that the COVID-19 pandemic thrust upon education in the Buckeye State, one southwestern Ohio school for young learners still had much to celebrate this spring. In May, on its third try, the Kinder Garden School received the state’s STEM/STEAM designation from the Ohio STEM Committee. In addition, Kinder Garden School students celebrated successfully tackling the Ohio STEM Learning Network’s #STEMdrivesOhio Design Challenge on smart mobility, coming up with creative and practical ways to make their school commute safer and more comfortable. Trudi Simpson, director/principal of the Kinder Garden School, told us how perseverance and flexibility helped her students and staff members succeed despite unprecedented challenges:

Q: Tell us about your school’s philosophy and the ages/grade levels that you serve.

Kinder Garden school principal Trudi SimpsonA: Our school is actually quite unique from other STEM schools throughout the state. Our roots are in early childhood education, beginning with infants through preschool. In 2008, we added a chartered, non-public school serving grades kindergarten through second grade. As the children continued through our program, their parents asked us to continue adding grades. We are now up to fourth grade.

Our school’s philosophy: “Together with interaction of child, staff and family, we develop the complete child. In our Kinder Garden, we provide formative encouragement and knowledge with hands-on staff taking a personal interest in family and holistic education decisions for the child. The Kinder Garden School is devoted to growing a child’s wish to flourish and learn by cultivating curiosity and problem-solving proficiency in a full, supportive, fertile, fun setting. Enlightenment is our mission.”

Q: Why did you apply for the state’s STEM/STEAM designation?

A: We have always been a forward-thinking school. There aren’t many STEM schools in our area, and we are hoping to be a place where our fellow Cincinnati-area educators who are looking for a STEM school to visit can come. STEM ignites our passion for education and project-based learning (PBL). We just see so many positive things coming from the soft skills that are learned through integrated curriculum and PBL.

Q: Tell us about your school’s journey to achieve that designation and what you have learned through the process.

A: This was our third year applying for the designation. When we first applied, we thought we had a good grasp of STEM education and PBL, but through the application process, we came to realize we could make so many more improvements to facilitate a truly authentic, integrated STEM program.

We took the advice from the first year and applied it to our second application, which left us “approaching” designation. It wasn’t until we joined the Innovative Leaders Institute (with OSLN and Battelle) that we really learned about how important the entire STEM culture contributes to the success of a STEM program.

Q: What does this designation mean to you and your staff, and what will it mean to your school going forward?

A: This designation is a huge honor for us. We have been working so hard to get here, and we have finally arrived! This past year has been a big year for us to forge partnerships and network within the STEM community. The STEM designation validates our program for others who are in the field and allows us to offer some guidance for others.

Q: What advice would you give other administrators who might want to seek this designation for their school?

A: Don’t give up. This is a process that can provide huge growth and improvement in your program and professional practice. Take the time to learn from OSLN about how to make your school better, and ask lots of questions.

At first, I was very defensive of our practice and our school. It took some time to let down my guard and accept that we could be so much better if we just make some concerted decisions to make our practice more intentional.

Q: Now, tell us about your school’s participation in the Design Challenge – what ages/grades of children took part, and what project or projects did they create?

A: We love the design challenges and participate every year. All of our students grades K-4 participate. During the 2018-2019 school year, the children participated in the #STEMfeedsOhio Design Challenge on food insecurity. Our students created a cookbook to sell to our community members. Then, because it was a challenge about food insecurity, the students thought about the waste cooking creates. So, they made a second cookbook to make new recipes out of the leftover food from the original dishes.

The students carried that challenge into this past school year by designing and building a greenhouse made of recycled materials. Due to the coronavirus, they haven’t been able to plant any crops but hope they will be able to use the greenhouse again.

During the 2019-2020 school year, our students participated in the #STEMdrivesOhio Design Challenge on smart mobility. They took a unique approach to the challenge by focusing on something that directly affects them – car seat safety. The students designed three projects that made their car seats safer or more accessible:

  • The Buckle Clip – This project involved a casing that goes around the car seat buckle so it doesn’t fall into the seat. This idea came about when a child said his mom is always left standing in the rain to help him out of his car seat. He thought if he could buckle and unbuckle himself, she wouldn’t have to get wet.
  • The Cooling Towel – This is a cover that goes over the car seat when it’s unoccupied to shield it from sunlight, thereby keeping the seat cooler. The students didn’t stop there. They also 3D printed a case to hold the cover when not in use.
  • The Weight Sensor – This sensor is placed under the car seat and will indicate if a child is left in the seat after the car’s engine has been turned off.

Students worked in groups to design, develop and present their specific product. Our hope was to meet with students at Butler Tech (a local vocational school) to present our projects and see if Butler students wanted to create prototypes. Because of the pandemic shutdown, we were unable to take that step. We did, however, create a new partnership with DriveOhio and are looking forward to that continuing into the new school year and beyond.

Q: Where/how did the students present their projects, and how did you sustain this effort during the pandemic school shutdown? 

A: During quarantine time, we were able to attain a Temporary Pandemic License, which allowed our school to operate as a center for essential workers’ children. We continued to offer our school-age classes in a blended learning situation. For those students whose parents were essential, they came to class, as usual. For those students whose parents were non-essential, they participated in virtual learning.

As for the showcase, we had an in-person showcase just before everything shut down. We invited several people from the STEM community in our area as well as two representatives from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center to evaluate our prototypes and give feedback.

During the quarantine, we worked with the children in-class and at home to create a virtual showcase with the help of Zac Ames, at Battelle Education/OSLN. Zac had attended our in-person showcase at the beginning of March. Then, he helped us put together some videos that the children made to include in our virtual showcase. Overall, despite the quarantine, our students remained engaged in the projects throughout the year.

We were also so very fortunate to work with Battelle. Our families saw all of the great things they have been doing to make personal protective equipment and testing kits during this really scary time. We have been so proud to have the association and partnership with Battelle and OSLN.

Q: What do you think the children and their teachers learned from taking part in the design challenge, especially during the pandemic? 

A: Every challenge that we have participated in has yielded really interesting responses from our students. When the design challenge is released, the teachers and I usually have ideas of where we think the students will go, and every time we are surprised.

This year, I thought the children would want to build robots. Turns out, they just wanted to be reassured that the way they get to school every day is the safest situation for them. I don’t think I realize how much our students listen to, and have thoughts and opinions about, the news that is playing in the background of their lives.

They heard about children being left in hot cars, having been burned by a hot car seat buckle or having seen their moms and dads standing in the rain while they try to finagle their seat buckles. The responses to the challenges have been so pure and organic. I am always left with feelings of pride and excitement that the challenge has made a difference in how we approach our lives.

The most exciting thing that I like to see when a monumental event occurs is how people react to it. This comes with failures, misguided expectations or global events. It’s something that we have tried to instill in our students. As a matter of fact, I believe in embracing failure so much that I had it painted on our wall! It says, “Fail Forward.” This concept is one that is often missed.

Often, we are so focused on doing things right that we miss the most important lesson when we fail. When we win all of the time, there is rarely a drive to be better or reflect on the things that could have been better. When you fail, you learn!

I love watching our students and teachers shifting their minds to embrace stumbling blocks as opportunities to learn rather than to see failure as an end. I saw such grace in how the children and teachers handled the end of a very strange school year. I am proud of my teaching staff and students who persevered and continued learning through a very trying time.

Q: What lessons from this shutdown will you and your staff carry forward into the next school year?

A: Imagination and innovation do not have to stop! The general culture in our school involves flexibility and innovation. We love to have a challenge to solve. I don’t know that I could think of a more challenging situation to navigate than working with children during a global pandemic! Flexibility and consistency are key.

I also hope that they watched how the school was able to be transformed into a center rather seamlessly so we could continue to provide a stable and safe environment for the students and staff. We made some structural changes, shifted to virtual learning and continued to have safe celebrations, within the parameters issued by the governor to continue operating.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share about the STEM/STEAM designation or the design challenge? 

A: I would encourage anyone who has not participated in the design challenge to do it! I would also encourage anyone seeking STEM designation to get signed up for the Innovative Leaders Institute. Both of these programs were instrumental in our school getting the information, support and partnerships needed to get the designation and, in the end, make us a better school.

It is energizing to be around other people who are as passionate about learning as the people in these programs are. I can’t wait to see what our students think about the challenge for next year and see who they get to meet to forge more relationships with!

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