Wallace Elementary STEM teachers find themselves on learning adventure with students

Anyone who has ever been a student has, at one point or another, wondered when what they’re learning in class is going to be useful in real life.

It’s a frustrating thing for teachers to hear and it’s something Wallace Grade School actively combats with its STEM program.

Teachers Kathy Ferko and Sarah Evola have been showing students practical applications in their courses for nine years, when Wallace started its Science, Technology, Engineering and Math courses. Thirty-two years as a teacher for Ferko and 12 for Evola, and it’s something neither of them could have imagined when they started college. Ferko recently received the Regional Office of Education’s Excellence in Education Award for her teaching.

Ferko said the program was born when former Principal Toby Coates discovered a STEM lab for students in Lisle. She asked to tag along and they returned with a plan to implement STEM courses at Wallace, and it took off from there.

Ferko and Evola are blown away at how successful the program is: It’s become a joy for them to teach and for the children to learn and the excitement when students are working on projects is evident.

Ferko’s eighth graders work on projects in modules, from 3-D printing to flight, rocketry, audio broadcasting, plastics and forensics, among other activities.

Eighth graders Griffin Sharp and Bella Hart sat at their cubicle piecing together their 20 feet of wooden sticks meant to become an approximately 8-inch tower, eventually. This is part of the engineering project.

Sharp said every tower will be tested with the winner getting bragging rights. The test? The class will place books on top of the tower, and the one that can hold the most weight wins.

That’s just one project students work on over the span of a semester. Another project, showed off by Joey Liebhart, is a balloon-powered car that works when he blows a balloon full of air and sets it on the ground. When air escapes the balloon, it propels the small toy car that he 3D-printed himself forward.

Another 3D printing project started when Ferko challenged eighth grader Brayden Brewer to create a french fry holder.

What Brewer came up with is a container that sits inside of a cupholder with a slot on top that’s perfectly measured out to hold a McDonald’s medium fry. He even included a slot on the side for the dipping sauce, solving the longtime problem of keeping sweet and sour sauce off the vehicle’s upholstery.

Brewer said he’s still working with a prototype and he’s on his third model, but the demand is there for even more from other members of the Wallace Grade School faculty.

Then there’s the projects that require safety goggles and glasses, like plastics and polymers.

Valentina Duque said she creates shapes out of plastic sheets using a machine that vacuum-seals it into the shape. At some point, Duque said, these shapes will be used for a recycling experiment later on in the unit.

The fun isn’t just limited to the eighth graders: Evola’s sixth grade showed off codable little spheres called Spheros programmed to move around, light up and spin. They used these to create choreographed dance routines.

Spheros work with the use of a program the children operate on a tablet that works on the same principles as coding. A list of if-then statements gives the Spheros directions on what they’re supposed to do and it’s up to the students to learn how to make them follow orders. From there, Spheros can be used to dance, light up and play games like hot potato and more.

Evola said children are excited on days they get to use them.

“You saw how excited the kids are when you walk into my science class and you might not get that same level of excitement in other classes,” Evola said. “They’re excited every day when they come in.”

That’s because STEM courses are interactive and allow students to flex their practical skills.

“These are practical skills that they’ll use in the future,” Evola said. “Especially for coding, that’s something that’s going to be part of their world.”

Ferko said a lot of the problem-solving skills she’s learned from teaching STEM are things she has transferred to her everyday life. It’s made understanding technology much simpler. On top of that, it gives the kids a window into manufacturing.

“The example I like to use in the STEM lab is robotics,” Ferko said. “We have a project where they create a robot that picks up a golf ball to move to another station. To me, that’s the same thing I’ve seen in an automotive plant, but the robot picks up a piece of glass or a car part and places it on the car. They’re doing a smaller version of that.”

Evola said STEM projects often have the kids finishing their work early because they’re so eager. That’s why she has what she calls a “maker space” in her classroom.

The maker space is a place where kids can work on building a ship out of Legos with the idea that it will float, so they keep building it and testing it.

“Those are great science skills,” Evola said. “Try, fail, try, fail, try, fail. But they’re playing, it’s kind of like a kindergarten model. They’re playing but they’re learning and they don’t really realize that they’re learning.”

And then there’s times like Brewer and his french fry holder, Ferko said, where they both feel like they’re learning from the kids instead of the other way around.

Ferko said the STEM program has had a lot of help over the years thanks to donations from the Illinois Valley Contractors Association and the Illinois Valley Construction Industry Labor Management Program.