COLUMBIA — During choir practice Monday at Benton Elementary School, the fourth and fifth-graders were belting out “Seasons of Love” from the musical "Rent."
Music specialist Robert Battle played the piano with his left hand and counted the notes with his right.
1, 2, 3, 4. 1, 2, 3, 4. Tap, tap, tap, tap.
Battle was demonstrating rhythm by counting out whole, half and quarter notes. Math and music had converged.
"I talk a lot about math in here just because I think that kids understand the relationship of math and music if they see it," he said. "They really understand it dealing with fractions."
Science, technology, engineering and mathematics are new emphases at Benton, which is transitioning into Columbia's first STEM school.
Benton faculty and staff, as well as district officials, hope the new model will lift the school's test scores and turn it around. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, Benton has failed since 2006 to meet state and national goals for adequate progress.
“Benton Elementary School found itself at a crossroads," said Peter Stiepleman, assistant superintendent for elementary education. The school made adequate annual progress in math last year as measured by MAP tests, he said, but it still has a way to go.
STEM was adopted at Benton as a hands-on, practical approach to learning that builds on the principles of math and science. STEM schools around the country, both public and private, partner with local organizations to offer real-world connections to students and open their eyes to career possibilities.
“It seems like a natural fit to have a practical arts-side school, especially with the university sitting right in our neighborhood," Benton Principal Troy Hogg said.
Since Benton announced its plans to become a STEM school in March, Hogg and his staff have been working on a transition that would take the school in “a different direction than from where we’d been.”
They have adjusted the curriculum, updated teachers with additional training and solicited interest from the community in donating both time and money to the program.
In STEM schools, math and science learning is accomplished with an emphasis on critical thinking, problem-solving and technology-rich labs and classrooms.
Music, art, language arts and other non-STEM subjects are not devalued, Hogg said. Instead, they are incorporated into the curriculum by relating them to math, science and engineering.
“It wasn’t so much that we wanted to teach a lot of different curriculum" he said. "It was that we wanted to teach it differently than in the past.”
Language arts now has a nonfiction emphasis, for example, and subjects put a premium on critical thinking.
Fifth-grade teacher Annie Arnone said her students read texts that correspond with what they’re learning in science.
Literature and engineering converge when students read stories about children from other countries who encounter a problem, said Craig Adams, practical arts coordinator for Columbia Public Schools.
The solution to the problem is not given — that’s for the students to figure out with the materials included in their study kits.
“It’s a hands-on application for science and math, but it also incorporates literature and social studies in that they’re talking about all these different countries and places in the world,” Adams said.
Art classes have incorporated more recyclable materials into student projects to teach about sustainability. In music, Battle said he focuses on the science behind how sound is made, the technology of recording music and the math of musical notes.
“Part of the STEM process is we want the kids to start being able to record their own music and create their own music and to take something away from that experience, to be able to say, ‘I engineered that,’ ” he said.
The addition of technology to Benton is another major step in the STEM transition. While Battle works on getting recording equipment, a mobile lab of 30 new laptops circulates around classrooms.
With a $15,000 donation from Columbia's Anderson Family Charitable Foundation, 50 iPads are now part of Benton’s technology capital — 20 reserved for staff and 30 for students, Hogg said.
Twelve new computers will eventually be installed in a new STEM lab, located in the recently vacated preschool room. In the lab, teachers can set up experiments for their students, Hogg said, which means less clutter in the classroom. Other classes can rotate in and out to perform the same experiment.
The STEM lab isn't the only layout change.
A mobile classroom has been transformed into the Building Understanding Zone, or BUZ Room. It functions like a mini-museum where students “can go out, explore, learn new things and discover new information without actually having to take a field trip somewhere,” Hogg said.
Teacher John Gerhart's third-grade class spent time in the BUZ Room this week, touring the different stations and exploring specimen jars, Play-Doh molds and animal puzzles.
They flooded their teacher with questions and "Look at this!" exclamations.
Making sure teachers are provided with the necessary professional development and resources has been one of the more important yet challenging parts of the STEM transition, said Heather Lang, now Benton's STEM specialist.
“Science, technology, engineering and math can be very intimidating to people, especially the elementary teachers because we don’t specialize in areas like middle school and high school do,” Hogg said.
Teachers at Benton have participated in a number of training sessions to help them teach with STEM in mind.
Kristi Schlegel was one of three teachers from Benton who attended MU's Quality Elementary Science Teaching program last summer. She studied the 5-E Model, “engage, explore, explain, evaluate and extend,” which she said taught her to engage her students and get deeper into the material with them, regardless of subject.
Money for Benton’s layout and technology changes has come mostly from grants and donations, both on the community and national level.
In addition to the donation from the Anderson Family Charitable Foundation, the Laura Bush Foundation gave $5,000 to spend on literature pertaining to the STEM program, Hogg said.
The school has applied for a grant for recording equipment so students can learn technology while recording their own music and a $10,000 grant to purchase Engineering as Elementary Curriculum science kits.
Apart from donations and grants, $10,000 of school improvement money from the state went toward the laptops, Hogg said.
Benton's new emphasis has also drawn a number of people willing to donate their time to help boost student interest in STEM subjects.
The school held a science fair earlier this month when those employed in STEM industries volunteered to talk about their careers.
“These are people who are already in science, technology, engineering and mathematical fields and they want to be more involved because they know the benefit,” Hogg said.
MU senior physics student Lucas Miller has already volunteered to do science demonstrations with students during their lunch period starting Sept. 30.
"It's a good skill, in my opinion, to teach what you know to the next generation," he said.
After leaving Benton, students can expect to be able to take classes that build on STEM subjects in middle school and high school.
“As they continue through our schools, there will continue to be opportunities to participate in STEM-related coursework — something that would have been impossible had we not made this move to Benton STEM,” Stiepleman said.