COLUMBIA — When asked what she wants to be when she grows up, Ashley Cascio did not hesitate for even a second: "A neonatal surgeon."
Cascio, a fifth-grader at Benton Elementary School, was one of nearly 300 students who participated in Benton's third annual scientific showcase.
After the STEM showcase, students and staff attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Elaine Kent Garden.
The garden is part of Benton’s outdoor classroom space. So far, it has a pumpkin patch and two greenhouses.
Kent, who recently retired after teaching physical education at Benton for 18 years, cut the ribbon herself and congratulated the assembled students on being pioneers in the STEM program in Missouri.
Kent cited the outdoor classroom as a prime example of STEM learning in action: a space where students can observe the principles they learn in the classroom taking place in a real-world setting.
"I’m just as pleased as I can be and glad that I could be here for the start of the STEM program at Benton," she said. "The possibilities here are limitless."
The Elaine Kent Garden was made possible by a $12,000 donation from Verizon.
The schoolwide showcase on Friday was held to celebrate Benton's third year as a STEM school — one that emphasizes science, technology, engineering and mathematics and integrates those topics into all academic subjects.
Principal Troy Hogg said the core tenet of all Benton coursework is problem-solving: teaching students to think flexibly about obstacles they encounter and recognize the presence of the four STEM fields in their daily lives.
"We like to think of it as a hands-on, minds-on sort of education," Hogg said.
The showcase has been held annually since Benton's formal conversion to a STEM school in 2011. The goal is to encourage the students' interest in scientific fields and generate excitement for the coming school year, Hogg said.
Professionals in the Columbia community were invited to show the impact of science and technology in their careers. As they moved from station to station, students examined animal skeletons with anatomist Casey Holliday, learned about plant biology with Outdoor Classroom Project representative Meredith Donaldson and used Columbia police Officer Michael Hestir's police speedometer to measure how fast they could run.
"We get to do a lot of experiments, so it’s really fun," fourth-grader Christopher Samuels said.
District Superintendent Chris Belcher, who began his career as a science teacher, also attended the showcase. He said programs such as STEM are vital to help prepare students for the demands of an increasingly technology-focused world.
"The United States produces just 5.6 percent of STEM-related degrees on the planet. We live in a high-tech world, that’s where the high-income jobs are, and for some reason in the United States we’re having trouble presenting science as a cool job," Belcher said. "I think this showcase is a perfect thing to do, and it fits this school very well. As a public school, we have to do our part getting kids interested in science-related career fields and post-secondary education."
The students who attended the showcase will present their own science projects in a follow-up showcase next spring, Hogg said.
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.