The latest estimates pose a grim situation for the growing fields of science and engineering.

On average, about 16 percent of American high school seniors score proficiently in math and show interest in STEM careers, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Education.

Teachers argue the meager interest may be caused by delayed introduction of STEM for grade-school students, and at Owasso’s Mills Elementary, a few educators are trying to correct that with the next generation of scholars.

Thursday’s science fair at Mills introduced parents to the work their students have produced and was aimed at increasing understanding of the opportunities presented in STEM programs.

Many teachers have expressed the desire for students to be introduced to STEM in kindergarten.

Far from formulas, chemical compounds or high-tech computer programs, STEM for 5-year-olds consists of training the creative mind to recognize systems and see potential uses for items around them.

Web-based coding begins for the first grader as cutout shapes taped together on a sheet of paper. Later in their schooling, these students will connect bits of information (html code typed into a software program) that will create

Building blocks can be stacked, lined up, or otherwise arranged. They can be moved around in ways that make them sturdier. Later in school, these students may be asked to make bridges to scale from toothpicks and glue, and then test them for their strength.

Reading Specialist Lori Brandt helped coordinate the event as a member of the science fair committee and literacy committee. She recognizes the projects’ ability to ease students into new concepts.

“To them, it’s just tinkering or playing,” Brandt said. “And they might not realize yet how much learning they’re actually doing.

“It’s all exploration, some of it’s guided, some not, and they’re learning in a new way. You can’t show this on a test, but it’s very logical, real-life thinking.”

First-grade teachers introduced daily-activity bins last year. They hold red, plastic cups and popsicle sticks, and they’re available for students to play with at the beginning of each school day.

There is no right or wrong way to interact with those two simple objects, and the time spent with them is intended to warm up students’ spatial and creative juices. They’re low-cost learning solutions for the classroom. Teachers sometimes pay for materials out-of-pocket, and the school’s parent-teacher organization, the Mills Action Committee, fills educators’ wish list for the bigger items.

“These activities incorporate the relationship between thinking and doing,” Brandt said. “The same way students will need to use it later in their education.”

Sixth Grade STEM instructor Brandie Davenport attended the fair to talk with parents, as did the Society of Women Engineers.

Mills has done well in the regional science fair in Bartlesville, winning an award in 2016-17 for having the most students represented of any participating school. Judges from the Tulsa Regional STEM Alliance visited Mills on Thursday to select projects that will be entered in the next regional competition. Winners were selected from the fourth and first grades and will be announced at the school.

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