Lottery students attend Benton Elementary for STEM education

Apr 8, 2014

Students at Benton Elementary School file into the computer lab, ready to start on today’s geography project. But instead of rolling out maps, these first graders are opening Google Earth on their computers.

Josh Ray, Benton’s media specialist, instructs the students to measure the distance from their school to major cities throughout the US, like St. Louis or Los Angeles.

As the students connect the different points on the map and write down the miles, exclamations can be heard across the classroom over just how close these famous places are.

Ray says this activity and other work in his class are designed to connect the students on a global level. These connections are becoming more important in an increasingly digital society.

“The original goal was just to make them digital citizens,” Ray said. “But digital citizens these days look just like regular American citizens. So they have to have the technology to be able to be confident.”

Ray’s class is just one example of how Benton Elementary is finding new ways to approach math and science. Benton is a STEM school, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

While writing and reading are still a part of the curriculum at Benton, Heather McCullar, STEM specialist, says the school tries to incorporate STEM topics in all of their classes.

“If they’re doing some hands-on learning about sound during science time, then during reading time they’re reading books about it, during writing time they’re writing fiction or non-fiction stories based on that,” McCullar said. “So it’s more about how the teachers are approaching things and making the connections for the kids.”

Benton is the only STEM school in the Columbia Public School district so it attracts many families who value these topics. Bethany Morris, a first and second grade teacher at Benton, said parents interested in the program for their children have likely noticed an economic and cultural shift in the STEM fields.

“[With] the knowledge that STEM is becoming so important and that there are going to be so many careers related to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, giving your child a start seems like a good idea to me,” Morris said.

Any family in Columbia can enter a lottery system for a place at Benton, but the majority of Benton’s students come from the school’s attendance area.

According to a 2013 report by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Benton has the highest percentage of elementary school students in the Free and Reduced Lunch program in Columbia. About 85 percent of Benton’s current students are in the program for low-income families.

The mixture of kids from various economic backgrounds creates what Josh Ray calls a “digital divide.”

“We teach digital stuff, but then there are kids at home that have never seen it before or won’t see it again until we teach it again, and we’re very cognizant of that,” Ray said.

But Ray said this divide does not affect how quickly students learn about new technologies.

According to some of the teachers at Benton, the school’s hands-on approach to science and technology is a great way to combat the digital divide among students. By providing access to these topics at the elementary level, Benton is helping students avoid barriers in the future.

“If we can start now, we might just bypass that all together because there’s not going to be a stigma,” Morris said about her first and second graders. “If it's at-risk kids or minority students or students learning English, it’s such a great way to get them right away hooked on science and engineering.”

The teachers at Benton hope all of their students can take away something from their STEM education, whether they become a scientist, an architect or a even plumber.

“We’re showing them all these different skills that they can use later in life because coming from poverty families, they might not see someone at home who has a job regularly,” Ray said. “[To] see that they can do these things in the real world is a huge thing for them.”

This is the third year for Benton’s STEM program, and according to McCullar, the number of families interested in the school continues to grow. The school district’s lottery system opened at the beginning of this month and will continue until Friday, April 11.