Ramping up STEM curriculum

Can children as young as three and four engage in engineering and technology in the classroom? The idea may sound far-fetched, but for students involved in Ramps and Pathways curriculum, it's just a typical part of the school day.

Ramps and Pathways is science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) curriculum involving inclined planes and the movement of objects. The activities within the curriculum were developed by teachers from across Iowa who were members of the Teacher Practitioner Council organized by the Regents' Center for Early Developmental Education, which is located at UNI. One teacher noticed that children at her school were playing with pea gravel during recess, sliding it down a slide. The teacher brought rain gutter sections to the playground and the children began elevating one end to watch the pea gravel slide to the other end. This simple activity inspired teachers to start exploring physics with their students by using marbles and inclined ramps made out of the cove molding used in home construction. The Ramps and Pathways project was later funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Ramps and Pathways
Through the Ramps and Pathways curriculum, students engage in design as they engineer their own technology of marble runs.

One of the original teachers on the council was Beth Van Meeteren, an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at UNI and co-director of the Regents' Center for Early Development Education. At first, her students started with just one piece of track and would see how far the marble could roll. Later, Van Meeteren realized that students could use unit blocks, not only to create the height that started the incline, but also as barriers to knock the marble onto another track in a different direction. Soon, her students were engineering complex marble runs with multiple components.

"At first, people might look at this and say, 'well this is just play, they're just messing around,' because it doesn't look like school," said Van Meeteren. "I think sometimes we're confined by our traditional beliefs of school. These children are developing all sorts of understanding about spatial thinking. They are forming mental models of what is going to happen next, thinking ahead, and then thinking back in their minds to what happened before that. When there is a problem, they will problem solve, observe closely and then they figure out how to fix it."

Through the curriculum, students engage in design as they engineer their own technology of marble runs. In the process, they grow in their working knowledge of the laws of physics and learn about the properties of objects, as well as how those properties affect movement. Van Meeteren's students also developed greater persistence and the ability to learn from their mistakes. Many teachers have even seen the effects of the curriculum spilling over into other academic domains such as literacy; when students make a mistake in reading or writing, they have the ability to look more closely, figure out what's going on and "repair" the error.

According to Van Meeteren, the Ramps and Pathways curriculum fills a significant void in most children's education.

"We have lots of literacy and math in the primary classrooms, and we sometimes have science, but we seem to gloss over engineering and technology," said Van Meeteren. "Often times we think of technology as something we plug in, like a computer or an iPad, but if you look at the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association's (ITEEA) definition of technology, it's the modification of the natural world to meet human wants and needs. If you substitute the word child, the marble runs children design and build within Ramps and Pathways are examples of technology children produce to serve a want or need to make something interesting happen. Children challenge themselves to design sophisticated marble runs to make a marble move along a pathway in interesting and impressive ways."

Ramps and Pathways curriculum is widely used in Waterloo preschools, as well as in schools in Alabama, Alaska, Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee, California, Idaho, Texas and Utah.

For more information on the Ramps and Pathways program, visit www.uni.edu/rampsandpathways/ or contact the Regents' Center for Early Developmental Education at 319-273-2101 or regents.center@uni.edu. To see the Ramps and Pathways program in action, watch this YouTube video.