School near Mount Rainier saves itself with STEM

Just over a year ago, this little elementary school in the shadow of Mount Rainier faced an uncertain future.

Columbia Crest, named for the mountain’s highest summit, had been a fixture in rural Ashford since 1952. But it was about to fall to the budget ax wielded by the Eatonville School District.

Then the community and the teaching staff rallied, reinventing the school as a center of STEM education that debuted last fall.

To boost enrollment beyond its 120 students, Columbia Crest is recruiting outside its rural neighborhood and reaching out to communities such as Eatonville, Mineral and Morton. And this fall, the school — rechristened Columbia Crest A-STEM Academy as it seeks to integrate the arts into its curriculum — will also welcome seventh- and eighth-graders.

Columbia Crest’s transformation has not gone unnoticed. It is a Lighthouse STEM school, one of seven chosen by the state this year to serve as a model and mentor for other schools interested in this model of education. Also this year, the school was one of 21 Washington winners of a $5,000 CenturyLink teachers and technology grant.

At the heart of Columbia Crest is a spirited exploration of the natural and physical world that gets kids excited about learning. Lessons focus on how things work, and kids are often asked to consider how to fix things that don’t.

Last spring, third-graders read about the human body, then took to the hallways. They lay on lengths of butcher paper as their partners traced a life-sized outline. Then, they chose a body system, such as the digestive or respiratory system, and sketched it into their outline.

“It’s way better than giving them a worksheet or just reading in a book,” said teacher Brandi Best.

Fourth-graders worked on a classic engineering exercise: the egg-drop. The assignment was to build a device made from Popsicle sticks, straws and tape that would cushion an egg as it dropped from a step ladder. The goal was to keep the egg from cracking.

Teacher Gretchen Voskuhl wanted her kids to think through the egg exercise before plunging in, so she prompted them to formulate their questions first: Can we wrap tape around the egg? How many times can we re-design? How much does the egg weigh? Where will it land?

That inquiry-based learning style is time consuming, but teachers say it’s more effective than the standard lecture-and-listen method.

The school makes good use of its sylvan setting, focusing on the natural science lessons at its doorstep. Rangers from nearby Mount Rainier National Park and animal experts from Northwest Trek frequently visit.

Students raise baby salmon, measure dissolved oxygen in Nisqually River water, capture and inspect insects. Some of the data students collect is entered into national and state scientific databases.

To help kids to see real-world connections to STEM learning, the school hosted a career fair in May. It included more than a dozen professionals representing job choices ranging from horticulture to mountaineering.

“The skills kids gain from hands-on learning are fabulous,” said Principal Angie Ellenbecker. “It gets kids to love what they are doing at school. They are building, creating, doing.”

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