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STEAM Teacher, Ellen Schafer, STEAMs-Up Her Middle School Learners: Look and Learn What Happens, From Exquisite Doll Houses to Landing on Mars Safely!

by | Jun 28, 2020 | RE@L StudentCorner | 0 comments

97072893_10158262815607692_3850258341993381888_nRE@L-logo_Corp_TM_New-Tag_8-15-17_CMYK-300x127RE@LBlog STEAM Teacher Report:

A few years ago, Ellen Schafer was freshly graduated from the University of St. Thomas (UST) in St. Paul with a double major in Elementary Education (K-6) and Science and Math Endorsement (5-8).

Luckily for both, she found that her former grade school and alma mater, St. Joseph’s Grade School, was also looking for a middle school science teacher. That’s the kind of good planning that can lead to serendipity!

Here’s Ellen’s story: I hit the jackpot! I applied and was offered the job on the spot.  I was ‘coming home again’ and could not be more excited to begin my career at my dream job.

imagesIn my 2nd year of teaching, STEAM (integration of Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics) was really picking up steam (see what I did there?) at our school and I knew I needed to do something to implement this program for our students. I decided to go back to school and get my grad certificate in Engineering Education for K-12 students at UST.

St. Joseph’s School in W. St. Paul, where I teach middle school Science and Engineering, is a proud member of the Minnesota Independent School Forum (MISF). The organization supports private schools and STEAM education.  Every year MISF offers multiple grants to schools to help get STEAM education started in the school or to continue its curriculum. After attending two MISF STEM educator conferences in the summer, I knew that we needed to apply for a grant.

misf-logo-desktopWith the help of five other teachers, we wrote the MISF Innovation Grant (click on the graphic to the right)  for $7,500.  In the spring of 2016, we were awarded that grant and our STEAM Team took off on designing what the perfect STEAM room would look like at St. Joseph’s. 

We knew we needed more money to make our dream a reality so we went out to our community and asked for donations. You can’t get what you don’t ask for. Two alumni families stepped forward to donate manual labor and materials to redesign the room and update the electricity for the best working experience.  We are so grateful for those families because we were able to use the grant money to purchase STEAM supplies. 

7883388With the grant money, we purchased work tables and stools that allows for students to stand or sit when working on projects, a 3D printer and filament, two vinyl cutters and vinyl, Squishy Circuits, Makey Makeys, Play Dough, construction materials (hammers, screwdrivers, wood, etc…), craft supplies, and so much more.

logo_1100xSt. Joseph’s new Makerspace opened in October 2016 with a roaring success. Over 250 current school families and alumni came out to our opening ceremony where we had guest speakers in the field of engineering, had an engineering competition, and gave tours of the brand new classroom.

555015Squishy-Circuits_Logo_3f6d6027-a850-4ae3-b403-d5aa973023ff_300xOur Makerspace at St. Joseph’s was designed to offer the best hands-on experience for our students where the students lead the learning. In the first year, students in 5th-8th grade mainly used the Makerspace.

The students built life-size, to-scale Jaguars (our mascot) out of cardboard, dollhouses with 3D printed furniture, foosball tables, pinball and claw machines, learned how to code their own websites, built to-scale baseball stadiums, buildings to withstand earthquakes, working prosthetic hands from straws and the 3D printer, rockets, rovers, and so much more.

IMG_4448In 2017 we knew we needed to expand the curriculum to our entire school.  With the help of the STEAM Team, we wrote two more grants through MISF.  Another innovation grant to purchase supplies that our students in K-4 can use, and a sustainability grant to purchase consumable materials for our 5-8 program.

3d-printing-blue-plasticIn addition, our annual school fundraiser’s main focus that year was for our Makerspace.  Our community recognized the need and greatness of this room and we were able to raise over $20,000 for the Makerspace. 

With that money, we were able to purchase robots for all grade levels, another 3D printer, LittleBits, and any STEAM supply we could ever want. List your priorities, so you can best meet your needs.

The Makerspace is heading into its 5th year and we are constantly thinking of new and innovating projects to do with the students.  The most rewarding projects that we do are tied to real world problems.  The students learn about current events that are happening all around the world and must design solutions to those problems.

IMG_0192One engineering challenge that we do is students must come up with a plug to stop oil pipes from leaking into the ocean. Another challenge is to come up with a safe space capsule that will land a rover on Mars without breaking it. 

I have brought in real engineers and architects who specialize in aviation, rockets (yes, a literal rocket scientist that is working on the Orion space rocket to Mars), electricity, and buildings to show my students how they can use their STEAM knowledge in the future. My students have gone on to join robotics teams, and thrive in science and mathematics courses in high school.

Ella DollhouseOne of my students even started her own dollhouse business and designs 1:12 scale dollhouses for sale and she is 13 years old. Click on the graphic to the right.

IMG_2608The first group of students that got to use the Makerspace will be seniors next year and I can’t wait to see what career path they choose in the future.

Look for research grants online. Find ways to start your own STEAM room.  You won’t regret it and your students will always say it is their favorite class and best part of their day.

One thing I learned with this venture:

Don’t be afraid to try something new.  If you fail, you only learn how not to do something. 

Engineering is always about failing and continuing to search for solutions. When a reporter asked Thomas Edison, who was still trying to find a  filament that lasted, “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?” Edison replied, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.” 

Great success is built on failure, frustration, even catastrophe. So, go, study, learn!”


RE@L adds: Thank you, Ms. Schafer!

RE@LReaders, here are some great tips from an experienced STEAM teacher, suitable for all those who teach science, K-12.  Your students, both girls and boys, will profit from classroom explorations like these.

Get a plan, find community support, set up a learning environment where your students can research and learn.

Experiences like these, from teachers like you, can change student lives, from doll-houses to Mars landings.

Let the dreams make their futures happen.


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Randy Nelson & Dale LaFrenz


/// Dr. Dale LaFrenz is Chairman of RE@L, Inc and one of the founders of MECC, Inc - the Minnesota company that brought “Oregon Trail” and more than a hundred products to millions of K12 students across the world. HIs RE@L Inc continues to serve K12 as a LearningProduct "launching pad" for schools, online learning and the rapidly growing STEM market. /// Randy Nelson recently joined RE@L as a BlogMeister and Director of Education for RE@L's new STEM-based LearningProducts. Randy has long been an advocate for more positive, effective changes in K-12 teaching and learning, from his teaching days to his former career as a Superintendent who positively reformed the school district of LaCrosse Wisconsin.w