Brook Park Elementary School is STEAM-powered this year and it’s more than hot air. In education circles STEAM –which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math — is an interdisciplinary way to teach a variety of subjects and skills in a team-orientated way.

“It’s far more than just sticking those things together,” said Lynda Nadkarni, the STEAM facilitator at Brook Park. “It’s more of a philosophy that teaches skills and subjects in a way that resembles real life. So, it takes those things and puts it in a real-life application.”

STEAM classes are becoming commonplace in middle and high schools, but an elementary school program is somewhat unusual.

The program is new at Brook Park School in LaGrange Park this year and is being taught remotely because of the pandemic. 

Nadkarni is a veteran teacher who has taught at Brook Park for 18 years. During that time, she has taught second and fourth grades. She has also taught art and middle school reading improvement during her career. She is excited to be running the new STEAM program.

Nadkarni says the STEAM class, which runs for one trimester, teaches a variety of skills including critical thinking, modeling and testing problems, figuring out solutions, and, normally, in a non-pandemic year, a lot of communication skills as students collaborate and test ideas. 

But this year due to the pandemic there is not much collaboration. Second- and third-graders recently completed their project, building a sunlight and moisture detection device for plants. 

This winter, during the second trimester, fourth- and fifth-graders will build something called a TinkRbot, while in the spring trimester kindergarteners and first-graders will build a night lamp.  

District 95 has teamed with TinkRworks a Hinsdale-based company that specializes in developing STEAM curriculum. TinkRworks has worked with S. E. Gross Middle School in Brookfield for the past few years and was instrumental in developing the STEAM program there. 

The moisture and sunlight monitor for plants has a LED light, which signals the health of the plant and whether the plant is getting enough sunlight and water. To build it students had to learn basic computer coding and programming, some basic computer hardware knowledge, as well as basic plant biology.

“It was interesting, said Chris Hein, the father of Atticus Hein, a second-grader at Brook Park. “They had a good chance to pull together from a lot of different perspectives of things that they needed to work on.”

Hein, who works as an engineering manager for Google and has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science, was impressed by the weekly lessons during the seven-week project.

“On the whole, I thought it was a really clever way to kind of incorporate all these different concepts and give them something hands on and very tangible to do,” Hein said. “It was challenging enough, I think, for them but not overwhelmingly so.”

Instructions were provided by Nadkarni in weekly packets, slides and videos, some of which included Gross School students showing the younger kids how to proceed in certain steps. Nadkarni was available for office hours and help.

“In case they have something that they get stuck on or they don’t understand, they can just pop on to the help desk and I help walk them through that piece,” Nadkarni said.

Shannon Gardner, the mother of third-grader Alanna Gardner, was impressed with the hands-on nature of the project.

“What I like about the program is that it wasn’t them just watching videos and listening to lectures, they were doing things alongside of it,” Gardner said.

Chris Hein, who is working from home, was also around to provide some assistance whenever Atticus needed some guidance.

“Atticus did a nice job with it, but it certainly wasn’t an activity he could have sat and done by himself without some guidance,” Hein said. “He was the person who did all the steps; he just needed some extra instruction on how to get through them.”

The students also received a premade pot and learned a bit about the history of pottery, which they decorated demonstrating the art in STEAM.

Atticus’s device works and now sits in the Hein’s living room in a pot containing an elephant ear plant. Atticus was proud to show it off to his grandparents on video calls and checks it daily to make sure the plant is doing well.

“On a daily basis he goes and he turns the device on and checks to see whether or not it’s getting enough sunlight and enough water,” Hein said. “He’s very proud of his creation.”