Association of Texas Professional Educators
Association of Texas Professional Educators
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Introducing Elementary Students to STEM

When Emma Chestnut joined her middle school’s Science Olympiad team, she dived into the world of STEM, and her enthusiasm for science and math grew exponentially. Now a high school junior, Emma has used her experience as co-captain of the Science Olympiad team to create an after-school program for elementary school children. As part of her pursuit of the Girl Scouts Gold Award, her after-school program at Harmony School of Excellence (a public charter school in Houston) has become a model for other students and educators. Her website includes instructions for several student projects. (For more information, visit

ATPE sat down with Emma to learn more about her passion for STEM and the Girl Scouts.

When people ask you, “what is STEM?” what do you tell them?

STEM is about problem solving using math and science skills, but it’s not about solving problems on a worksheet. You have to really think about it in different terms. And it’s also not just your knowledge. It’s about teamwork. Your team members also have ideas, so I like how it builds on itself so that it all works out correctly.

What inspired you to start an after-school STEM program?

Two things inspired me: Science Olympiad and the Girl Scouts. I got interested in STEM in middle school when I joined my Science Olympiad team. That introduced me to science topics that are usually project-based competitions. I was the co-captain for two years, and we made it to state.

The other thing was the Girl Scouts. Achieving the Gold Award is a unique challenge, and it offers an opportunity to better both the community and the scout. For me, I was able to channel one of my passions—science—and make it available to kids at their level.

When did you know this was the right project for you?

When I got to high school, they made you choose an endorsement, like STEM, humanities, or business. It feels like you’re scrambling. I chose STEM because, based on my Science Olympiad experience, I knew that was what I wanted to do. But I saw that some of my other friends and classmates weren’t leaning toward STEM because they didn’t really know what it was. Most people usually choose what feels the safest. That’s how I realized that by high school it’s almost too late. Students don’t consider STEM as an option anymore.

For STEM to make its impact, you have to introduce it to students at a younger age. So, when I started researching ideas for my Girl Scouts Gold Award project, I knew I wanted to do something that was similar to Science Olympiad, but geared toward younger kids. The Girl Scouts offer great opportunities for girls to become more aware of ways to help the community, and that’s when I decided to do the after-school program for elementary-age students. I chose third through fifth graders because I thought they would still be open to STEM as an option.

What are your favorite activities for the program?

The after-school club is centered around projects similar to the ones that got me interested in STEM. Probably one of my favorites is the gumdrop tower. Students are given toothpicks or spaghetti and a bag of gumdrops, and I tell them to construct the tallest tower that they can make.

It has to be strong enough to hold a textbook. From that project, they learn about architecture and find out that triangles are the strongest, and they learn they need a good foundation. They also learn teamwork because they work in groups of three. But then they also learn to not give up, to just try again.

Students also like the bottle rocket. With some of the rockets, you shoot them, and they just go down. But then there’ll be a couple that go so high that if you look up, you’ll be blinded by the sun. The students are really into that one.

They also like constructing a catapult and using it to shoot ping pong balls. They try to see who can shoot the farthest or shoot the balls through a goal post. But they also like to shoot the ping pong balls at each other. I warn them not to, but that’s a struggle.

Did you see any differences between boys and girls in how they responded or learned?

It depended on what kind of project it was. They’re both interested, but in different aspects. The boys might hear “rocket” and be super into it right away, and say things like, “We’re going to make it go all the way to the moon, and we’re never going to see it again!” And the girls are interested, but they might be thinking about things like a nice fin design. They had some good ideas that might have been overlooked, but they felt very confident about it.

Are other people using your ideas or contacting you?

Last summer, I was invited to a school for homeless boys and girls, and we did the bottle rocket activity for their STEM week. It was different because these kids were much older—some high school age—so I wasn’t used to it at first. I’d been doing elementary and having to explain what scissors are. At first, they weren’t as into it as much, but then when we started shooting the rockets off, and they were saying, “Shoot mine next!”

Tell us what you’re thinking about when you look at future careers.

I definitely see myself going into the STEM field. Right now, I don’t know exactly which aspect of STEM I like best. I just took a computer science course, and I really liked that. And then I also took a biology AP course, and I also liked that. I try to look at most practical ideas first. What is needed in the world? That’s why I’m looking at computer science. I’m also trying to find a place where I can bring something to the table that’s different, a place where I know my skills would be different from what’s currently in the field.

What do you wish people knew about STEM?

I wish that they knew that it wasn’t just like problems on a piece of paper. It’s not just a worksheet. I wish they knew that there are a lot of projects involved, that it’s a lot of teamwork, and it’s also a lot of fun, trying to figure out how to DO everything, solve problems, and make things work.

Author: Interview by G. Elaine Acker