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Aquinas students take a fun ride in STEM class

| Thursday, May 2, 2013, 8:23 p.m.

Sixth-grader David Kratzenberg, 11, uses words like “inertia” while describing his after-school program at Aquinas Academy in Greensburg.

The Bricks 4 Kidz is an innovative enrichment program that emphasizes science, technology, engineering and math, commonly called STEM. The program was designed and created by educators, architects and engineering professionals to use hands–on curriculum to introduce students in kindergarten through sixth grade to concepts such as engineering, architecture and mechanics using LEGO bricks, motors, gears, axles and software.

“I like LEGOs ... and it's fun to build different things that move,” said David, a Greensburg resident.

Schools can select different themes. With summer right around the corner, Aquinas went with the amusement park motif.

Students have built merry-go-rounds, dragon rides, loop-the-loops, carousel swings, Ferris wheels and more. Other themes include transportation, forces of nature, space, inventions and machines and robotics.

“In each session, the students are building replica models and learning math, physics and vocabulary associated with their creations,” Principal Scott Manns said.

“To see our children at work, they are doing more than all of this — they are having fun learning these concepts,” he said.

Most STEM programs target middle school or high school students. Aquinas is among the pioneers offering the program to elementary students.

Manns said that research has supported that early-age exposure is critical to getting more children interested in STEM careers and sustaining that interest.

Jerrie Sigut, who teaches the Bricks 4 Kidz program, along with the second grade at Aquinas, agreed that children need to be enticed at a young age.

“We talk about different types of careers and the students say, ‘I want to build these types of things when I grow up,'” she said. “It plants the seed and gets them to think about those things on a level they can understand.”

Sigut said Aquinas chose a physics-based course where each child learns about the principles, discusses them and then performs the build. She said the wide age range becomes an advantage because the older pupils are able to help the younger ones.

David Kratzenberg reported it becomes “ more fun because you get to help the younger ones, who don't have a lot of experience, and teach them how to build.”

His mom, Jennifer Kratzenberg, who had two sons in the after-school program, said it has been exciting to see her kids learn new concepts, use their imaginations to solve problems and develop a new appreciation for how things work.

“They're building unique creations and when they're done, they have a certain sense of satisfaction, which builds confidence,” she said. “This provides an environment for students to draw on their knowledge of math and science and apply it in a unique way.”

Sigut, who plans to offer a summer program, as well as one next school year, hopes hands-on experience will change students perceptions, so “they apply what they learned in LEGOS at the amusement park, to see a slide and think, ‘That's how a slide is built,'” she said. “To see the look on their face when they can fix something and get it to work, there's a neat feeling of accomplishment.”

Michele Stewardson is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.