College Culture Classroom grant exposes kids to career options

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

It’s a popular question for elementary school students, even if the answer tends to evolve as they progress through each grade level and inch closer to having to make more definitive decisions about their postsecondary plans.

“A lot of them say they want to be engineers,” said Michelle Payton, 5th grade math and science teacher at Clark Elementary School in Tampa. Payton said her students’ career aspirations have been a topic of conversation throughout the school year. “It might seem a bit strange to start now since they’re only in 5th grade, but they have to start seeing connections between what they enjoy doing and the careers that are out there for them.”

To that end, Payton authored a proposal in the fall requesting four STEM Challenge Kits, a Magna-Tiles Master Set, and a STEM Careers Book Set for her 34 5th graders. The project was funded by Extra Yard for Teachers thanks to a generous grant from the Helios Education Foundation presented in partnership with the College Football Playoff Foundation, the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, and Florida College Access Network in a grant program that encouraged public school teachers in the tri-county Tampa Bay region to create a college-going culture in their classrooms.

Each STEM Kit — which focuses on the academic disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics — includes exercises that require students to build an earthquake-safe structure, create a filter that purifies water, and design a robotic hand that can pick up a ball.

“We try to get students as much hands-on experience as possible,” Payton said. Though 2016-17 was her first year teaching 5th grade math and science, Payton has been teaching at Clark since the school opened in 1998. “We have a wonderful science department here, but we don’t have access to these sorts of supplies unless we purchase them ourselves as teachers.”

While the Magna-Tiles will allow students to explore geometrical concepts like symmetry and angles as they build structures, the STEM Careers Book Set is designed to help illuminate potential endpoints for their current career interests.

“I thought it was really important to order the set of books along with the hands-on activities,” Payton said. “That way, if they find they’re especially interested in one of the challenges, the books help show, ‘Here are the sorts of careers you can do.’”

Payton said she plans to have her students work with the STEM Challenge Kits, the Magna-Tiles, and the STEM Careers Book Set throughout May. The intention is to send them into their summer vacations thinking a little more seriously about their career paths.

“They’ve seen the kits, and they are very excited to get to work,” Payton said.


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