On any given day, Harker Preschool’s on-site STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) lab is buzzing with activity. But it’s not every day the classroom is visited by a special guest from San Jose State University’s Science Education Resource Center. The engaging and rather unique visitor was none other than an adorable desert tortoise named Jeremiah, on loan for several days.
Jeremiah made quite an impact and left a lasting impression on the children, according to the preschool’s STEM specialist, Robyn Stone, who obtained him from the center where she has borrowing privileges. “Students of all ages visited Jeremiah in the lab,” recalled Stone, who comes to Harker Preschool with an impressive list of credentials, most recently as a professional development instructor for the Resource Area For Teaching in San Jose. This spring, Stone also will be teaching the early childhood education course Science Play for the University of California Santa Cruz Extension.
Stone stressed that while it may not be every day a guest like Jeremiah pays a visit to the lab, it is every day that her students have the opportunity to participate in some type of STEM-related activity. According to Andrea Hart, preschool director, the STEM lab is only one specialty class offered to the children; the others are art studio, and music and movement. All of them are rich with activity centers and educational materials in each particular subject area, offering a balance between child-directed exploratory learning and teacher-directed activities.
“Robyn’s role is to work in collaboration with classroom teachers on ongoing themes, as well as introduce new concepts and opportunities for growth,” explained Hart. Indeed, Stone’s STEM class kicked off the school year with exciting simultaneous happenings.
For the 3- and 4-year-olds, who occupy the cottage classrooms, lab work included an exploration of force and motion by the Feather Cottage; an investigation into geology and erosion by the Pebble Cottage; a discovery about ocean life by the Clover Cottage (which led to an interest in turtles and tortoises, prompting the schoolwide visit from Jeremiah); and an exploration about autumn leaves and pumpkins by the Acorn Cottage.
Meanwhile, the transitional kindergarten (TK) cohort explored insects, measurement and reptiles. “I liked measuring with my feet,” recalled TK student Divya Bhupathi. Four-year-old Anirudh Subramanian said he “liked sorting things.”
“Anirudh was telling us about science class on the way back home in the car. He said he learned about prisms, transparent and translucent, gave examples of each, and said he loved the class!” noted his mom, Gayathri Srinivasan.
Most recently, as part of an exploration about the physics of light, students of all ages built a spectroscope that separates white light into spectrum components. They were excited to learn that different light sources create different patterns. “We’ve explored a lot of things so far!” affirmed Stone, adding that, in addition to special activities like the visit from Jeremiah, there are permanent installations in the lab continuously available for exploration.
Binoculars aid the children in viewing hummingbirds and insects in the native California flower garden. The freshwater aquarium enables students to explore aquatic species. Marble tracks build students’ design thinking skills – the foundation of engineering. And sand timers, balance scales and other tools allow students to apply mathematical skills to solve problems,” Stone added
Another permanent installation is the preschool’s onsite farm, which, in perfect outdoor science classroom fashion, has various stations designed to engage all five senses. There, the youngsters are able to observe and participate in such activities as rabbit feeding, garden watering, corn grinding, as well as leaf raking and sweeping.
In addition to the regular lab curriculum, holidays also provide ample opportunities for special events. In fall, for example, the 4-year-old and TK classes explored human anatomy and physiology by looking at the skeletal system inspired by decorations for el Dia de Los Muertos and Halloween. The 3-year-olds, meanwhile, had a concurring activity in pumpkin exploration.
They especially enjoyed cracking them open and scooping out the innards. They also baked pumpkin muffins and made hot cocoa, which student Olivia Zhao recalled, “tasted yummy!”
Look for more updates about other activities and specialty classes at Harker Preschool in future Harker Quarterly articles.