STEM Education in Atlanta's Private Schools

STEM Education in Atlanta's Private Schools

By Ken Abramczyk

As children enter elementary school, their parents want to ensure that their young students will be best prepared to face an evolving, complex world. Children need to develop critical analytic skills, creative thinking and problem-solving adeptness, effectively laying a foundation for their careers and their lives. Learning to gather information can evolve into a lifelong routine as the children grow into adulthood and careers. Parents often turn to STEM education for their children to develop a knowledge base of science, technology, engineering and math. Fortunately, many of Atlanta’s private schools focus on STEM education with an array of programs for even the youngest of elementary-age students, perhaps stoking their interest and guiding them toward a future career. Here, KNOWAtlanta looks at the many offerings available at independent schools throughout the area.

Spectacular Science

For so many children, science is one of the first areas of learning that really piques their interest. And local private schools gladly provide numerous opportunities for them to delve into the scientific world.

North Cobb Christian School focuses on developing young children’s natural curiosity and “love for exploring God’s world around them,” says Wendy Titus, lower school principal. “The curriculum engages them in hands-on experiences, developing a strong foundational understanding of scientific concepts from the scientific method to Newton’s laws of motion.” Teachers bring science to life through nature walks, experiments and other areas. She adds, “Each spring our classrooms are literally alive with ant farms, earthworm habitats, butterfly houses and seedlings as our students become immersed in the world of plants and insects.”

Da Vinci International School students also learn about ecosystems, biodiversity and conservation in the elementary school’s environmental science program. Students often plant and maintain gardens and observe wildlife, and the school offers a curriculum that encourages curiosity and creativity through nature-based activities starting at 18 months. “Our presence within the Blue Heron Wildlife Preserve is instrumental,” says Soraya Rouchdi, founder and director. “Exploring the outdoors and observing plants and animals helps the students develop a sense of wonder and appreciation for the world around them and the ability to be attentive to details.” Additionally, the school’s chemistry program introduces a variety of concepts; for instance, students learn about the spherification of liquids by cooking a strawberry Charlotte with a pomegranate coulis that is turned into spheres using sodium alginate added to the liquid, which is then dropped into a calcium chloride solution. “The sodium alginate reacts with the calcium chloride, forming a thin membrane around the liquid droplet, creating a sphere,” Rouchdi says. “The resulting spheres can be used to add visual interest and unique textures to dishes in molecular cooking.”

In August of 2022, Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School opened a new lower school building, which houses state-of-the-art science labs designed for younger learners. Students in first through fifth grades learn plant science, geology, food science, insects, animals, coding and more. Teachers utilize tools such as Sphero kits, Makey Makey and Bee Bots to enhance their lessons. Lower school students complete hands-on (and sometimes messy) projects in various areas of study, using both indoor labs and outdoor spaces, which include classroom gardens.

Whitefield Academy includes activities that align with grade-level science content, providing teacher training to ensure that the staff understands the benefits of a STEAM (STEM with arts) program and incorporate it. Students are encouraged to build and engineer contraptions to use during recess, incorporating science into each subject and make it feel like play.

At Mount Paran Christian School, lower school students are involved with a Cornell University study of bluebirds with observation, data collection and tracking of the local bluebird population; with that in mind, students can walk and learn on the Bluebird Trail, which features seven bluebird nesting boxes, one for each grade level. The school also offers community field trips that take students to the Georgia Aquarium and the Chattahoochee Nature Center.

Tremendous Technology

In today’s high-tech world, it is key to introduce young students to technology in a variety of ways, from the educational tools that are used to the concepts that will lead them into the future.

For instance, third through fifth graders at Mount Paran Christian School learn with Chromebooks, while kindergarten through grade 2 students use iPads. Coding and technology are integrated into STEAM lessons across grades, and students often participate in robotics camps, according to Randi Terry, middle school instructional technology and innovation lead.

Students at The Lovett School use shared iPad carts from kindergarten through second grade and third graders have 11 iPads per class, while fourth and fifth graders have one-to-one devices. “With ample technology, teachers can integrate it seamlessly into the curriculum and provide students with access to valuable educational resources,” says Karen Boykins, inGen teacher. Furthermore, technology is essential in the computer science, design and engineering curriculum. “The Lovett School fosters innovation and creativity through hands-on activities like robots, 3D printing and a Glowforge laser cutter,” Boykins continues. “Students learn through creating, and technology empowers them to become innovators and designers for success in a constantly evolving digital world.” Teachers in the school’s technology department attend conferences such as the Georgia Educational Technology Consortium, the Atlanta Area Technology Educators and the Association of Technology Leaders in Independent Schools. The school’s academic team meets regularly to discuss tech’s future impact on teaching and on students.

North Cobb Christian School starts technology learning at a very early age, with preschool students exploring robotics and programming. At the lower school level, students use one-to-one Chromebooks starting in first grade. BeeBots help elementary students develop skills and knowledge in coding, problem solving, creativity and collaboration. And teachers explore new tools and platforms at a professional learning period once a week to examine technological advances in education.

Students at Holy Innocents’ lower school receive access to iPads, laptops and robotics. Students also learn good digital citizenship, the impact of their digital footprint and the pros and cons of technology. “Technology is infused in their everyday practice,” says Nicole St. Amand, lower school principal. “They learn to use technology and learn to use it responsibly.”

Atlanta Speech School’s technology integration specialist researches current tools and brings that technology to life throughout the curriculum. Instructors work with multi-sensory methods to help children bridge the gap from the abstract to the concrete in math and science concepts. The school’s mission is to ensure that each child develops their full potential through language and literacy, and STEM programming makes that possible.

Excellent Engineering

Of course, engineering is next level when it comes to technology-based learning. And children of all ages can enjoy this area of study at local private schools.

The Lovett School’s lower school inGen Studio is described as a makerspace and inspirational hub for students. In kindergarten through fifth grade, students have classes in the studio. They explore web tools and applications, computer programming and engineering, according to Mason Sutherland, associate director of admission. Students begin by learning design processes to build out their ideas. According to Boykins, this is just the beginning for younger students. She notes, “Due to the nature and design of our lower school inGen Studio, students can explore their interests in engineering curriculum that will set them up for success as they progress to middle and upper school at Lovett.”

The robotics program at Da Vinci’s lower school allows students to explore coding, engineering and problem solving through building and programming robots to perform various tasks and challenges, says Rouchdi. “If the learners are reading a story about a village or a city, they will build the village model with cardboards and recycling materials and will help the characters navigate through the city while coding the robots.” Using solar panels, the houses can be lit, with students making switches using electrical circuits. Students also develop skills in algorithms and computational thinking through coding with visual programming languages in the school’s computer science program. Additionally, Da Vinci students design and build solutions to real-world problems in engineering design challenges such as building bridges, small machines or a solar-powered house, and designing a parachute.

At North Cobb Christian School, STEM is integrated across subjects on a regular basis, Titus says. Engineering is a key element of that effort. “One of our students’ favorite areas on campus is the STEAM Courtyard, a special garden featuring raised beds filled with herbs, flowers, vegetables and plants, tended by our students in preschool through fourth grade,” she explains. Recently the fourth graders worked with the high school’s engineering class to design and construct a greenhouse for the courtyard, equipped with a water collection system, solar panels, humidity control, planting shelves and more. The greenhouse won first place at the International Christian STEM Competition at Grand Canyon University.

Marvelous Math

Those students who find themselves mesmerized by math concepts are never forgotten in today’s STEM programs, particularly in schools throughout metro Atlanta. For example, Mount Paran offers advanced math in fifth grade to help the students prepare for advanced and accelerated math in middle and high school. Also, third to fifth graders who need academic support can learn through the school’s directed studies math offerings. North Cobb Christian School offers a “rigorous and engaging” math curriculum designed to promote deep understanding, problem-solving skills and mathematical reasoning in students, Titus says. And Da Vinci International School students engage in projects that involve collecting and analyzing data so students learn measurement, data collection and statistical analysis.

Picking up STEAM

In many cases, schools add arts into the STEM equation to advance the concept through creativity; this is known as STEAM.

The enrichment team in physical education, art, music and media at The Wardlaw School, Atlanta Speech School’s designated K-6 school for children who have dyslexia, developed a teaching model centered around STEAM through architecture, instrument building, game designing, broadcasting, coding and rollercoaster construction. Fourth and fifth grade students transition through six different classes spread over enrichment in 25-day sessions. They problem solve, socialize and employ higher-ordered thinking and reason through collaborative learning experiences. Each STEAM session begins with a book, connecting the vocabulary, skills and ideas of the story to the vision the children need to navigate that session. Students then demonstrate and discuss what they learned during each session at a two-day exhibition.

Mount Paran Christian School uses both the STEM and STEAM approaches in educational methodology, according to Tina Baker, head of school. She says, “With the K-12 Project Lead the Way curriculum, learning experiences are authentic, hands-on and application-oriented. Students are engaged as investigators, experimenters, designers and makers.” Kindergarten through fifth grade students learn critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and communication through hands-on learning in their weekly STEAM classes, Randi Terry adds, “Students begin understanding the basics of computer science in programming using Lower schoolers are able to explore and create using MinecraftEdu and through a makerspace in a large, designated area within the Myrick Media Center. Second and third graders work in the on-campus garden, growing and studying plants with hands-on experience, bringing their learning to life.” Students also can participate in extracurricular STEAM and robotics exploration through the First Lego League, as well as Project Lead the Way engineering program for young learners.

Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School students start STEAM in kindergarten in the Brainstormers class, a hands-on collaborative for experience for PK3 through kindergarten, incorporating elements of design thinking and STEAM. The class takes students on a deeper dive into understanding how things work and why, and they practice and master teamwork in Brainstormers.

At North Cobb Christian School, the Thanksgiving STEAM parade is a favorite STEAM tradition, she says. “Students spend weeks in class brainstorming and creating unique contraptions to share during the parade,” Titus says. Utilizing STEAM principles, students design and craft every element of the parade from floats to costumes. Each grade level completes a STEAM challenge each year from building a “turkey trampoline” to creating their own musical instruments to performing a Spanish song along the parade route.

Finally, Whitefield Academy incorporates into its STEAM programs the four Cs: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication. While the STEAM program is woven through all grades, fifth and sixth grade students integrate art into their capstone projects and add a robotics component, exposing students to STEM and STEAM careers. It is the perfect opportunity for young students to flex both their creative and scientific muscles and begin considering the many ways that STEM can be a part of their lives both now and in the future.