Q&A: Sarah Thornton, Lower School STEM Teacher

sarah thornton, oak knoll lower school stem teacher, outside teaching a class.Actions is a new editorial feature from Oak Knoll School of the Holy Child. Each week we will spotlight the dedicated faculty and staff across the PK-12 campus who make a difference in the lives of OKS students and the life of the school. This week, we feature:

Sarah Thornton

Lower School STEM Teacher

Q: As a STEM science teacher in Oak Knoll’s Lower School, can you talk a bit about how you are engaging students learning about science through hands-on activities? Why is it important to get students involved and excited about science in elementary school?
A: As you can imagine, our COVID-19 precautions have impacted hands-on STEM experiences a great deal! I travel from class to class and materials can’t be shared the way we normally do. Despite all the challenges, I have found ways to incorporate experimentation. Our biology studies in grades 3-5 included live animal observations and experiments. Depending on the grade level, students observed, collected data on, and developed experiments about red worms (in our indoor vermi-composting bin), walking stick insects, and mealworms (darkling beetle larvae).

As a STEM teacher, my goal is first to support the kids in maintaining and developing their wonder they have for the natural world. I want them to see themselves as people able to answer their own questions by using the process of science. I aim to send them to the next level full of curiosity and enthusiasm to learn more so they will feel motivated to delve into more complex topics.

Q: Can you talk a bit about the STEM projects that you and your classes are working on right now and how are these projects supported by the current Oak Knoll science curriculum?
A: We are currently using the STEMScopes curriculum which I am modifying this year due to the many COVID-19 constraints. In connection with the fifth-grade study of ecosystems, they are working on designing a small Lower School gardening area which hopefully we can bring to life later this year. The sixth grade has been learning about the water cycle, and we set up evaporation experiments around the classroom.

Q: To date, what has been your favorite STEM project you and your students have worked on?
A: Designing and implementing experiments to learn more about walking stick insects has been very fun for me! I have raised and worked with these insects for many years, but the kids always come up with new questions to explore. This year they set up experiments to answer questions such as, “Do walking sticks change color to camouflage themselves?”, “How do walking sticks respond to danger?”, and “How well can walking sticks climb on different textures?”

Q: How is your role as a STEM teacher different if at all from the traditional science teacher?
A: Normally, I integrate engineering projects into each study we do together, and I make sure we use technology and math as we collect and interpret data about science topics. It’s about making sure these elements are intertwined and support each other.

Q: Give us an example of a STEM project that clicked with one of your students and explain why you think it’s essential that STEM is a continued focus in future science classes?
A: The third graders developed a 3-D model showing an animal life cycle they had researched. This clicked with many of them because not only were they learning about an animal life cycle, but they were also using design and engineering skills to build and solve problems which is always interesting. The students who love art also get to use their creativity to make the animal models and environment details.

Science is a great context to apply math, technology, and engineering. Solving problems using STEM provides students with interesting challenges and the skills needed to tackle real-world issues they will face in their lifetimes.

Sarah Thornton has been teaching for 20 years, ranging from infants through middle school groups. She has taught both as a homeroom teacher and a STEM teacher for many years in NYC and has also taught in Oregon, the rainforest of Belize, in San Jose, Costa Rica, and on a farm in Massachusetts. Sarah lives with her husband, Mike, and her two children, Frances (currently in 1st grade at Oak Knoll) and Finn (16 months). When she isn’t teaching at Oak Knoll, Sarah enjoys exploring the forest at South Mountain reservation, learning about history, and leading singalongs with many ages.

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