Larson Transportation Institute hosts second-graders for hands-on STEM

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Reading, writing and arithmetic: Throughout history, these words have always been synonymous with elementary and secondary education. Over the past decade, many K-12 students in school districts across the United States have also become increasingly immersed in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). From creative classroom experiments and thought-provoking projects, to boards, tables and tablets that are all preceded with the word “smart,” the resources available to today’s teachers and students may appear to be endless. Yet, despite a teacher’s best efforts, there are some things that simply cannot be taught solely within the walls of a classroom — because there are some things in life that must be experienced.

As part of a special field trip to University Park to watch “Che Malambo” at Eisenhower Auditorium, second-grade students from Lewistown Elementary School (LES) in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, recently visited the Larson Transportation Institute (LTI) and the Energy and the Environment Laboratory, for a hands-on STEM experience.

“Children really are the future,” said Eric Donnell, professor of civil engineering and director of LTI, who provided a high-level overview of some of the research that goes into everyday transportation needs. “Programs and field trips like this are great ways to introduce children to engineering at an early age. You just never know how a visit like this will impact a child. And, as an educator and engineer, it’s exciting to engage young minds in the conversation.”

After a presentation and question-and-answer session about bridges, traffic control and autonomous vehicles, the students challenged each other to a game of Gridlock Buster in the LTI conference room, and indulged in ice cream from Penn State Berkey Creamery. The day wrapped up with a visit to a mechanical engineering lab, where a group of graduate students working with Sean Brennan, professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering, walked the class through a virtual-reality, highway driving simulator, to test how well they adhered to rules of the road.

“In our classrooms at LES, we infuse as much STEM as possible into the curriculum,” said Crystal Fabina, second-grade teacher at LES. “For example, we’ve used clay and rocks to build a dam for a flooded mountain, common kitchen items to create a temperature-controlled environment, and straw to create a floating device.”

Fabina, who originally won the field trip to attend a show through the Center for the Performing Arts while attending a professional development conference, is always looking for ways to enrich the STEM curriculum in her classroom.

“This field trip opportunity gave my students the chance to not only participate in higher-level thinking and experiences, but also learn about potential career choices and the importance of math and science,” Fabina added. “Opportunities like these are essential for engagement and motivation.”

The Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute is Penn State’s transportation research center. Since its founding in 1968, the Larson Institute has maintained a threefold mission of research, education and service. The institute brings together top faculty, world-class facilities and enterprising students from across the University in partnership with public and private stakeholders to address critical transportation-related problems.

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Last Updated March 20, 2018