George Lucas Educational Foundation

Math and Science Rock: Hands-On Learning Is Music to Students' Ears -- and Minds

A Colorado elementary school's slogan finds its rhythm in the laboratory and stokes student passion to learn.
By Alexei Bien
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Two years ago, Ryan Elementary School, in Lafayette, Colorado, celebrated its increased emphasis on math and science. Parents and kids painted the walls of the laboratory, and a muralist donated her time to add planets, molecules, rolling pins, and rockets. Now, the school's informal slogan -- "Math and Science Rock!" -- is invoked at the start of assemblies, and the words have even been sewn onto a banner that hangs in the laboratory, the domain of teacher Janet Stellema.

Credit: Stephen Collector

From her eclectic surroundings, Stellema, also the school's math and science coordinator, delivers the kind of hands-on opportunities that stoke the students' passion for math and science. "If they leave elementary school thinking, 'I'm a scientist, I'm a mathematician, and math and science rock,' then we've met the goal."

Credit: Stephen Collector

Lunch Bunch

We're trying to fill their world with math and science. And we're trying to give them as many opportunities and as much enrichment as we possibly can. So we have a couple of things called Lunch Bunch. The kids sign up, and they come during their lunch or recess period. They say things like, "Mrs. Stellema, we need string," and pretty soon the string is going from one end of the room to the other, it's tied to the drawers, and they've got little gizmos sliding down the string. It's informal; it's free exploration. It's the free, unstructured time that kids sometimes need to discover and play.

Credit: Stephen Collector

Whisk Kids

Math and science are really, truly everywhere. They're in everything we do. One place is in cooking. The four walls of my science lab show physical science, earth science, and life science, and this wall, the fourth, has a big mural that reads "Let's All Cook." The goal is to get the kids to see the chemistry in cooking and the math in recipes.

Credit: Stephen Collector


Some of the stuff is mine, but the kids have taken over. This is one shelf out of ten that are full of stuff. It's really become their collection of cool science objects they find. That means they're getting stoked about science. They're looking around and seeing science in their own world and then bringing it in to share. They're proud of that collection because it's theirs.

Credit: Stephen Collector

Mutual Legacy

The fifth grade always tries to do a legacy project. This year, with the help of lots of talented sewing moms, each kid made a square for that banner representing what math and science mean to them. That was the only guideline. Each square is so different and so creative.

Credit: Stephen Collector


This mural is on the life science wall, and represents the interconnectedness of ecosystems that change throughout time. We try to connect math and science with everything, and that extends to art, music, and social studies. For example, the music teacher does an amazing thing with birdcalls; she uses them to teach kids quarter notes and half notes. If you look for those kinds of connections, they are there.

Credit: Stephen Collector

Bone Yard

The skeleton represents the partnership we have with Exempla Good Samaritan Medical Center. Two experts for each classroom come to do presentations or activities with the kids during the year. They came out for Valentine's Day, when the fourth grade was studying circulatory systems. They showed us how they do angioplasty, and then we dissected a heart. That's a pretty big deal, when you can hold an actual heart.

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