By Helen Camp
Photos by Denise Curtis, Eastern Shore Chamber
We hear it all the time: “children are the future of our world.” Sadly, our world seems to be suffering from a lot of problems these days. We have a choice: we can step back and protect ourselves from blame, leaving future generations to solve these problems. Or we can take responsibility and take action, recognizing that it is always within our ability to do our best. We can provide our youth with tools and skills that may alleviate issues we’ve exacerbated.
Ashton Crist, an educator of nine years, is focused on providing young children with these tools. After experience teaching elementary-age students, Crist moved to a private school five years ago where STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) courses were being taught on Fridays. She noticed that it was the children’s favorite day of the week, and soon “just fell in love with it.” So commenced her path to a Master’s Degree from Clemson University in Teaching and Learning with a STEM certification. Crist talks about her love of her students’ resilience and the excitement in their eyes when they overcome a failure with a successful new design. She explains that “August and September failures were like the world was going to end. They don’t know how to fail, but as we go on they learn if it doesn’t work [they] can fix it.
Once they learn that at a young age, once that clicks, they’re not afraid to try anything. That’s what makes it so cool.” Certainly, we cheer children on in a way that we often do not cheer each other on, or even cheer ourselves. We give children the liberty to make mistakes, and because their young brains have the ability to absorb information and develop skills at a much more rapid rate than they could in adulthood, this durability can really stick. “We celebrate failures,” Crist proudly claims. “You come up with a plan and if it doesn’t work, you try again.”
Determination is just one skill among many which is celebrated under a STEM education; creativity, cooperation, and critical thinking fall right in line with it. When prompted to explain how technological educations mesh with artistic ones, Crist states that “everything naturally comes together,” describing a music challenge where the students must create a song. They have the ability to record themselves, and can actually pull the music notes they want into the program. “It blows my mind what these kids can do,” she says. “We focus on learning how things work. They’re actually having to take devices on the computer and learn how to code them. They’re being exposed to so much technology, and I think it leads them to wonder and question even more. It opens the door for so much creativity.” Working amicably with others is a skill that doesn’t always come naturally to young children, but it’s undeniably essential to the progression of our society. Speaking of the program and its assignments, Crist observes that “it’s teaching them how to work with other people. They have to figure out that [their] idea isn’t always going to be the best one.” Fascinatingly, the students are learning this humbling fact through a deconstruction and analysis of their own thought processes. Through “Social Emotional Learning” (SEL), their website explains that children are encouraged “to think about their thinking and their learning process.” A noticeable issue in education is the inability of teaching methods, structures, and even curriculum to meet every student’s unique learning style. It is usually up to young individuals to discover how they best process information on their own. And sadly, by the time students begin to understand their own minds, it can be too late. “I had a Minecraft camp today, and [the students] were building The Colosseum. One kid completely started building from the top down; the other started building from the bottom up. They were doing the same thing,” Crist points out, “but to understand their reasoning, there are a lot of questions. Me asking questions, them questioning each other. It’s taking them through that whole process of planning like an engineer.” Seeing the way such processes push children to think critically is a big part of the reason she believes they need to be (and can be) taking STEM courses as early as kindergarten. “Maybe I’d have been a biomedical engineer if I had been exposed to it at a younger age,” Crist considers with a smile, “there’s always a career connection brought in.” The camp makes a point of emphasizing real-world career connections in their teaching, prompting young students to consider their passions and futures ahead of time. “They get so excited when they’re challenged,” Crist says, visibly excited herself. “That’s why I’m here. Because I wish I had been taught like this. It’s exciting and it’s relevant to their lives.” For more info, STEM for Kids, Mobile Bay, firstname.lastname@example.org