A young girl with glasses looks at the camera through a model building she made out of toothpicks and marshmallows.

Ten-year-old Naja Rivers shows off her toothpick and marshmallow structure during a recent STEAM workshop.
Image Credit: University Relations

Abby Baker goes from table to table at Holly Springs Center, making sure that each student group has what it needs for one of the evening’s lessons. One of the girls in this particular group, Naja, is practically bursting with energy. Maybe she’s hungry. It’s hard to tell.

“What did we say about our building materials?” Baker asks.

“Don’t eat them!” Naja says, in unison with the rest of the group. Her eyes dart left and right, and she sneaks a marshmallow into her mouth anyway.

Graham crackers, marshmallows and toothpicks might not be standard tools for civil engineers, but they’re adequate stand ins for these fourth- and fifth-grade students. Baker has tasked them to create a structure out of these items that can withstand the terrible force of a gelatin earthquake.

Hailey Barefield, a junior in Clemson’s College of Education, has pans of orange and purple Jell-O at the ready. One by one, students place their structures atop these pans to see if they’ll succumb to the earthquakes Baker and Barefield create by shaking them.

Hailey Barefield, right, gives the “jello test” to a toothpick and marshmallow structure during a STEAM workshop.
Image Credit: University Relations

“It’s time for an earthquake!” Barefield yells as students look on in suspense. After five agonizing seconds, successful students retire to the “winner’s corner,” while those whose structures crumbled get back to work, eager to solve the problem.

As a Ph.D. student in the College of Education and director of Holly Springs Center, Baker is using these workshops to deliver concepts related to science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics (STEAM). This level of engagement is exactly what she envisioned for the STEAM workshops she leads at Holly Springs Center.

The workshops are part of a Clemson Creative Inquiry project that sees Clemson students translate college-level STEAM projects for a fifth-grade audience. The lessons are a valuable extension in the education of Clemson students and the fifth graders they teach, but Baker is thinking even bigger. She is testing a model that she hopes will be copied across a state with a growing need for students interested in science and math.

Laying the Foundation

Baker says she was destined to helm this project. Considering the many hats she wears both at Clemson and the Holly Springs Center, it’s hard to argue that point. When she’s not at the center or pursuing her Ph.D., she serves as a graduate assistant for institutional assessment at Clemson.

Abby Baker works with a student.

Clemson University student Abby Baker, a Ph.D. candidate in learning sciences, works with 5th-grader Naja Rivers during a STEAM workshop held at the former Holly Springs Elementary School near Pickens, S.C. as part of an undergraduate research project, Feb. 27, 2018. The school, closed in 2017 by the Pickens County school board in a cost-cutting move, would become the Holly Springs Center under a plan devised by Baker.
Image Credit: University Relations

“At least all the stuff I do is complementary,” Baker said, with a laugh.

She became a true believer in the power of STEAM education while pursuing her Ph.D. in Learning Sciences at Clemson. She also had the perfect venue for a STEAM workshop after she and a small group of community leaders transformed the closed Holly Springs Elementary into Holly Springs Center last year. She once attended the elementary school as a child, and now serves as the center’s director.

“I’m from the area and attended the school; it felt like the space should be used,” Baker said. “Its purpose is to do something good for the community and providing quality science and math education falls right in line with that.”

Holly Springs Center has become a hub in Pickens County for woodworking, pottery, silversmithing and Appalachian art and culture classes. Baker’s connections to the Pickens County school district meant she could fill a Holly Springs STEAM workshop with students. She just needed to bring Clemson and its students into the fold, so she pitched the idea for a creative inquiry project to her boss, Jeremy King, associate provost for institutional assessment.

King serves as faculty of record on the creative inquiry project. Baker said he has largely been responsible for making the creative inquiry a reality, but King refuses to take too much credit. He witnessed Baker bring Holly Springs back to life and admired her as she steadily put a plan for the STEAM workshop into action.

Over the course of several conversations about the center and what Baker hoped to accomplish, the aim of the workshops crystallized for King. He liked the idea of piquing the interest of young students in a STEAM workshop that makes these concepts exciting. He thinks this approach only increases the likelihood a diverse group of students will pursue careers in math and science later in high school and college.

“Clemson wants to invest in programs like this that could pay off into a sustainable pipeline for STEM education,” King said. “This project was the next step in making that a reality, so I was happy to support it.”

Building the Program

The creative inquiry project seeks to measure how effective an interdisciplinary team of education and engineering students can be in increasing interest in STEM fields among K-12 students.

Abby Baker and Hailey Barefield show off their Clemson rings.

Clemson University students Abby Baker (left), a Ph.D. candidate in learning sciences, and Hailey Barefield, a junior studying elementary education, show off their Clemson class rings.
Image Credit: University Relations

As an education major, Barefield said she was initially worried about her comfort level with engineering concepts. However, it quickly became clear that her purpose was to act as a filter between Clemson engineering students and the students who need these concepts delivered in terms they can understand.

Instead of throwing concepts like elastomer polymers at fifth graders, Barefield designed a lesson around rubber bands that conveyed all the concepts to a younger age group.

“We have to give these students something they can connect with,” Barefield said. “The partnership between engineering and education allows us to explore concepts for children that teachers may not think of or even have the time to cover.”

Agustin Malki, an engineering major involved in the project, has enjoyed seeing the concepts he and his fellow engineers introduce come to life for students through the work of the education majors involved. He said it has been rewarding to see students start to understand how science might affect their future career and how engineering concepts apply to real-world scenarios.

“I think many students spend too much of their time catching up on these concepts when they get to high school and college, so it’s important for us to give back to younger generations in this way,” Malki said. “It’s been great to see how excited they are and how much they’re enjoying the sessions.”

Jaclyn Bruton, another junior education student, said the project is truly a case in which everyone involved benefits. The project team is increasing the younger students’ interest in these concepts, and she can attest to the project’s ability to build confidence in the college students involved.

“STEAM can be intimidating to teach, but in reality it’s a lot of simple concepts built onto one another,” Bruton said. “It’s a great opportunity for me to build my confidence teaching these concepts, but it’s also clear that we’re helping these elementary students become more open minded about what they might want to do in the future. It’s never too early.”

Pushing the Model

Baker runs the project with engineering graduate student Devin Keck, and they’ve allowed Clemson students to shape the program themselves as long as primary objectives are met. One of those objectives is aligning lessons with state education standards. The workshops aren’t just engaging students in a bubble; if they aren’t reinforcing concepts students have already encountered in the classroom, they’re introducing what’s to come.

The marshmallow towers on Jell-O actually covered two state education standards. In the case of sound waves, students learned how different variables affect properties of sound. They also analyzed and interpreted data to describe and predict how natural processes affect the Earth’s surface.

More than most, Baker champions the idea of infusing every classroom with STEAM concepts during regular school hours, but she sees the workshops as another method to push these concepts in the short and long term.

“This is an immediate step in the right direction, and I emphasize immediate,” Baker said. “These are simple, economical activities that get diverse groups of students engaged in science and math. Why would we not do that?”

Baker hopes to one day use a similar model in the students’ own schools and eventually spread the workshops to other parts of the state. King said he looks forward to seeing just how Baker plans to measure the success in the short term, especially considering the potential benefits for students would be felt much further down the road.

Those measures are in the back of Baker’s mind with every session; she knows this is a proof of concept in Clemson’s backyard, one that could change its geographic and socioeconomic reach. But she already sees success where it matters most: on the faces of every child who gets excited when STEAM concepts and the real world click into place.

And it never hurts when the teacher making it happen is wearing orange.

“For many students from under resourced schools or areas, the concept of college can be a vague thing, but it gets clearer when someone from Clemson is in front of you making these concepts exciting,” Baker said. “This is just another way Clemson can serve all of those students and let them see that a future in these areas is attainable.”