UMF students in STEM block courses have a visit from “Spot” the robot dog to illustrate the value of STEM education. (Courtesy of UMF)

FARMINGTON — Recently, University of Maine at Farmington education professors called on the services of Spot, the canine-inspired robot dog created by Boston Dynamics, to illustrate the value of STEM education to a group of UMF pre-service teachers learning to teach science, technology and mathematics to elementary  students.

Spot was introduced to the class by Steve Williams, principal compliance engineer at the Boston company.

“Spot’s movements are an engineering marvel! They show the possibilities of using STEM concepts to solve problems and help students develop the essential skills of creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and problem solving,” said Carole Lee, UMF associate professor of science education.

The faculty team of UMF professors Carole Lee, Shannon Larsen and  Kathryn Will is teaching a unique, semester-long, interconnected three-course block of STEM courses (science, technology, engineering, math, plus art or STEAM) to a cohort of 17 UMF juniors and seniors studying to be K-8 teachers. 

The cohort of students progresses together through the semester-long block of science, technology and mathematics education courses, working collaboratively and applying knowledge, skills and hands-on experience. At the end of the semester they work in groups to solve a problem, create a prototype, create an iMovie and advertise their product.

“One of the strengths of this program is that our students are developing STEM literacy by learning how to integrate their knowledge across subjects. This real-life learning experience is going to help them prepare their students once they are teachers in classrooms of their own, and potentially inspire the next generation of scientists, mathematicians and engineers,” said Lee.

For their final project, the cohort was divided into five student groups that were presented with real world problems related to climate change. After each group selected a scenario, they brainstormed to develop a solution for a potential problem and created a prototype to illustrate their ideas.

“This program gives both students and faculty the opportunity to lean in, depend on each other and make corrections as we all move forward. We learn to trust each other, make mistakes together and learn together. It’s pretty remarkable,” said Larsen.

The prototypes included student models that illustrated each group’s ideas for pro-active flood control, document preservation containers, solar-powered home generators, safety kits for reporters on assignment and ways to water and cool crops during unprecedented heat waves.

“This has been a great educational experience,” said Caroline Granata, a junior from Falmouth majoring in elementary education. “We have learned that STEM is fun and it is everywhere, and it will be exciting to show that to my students. The STEM Block this semester has also helped us learn to integrate teaching across subjects with the goal of saving teaching time and helping young students see the real world applications of what they’re learning.”

In the upcoming spring semester, Lee is organizing a STEM Fair with Cascade Brook School, a local upper elementary school comprised of grades 3-5. Her college students will have the opportunity to teach science at the school, helping to build student STEM literacy, to be followed by a make-your-own model derby car and race.