Secondary students lead elementary students into STEM.

Help excite elementary students by having older and "cooler" secondary students lead them in learning about STEM.

Photo of Mark Carlucci
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UPDATED – NOV 29

I work in a 7 to 12 school. I work with my students in a range of settings, from traditional classrooms to tech labs, in school to construction worksites, during the school day to weekends travelling on 10-hour bus rides. In all that time I am spending with the students, I’ve noticed they have a lot of trouble with choice. They are rooted in the need to be told what to do next.

As they move through elementary school they are losing their passion for creativity and problem solving. They no longer ask why questions to understand the world; they ask questions like, “What do I do next?” An example of is comes from a colleague’s senior construction class. He just finished teaching the class how to make table legs, helped the first student cut two legs, and then the student asked, “What do I do now?” This senior student had no idea that he needed to make two more legs for the table. The teacher told him to make two more and went to help another student, the first student became upset that the teacher didn’t walk him through cutting the last two and didn’t work on it.

It’s not the student’s fault. He was so accustomed to being walked through projects, working on his own was not something he knew how to do.

 Students need to be empowered to learn on their own. To make decisions and go in their own directions while learning, and pursue their passion.

Last year, in an effort to promote interest in robotics and bolster our local league, I starting running robotics day camps with the help of my grade 11 students. We offered our services to several local elementary schools, focusing on grades 4 to 6.

During the camps the elementary participants break into small groups and, with support from the high school students, create robots from a bin of parts. While they often start with a guide book, after they get the basics down, they start venturing off with their own ideas, making modifications (mods) and experimenting to discover what works (and doesn’t). At the end of the day we run a short competition or challenge with the students.

What I have found, both during the camps, and later through teachers and parents, is a growth in the interest and excitement amongst the participants. During the camps they take risks and try out ideas, when they don’t work out, they haven’t failed, just need to try again… and again… and again, without disappointment. Afterwards, I have had many parents and teachers approach me about offering more camps, in school, on weekends and during the summer. They tell me how interested the students become in robotics and enjoy building.

In now the second year running camps, I have returned to many schools to offer camps to new groups of students. I often run into those students that participated in previous camps and get told how much fun they had and requests to run it with them again. A school we visited last month sent 30 letters describing how “very very very very very very very fun robotics camp was.” Many provided suggestions for improving the camps.

Running these camps works. But I don’t want to stop here. I want get more people involved, running more camps and in different areas of STEM. Robotics is pretty expensive to get into, but there are so many more activities that can be run at relatively low cost.

I just purchased 10,000 popsicle sticks for around $45, add some glue or tape and you have the tools to build towers and bridges. Have access to computers? Scratch (https://scratch.mit.edu) is a free online programming platform that is easy enough for young students (and inexperienced teachers) to get started with. How much could students get out of the science fair if partnered up with a high school science class?

Having the high school students facilitate the camps provides an extra bit of excitement for the elementary participants. They can more readily relate because of the smaller age gap and the “coolness” factor that high school students provide. It also makes it a lot easier on the facilitating teacher. There is more time for the groups to connect with each other and the facilitating student, and ask more questions.


I spent the day running in a camp with a grade 4/5 class. As a spoke with the teacher about the camp and some of my goals, she gave my several reasons why running these camps regularly would benefit her students.

She has 30 students, many with special education needs that require one-on-one support, several times a week she is spending 30 or more minutes after recess breaks dealing with behavior issues from the break, and she does not have a background in STEM subjects. Her and the principal both praised the engagement of the students, two of which had spent 40 hours this past summer in a robotics camp with me and where familiar with what we presented.

Running focused camps like what I am suggesting, brings opportunities for students to connect with people experienced in these areas. It gives them opportunities that they frequently miss out on because there just isn’t enough time in the day for elementary teachers to build these active and engaging lessons.

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Original Post

Last year I started bring my secondary students out to elementary schools to teach robotics. This has really engaged my students, but the elementary students have really started buying into what we are doing. Because of our day camps, last year, participation in our local elementary robotics league more than tripled from 6 teams to 20, and this year is over 30 teams.

Here is a video from the local media about our what we do: https://www.sootoday.com/videos/news/robots-take-over-local-classroom-77324

A lot of this comes from my high school students working in elementary schools and in the community promoting robotics.

To elementary students, kids in high school are cool; way cooler than their teacher. So, when my secondary students are seen building robots and driving them around, it's cool for elementary kids, all the nerdiness is gone, because an older kid is doing it.

If you want inspire elementary students, I think you need to connect with older kids. It provides them with people that are more relatable than adults. And if you can have those connecting be through fun and engaging STEM related activities, the elementary kids will quickly buy in and want to be part of it.

Think about pairing a high school science class with elementary students to create science fair projects. I know that many science fairs are competitions to find the best kids on their own merit, but this could connect with a multitude of ability levels.

Or having a computer science class teach Scratch to primary students.

I give my students sets of robotics kits and throw them to the lions. They have to learn on the fly how to deal with problems that arise and very quickly figure out how to work with the elementary students. Even the students that aren't the best in my classroom, show great leadership with the elementary students.

How else might we connect our secondary students with elementary students? I keep trying to think of a good math connection, but keep falling short; suggestions?

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Mark -- I think that using older students to engage younger students is really great strategy. For some math ideas -- check out this site: https://activelearning.100kin10.org/. I also think that how you as the secondary teacher with a lot of content knowledge could support the elementary teacher you're working with to do active STEM when you aren't around. The content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge you have as a subject-specific teacher is so valuable. I think this cross-grade, teacher-to-teacher collaboration is one of the strongest parts of this idea, and it would be great to expand it even further (even across subjects within the high school!).