Modesto youngsters STEAM toward kindergarten

A little girl pushed a long earthworm onto an oversized magnifying glass, hoisting it like a small plate to show to the boy beside her. But he was busy with his own worms, caging them between two magnifiers until the teacher pointed out that, even without noses, worms still need to breathe.

It was very practical science for 5-year-olds, a snippet of a program giving 24 youngsters a jump start on kindergarten over three weeks this summer at Orville Wright Elementary School in the airport district of south Modesto.

“The main purpose is to transition preschoolers to kindergartners,” said organizer Maria Ruiz on Wednesday. The Modesto City Schools’ Child Development Programs Department runs the program, which treats kids to hands-on activities in science, technology, engineering, arts and math – known in teaching circles as STEAM.

The “Three Little Pigs” story touched on every one of those, as kids heard the story, performed the play, built three mini-houses of brick, wood and straw, and hooked up a tiny fan to blow on them. Gregori student musicians Andrew Ruiz and Haruto Maejima played to a reading of the book while kids kept time with drumsticks.

“They were civil engineers building the buildings. They actually helped us build every single little thing,” said teacher Yscel Gonzalez, sitting by a table covered by the “Three Little Pigs” tableau. “I just wanted them to build with an intention. The engineering combined with literacy and learning the story.”

In front of her, two boys tried a makeshift wrecking ball to ram the brick house, an activity designed to have students make rough calculations of force needed. “After they build, we get to play and enjoy it,” she said with a grin.

While the kids mixed it up with houses, wriggly worms, growing plants and a solar oven that just might melt cheese in a sandwich, parents head to another classroom for grown-up lessons.

“They had the Opening Doors program, ways to enhance their parenting skills to be their child’s first teacher. This week they have a math program, all about math they can do at home with their children,” Ruiz said.

Four fellow preschool teachers and transitional kindergarten teacher Jennifer Borba worked with Ruiz through the session, getting help from 12 volunteer Gregori High students and a Modesto Junior college engineering student.

“I love working with this age group,” said Borba as she helped kids make small boats out of foil and cardboard. “This is a real bright, good group of kids. Anything we have them do, they’re just ready to go,” she said.

Next to her, a small tub provided a 2-inch deep mini-lake for the vessels to sail. Each young captain predicted to high school volunteer Neelaab Nawabi how many people (plastic circles) could be added to the boat before it sunk.

“I love interacting with children,” said Nawabi, who hopes to become a pediatric nurse one day.

Oversize books document the summer science fun, including a static electricity magic show and experiments on conductivity – keys do, marbles do not – and what Ruiz calls squishy circuits.

Sculpture mixes with science in kitchen play-clay time. The mushable stuff made with salt conducts. Make it with sugar, and it insulates.

All the weeks’ activities worked around key vocabulary, Ruiz said. This year’s words were function, examine, predict, force and measure.

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin