STEMM Day grows at Patrick Henry

Posted: June 8th, 2018 | Featured, Top Stories | No Comments

Jeff Clemetson | Editor

Five years ago, engineering teachers at Patrick Henry High School (PHHS) came up with a plan to host an event that would bring elementary school students to the Henry campus and interact with their high school counterparts participating in STEMM activities.

That first year, the event was held in the quad area at Patrick Henry and was “very minimal” with only two local elementary schools participating, said PHHS Engineering Academy lead teacher Adria Van Loan-Polselli.

Students testing the soundness of their structure with a heavy text book (Courtesy PHHS)

When Van Loan-Polselli took over the engineering department, she kept the program going the same way for two years, engaging in STEMM activities she found online and hosting a small handful of schools in the quad. But as more and more area schools embraced a STEMM-focused curriculum, the STEMM Day event blossomed.

“So, one of the biggest feedback and reflection that we got from the fifth-grade teachers was to step it up a notch, include some of the robotics and just basically grow it and make it bigger,” Van Loan-Polselli said.

Last year, STEMM Day moved venues to the Patrick Henry amphitheater where all the different Henry cluster school students could be together. Also, the schools invited expanded to include charter schools as well as Catholic School St. Therese Academy.

“We really want the kids to get to know each other from the different schools before they go to middle school and before they come to high school together,” Van Loan-Polselli said.

The Patrick Henry robotics team put on a demonstration for the fifth graders at STEMM Day. (Photo by Jeff Clemetson)

The program also changed by adding robotics demonstrations by the Henry robotics teams and new curriculum.

“We changed it up and decided to do activities that mimic and are from the San Diego County Science Field Day,” Van Loan-Polselli said. “As far as I know, these schools do not compete in that event so we want to give them that opportunity to compete and practice in that.”

This year’s STEMM Day was held on May 31 and around 430 fifth grade students from six schools joined more than 100 PHHS engineering students to work out two STEMM projects. One of the projects the students worked on was a structure activity meant to develop civil engineering skills. With only a Styrofoam square, dozens of plastic straws and a box of T-pins, the students had to construct a foot-tall platform that could hold text books weighing five pounds apiece.

“It’s a strength thing — how can you make it the strongest possible,” described Gage Elementary fifth grade teacher Stefanie Hayes. “The whole idea behind the STEMM is the kids plan it out, get the materials and then change it along the way to make it the best. When doing STEMM projects you can have eight groups with the same goal and get eight completely different ideas. These kids will come up with the most inventive things.”

In addition to learning about structural dynamics — such as triangles being the strongest shape — the students also learn how to work as a team and how to overcome failure.

“In these projects, they don’t always succeed,” she said. “There’s a lot of failure. But then they learn that if it didn’t work, what would they try for next time.”

As the fifth graders build their projects, Henry students are there to guide them, without telling them what to do.

“I kind of gave them hints on how to make it the strongest, but they were really smart and they came up with most of it on their own, if not all of it on their own,” said Theo Hale, a freshman engineering student.

Sophmore Jax Knight helped a group of students from Marvin Elementary, where he went to school and was a student at the very first STEMM Day at Henry. He said that his class’ project was to create a boat from paper and duct tape. He described the experience as “inspiring” and he now studies engineering at PHHS.

“It’s kind of crazy to think we were that age once doing this stuff,” he said.

The mentoring aspect of STEMM Day is one of the main pluses for the Henry students.

“We like it because it gives them the opportunity to do the leading and the guiding and the practice at thinking skills that we’re doing with them in class,” Van Loan-Polselli said. “That’s what we want these kids to be leaving high school. We want them to be in leadership positions in whatever they choose, whether it’s a four-year school, the military, two-year school or a job.”

With the new location in the amphitheater, Van Loan-Polselli hopes the program will continue to grow.

“We’re so happy that all these school can come and next year we hope even more schools will be available,” she said.

— Reach Jeff Clemetson at

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