Van R. Butler Elementary School launched an after-school STEM club this fall for students in second through fourth grades.

STEM is a widely-used acronym which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. It is used to refer to a teaching approach that incorporates these four specific disciplines in problem solving and real-world applications.

Tulin Koch, the Butler Elementary curriculum coach and the STEM club's founder, said more than 200 children will participate in the club during the 2017-2018 school year.

"The idea for STEM club was first introduced during our end of year School Improvement Meeting," Koch said. "With the understanding that this would be an after-school endeavor, I assumed I would only be able to take a small group of perhaps 20 students.

"I should have known our phenomenal Butler teachers better than that," she added. "The teachers at the School Improvement Meeting thought on a much larger scale and stepped up to volunteer their time to help work with even more students."

So far this semester, the students used STEM concepts to design and build bridges for specific weight bearing loads, to explore electric circuitry with simple battery, wire, and bulb combinations, and to create full-scale haunted mansions with working lights. Now, thanks to the generous gift of local engineering firm O'Connell and Associates Consulting Engineers, Butler STEM club will explore the world of coding and robotics with 12 new Lego WeDo 2.0 sets.

"The Lego WeDo 2.0 kits are created for students in grades K-4. This feature alone makes it ideal for use in the elementary setting," Koch said. "With its drag and drop interface, the kits provide the perfect platform for our students to begin learning about coding and robotics. In addition, the ability for the students to create specialized robots with a tool (Lego) that is familiar to them is just icing on the cake.”

During one club meeting, the students worked in groups with tablets and laptops to program movement in their team robots. Jayden Martinez and Whipple Jones are both fourth graders who were working as a team.

“I like the fact that the sets take something fun like Legos and make it even more fun by adding technology,"Jones said.

The opportunity to donate the Lego kits to the club was appealing for Neill O’Connell, principal and senior engineer at O’Connell and Associates.

“Walton County has outstanding schools so it’s impossible not to imagine the wealth of opportunities that already await these kids, both locally and abroad," O'Connell said. "When we were approached about the possibility of assisting the Butler Elementary STEM club, it was one of the easiest decisions we’ve ever had to make as an engineering firm. We are delighted to do our part in helping to grow local STEM programs, at all levels.”

The interest in the student population has been overwhelmingly positive. Each week children eagerly anticipate Tuesday so they can attend the club meetings.

“There have been so many heartwarming stories of how interested our students and families have been with STEM club," Koch said. "The desire and need to have such a club in our community has been clearly apparent. As I walk down the halls at Butler, the number of hugs and high fives, the points to the STEM Club T-shirts, the 'I will see you this afternoon, Ms. Koch.' Each of those acts illustrate the enthusiasm our students have for their STEM Club. I am honored to be a part of such a great experience."

And while it is important that the students enjoy their STEM club experience, this early exposure may be crucial to their future employment opportunities. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data indicates that jobs available STEM fields will increase by 9 million by 2022. Occupational groups in this category includes the fields of computers, mathematics, architecture, engineering, medicine, physical and social sciences to name a few. The BLS data also indicated that some STEM careers paid more than double the median wage of other workers as of 2013.

Allowing the children in the club to explore and create using STEM concepts in a fun environment without the pressure of grading or assessments has allowed students to change the way they view their own abilities.

"My hope is that each child takes away the knowledge that they can," Koch said. "They can create something from nothing. They can work as a team. They can think outside the box. They can be good in math and science!”