Lower School STEM Curriculum Shows Students What Is Possible

As part of St. Mary’s STEM curriculum, girls like Alicia Anand ’30 learn to try new things, make mistakes, and problem-solve.


Ellis Weston’s robot moved quickly across the pool in a straightforward direction. But then the robot stopped moving. Weston ’30 and her two team members pulled the robot out of the water to see what was wrong.

“Our motor’s zip ties kept breaking, and our motors kept falling down. We were tugging on the wires too much,” Weston said. The girls quickly repaired the zip ties, and the robot was back in the water.

Malone Champman ’30 was thrilled when she saw how her team’s robot floated in the water. They had perfectly calculated the robot’s buoyancy. 

“I knew we could do it, just not as well as we did!” Chapman said.

Every May, 5th grade students take a field trip to a pool to test underwater robots they built over the course of 10 weeks. The project is the culminating assignment in the comprehensive Lower School STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curriculum. Girls learn how to solder, strip wires, build electrical circuits, and waterproof motors. But most importantly, they learn how to get their hands dirty, make mistakes, and problem-solve. It’s all part of a sense of wonder woven into the curriculum at St. Mary’s.

“We offer girls a safe space to be curious, test out their ideas, and make mistakes along the way,” said Carrie Ruhland, SK-2nd grade science teacher. “As students get older and do more complex projects, they are not afraid to tackle new challenges because they have always been allowed to take chances.” 

The STEM curriculum is strategically designed to build on skills year after year. As students learn about the engineering design process and increase their skill set, they also grow in their solution-oriented mindset. 

“We scaffold the projects starting in 1st grade with fairy tale engineering leading up to water robots in 5th grade. Each year a project introduces new age-appropriate tools and skills that build upon each other until we get to the 5th-grade project, which is very intense,” said Jessica Lancaster, North Campus Director of Curriculum.

Each grade spends dedicated time in the North Campus Makerspace, a magical place filled with cardboard, wood, fabric, hinges, popsicle sticks, zip ties, wire, glue guns, power drills, and more. Students “shop” the room for supplies as they tackle their projects. Teachers are on hand to guide students through material selections and how to use the tools.

In first grade, students solve a problem from a fairy tale that often incorporates the use of simple machines. The next year, students learn about the principles of flight by building a kite featuring a bird of their choosing. Third grade students learn about gravity and slope by building a Roman aqueduct. Fourth grade students develop their own inventions through a Shark Tank project that involves a field trip to Lowe’s and a pitch to judges. 

“This year, we got a lot of freedom in the Maker Space,” said 5th grade Chapman. “I was really cautious in the beginning. It took time to get used to all the tools, but now I’m more confident using different tools.”

As Lower School girls build confidence and technical skills, they also learn to overcome challenges that arise throughout the engineering process. St. Mary’s teachers are intentional about building patience and grit in their students from an early age. Girls are encouraged to find solutions with the help of their peers—rather than asking an adult for help. 

“When girls encounter an obstacle, we want them to take a step back, think things through with their partners and then test out an idea to solve it,” said Lancaster. “We guide them along the way, but we want the girls to understand that they can solve these problems without getting the answer from the teacher.”

“Creating the space and time to work through the steps of questioning, discovering, and learning builds persistence and determination. In this hands-on process, I want my students to be open to unlocking new passions and talents.”

Mekea Johnson, 3rd-5th Grade Science Teacher

  • All-School
  • Lower School

Additional Images

During the spring, 5th grade students tested the underwater robots they built over ten weeks. The project is the culminating assignment in the comprehensive Lower School STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curriculum.