Creating slime and melting crayons may seem like messy pastimes, but at the Cade Museum for Creativity and Innovation these activities open the door for experiential learning through its program Operation Full STEAM.
With crayons, aluminum foil and a little heat, second graders learn to differentiate magma from lava and how the rock cycle works.
And handling slime lets students learn about solids, liquids and gases―with non-Newtonian fluids added for older students.
“Sometimes when [students] hear it from someone who’s in a lab coat or someone who’s got a different uniform on it makes them realize that, yes, the world is incredible and it’s awesome and it’s also at my fingertips,” Rebekah James, a second grade teacher at Lake Forest Elementary, said.
James began teaching at Lake Forest three years ago and her class participates in Operation Full STEAM along with all second, third, fourth and fifth graders at Metcalfe Elementary, Idylwild Elementary and Lake Forest Elementary.
Operation Full STEAM started in 2018 to come alongside schools with historically low scores in STEAM subjects―science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics.
Throughout the school year, the students visit the Cade Museum at Depot Park and participate in hands-on activities that reinforce classroom learning.
Dylan Power, outreach coordinator for the museum, said that Cade aligns its program with the school’s curriculum. This way, students learn about the rock cycle at school and then further that education through Cade’s program.
“A lot of the Cade Museum programming is like sneaking in the vegetables,” Power said. “The kids don’t even know they’re learning.”
In 2018, Operation Full STEAM only worked with second graders at the three schools, but every year since the program has added a level, following those second graders all the way to fifth grade.
Now, the program has 768 students who visit the museum and receive special in-school programs throughout the year.
Power said the program tries to interact more with the younger grades because of the potency of early exposure to STEAM activities.
For the 2021-22 school year, second and third graders will have three visits to the museum, and fourth and fifth graders will travel to the Cade Museum once while also having the Cade travel to the school once.
During the pandemic, the Cade Museum shifted to effectively implement the program, creating virtual programs and mobile labs.
The motivation for the museum comes from its mission: to transform communities by inspiring and equipping future inventors, entrepreneurs, and visionaries.
By partnering with these schools, the Cade Museum provides opportunities for students who may otherwise not visit the museum or make magma out of crayons otherwise.
Currently, Operation Full STEAM is a pilot program funded with a matching federal grant that lasts four years, with the 2021-2022 school year being the last.
The Cade Museum funds half of the operation―about $164,000―with the grant covering the other portion allowing schools to access the resource for free.
During these first four years, the Cade Museum has worked with researchers at UF to examine the effects of the program.
Power said this process has included student surveys, teacher focus groups and examining AIM test scores.
Idylwild, Metcalfe and Lake Forest all rank below 50 percent in the state for math and reading scores. The Cade Museum hopes Operation Full STEAM helps to improve those scores.
“This program is not only about test scores, but we’re also trying to inspire these students and spark wonder in them and get them thinking like they can also be inventors, entrepreneurs, visionaries,” Power said.
The Cade Museum is a nonprofit organization that relies on fundraising and community sales to power programs like Operation Full STEAM.
Jody Farmer, senior director of the Cade Museum, said community support is important to sustain the museum as a community asset.
While the Cade family has given the museum an endowment that covers less than 15 percent of its annual operating income, the rest comes from individual gifts, grants and sales.
Sales fell during the pandemic but started climbing back up before the delta variant hit in August, confounding the museum’s plans for a marketing push.
“We try our best to not let anything get in the way of providing a transformational experience for our students,” Power said.
That includes the pandemic. The Cade Museum pivoted to Zoom for instruction and aired programs on PBS for a virtual 2020 summer camp.
But getting students to the actual Cade Museum building is still a goal, and James said her second graders enjoyed their first trip at the beginning of November.
“It was their first year of going to the museum so they were totally stoked,” James said.
She said that school, while interesting, can become mundane at times, especially during a pandemic with restricted travel. But organizations and programs that partner with the school provide resources teachers would otherwise lack and add a spark to the student’s learning.
Teachers also learn through the program. James said watching how the Cade Museum employees explain or demonstrate concepts gives her a refresher as well.
“It brings me comfort that we’re a community and we really do pool resources together and work together as a community for the sake of our children,” she said.
As the pilot program winds down, Power said the museum will apply for federal grants to help the program continue and even expand the work of creating slime, melting crayons and inspiring students.
“They give the students a lot of hope for the things that they can do when they graduate,” James said.