Over the month of October, many of you may have stepped foot into the office and noticed, what seemingly could be viewed as a mountain of trash. To clarify, this heap of materials is defined as “good junk.” Good junk is an assortment of objects ranging from boxes, tubes, fabric, newspapers, caps, bottles, basically anything that is reusable from your home or work. These treasures can serve as the creative groundwork for building materials to open up children’s imaginations to the possibilities of STEM learning. What is STEM you ask? “STEM education is active and focuses on a student-centered learning environment. Students engage in problem solving, collaboration, and hands-on activities, while they are addressing real life issues. STEM proficient students are able to answer complex questions, investigate global issues, and develop solutions for challenges and real word problems, while applying the rigor of science, technology, engineering and mathematics content in a seamless fashion” (Gerstein, J. 2015). Adopting these objects to build a structure supports children initially with spatial awareness skills and mathematical reasoning proficiency, but also gives children a window into their future as a collaborative engineer, architect or designer.

Over the four Wednesdays in October, students from first through fourth grade participated in a KIDS Club called “Good Junk.” Students met experts in the field of “good junk.” Our first Wednesday together was spent learning from Otto Teske, a St. James Alumni and retired Structural Engineer. He spoke about the many fields and jobs engineers hold. After learning about this career, we were challenged to use open ended and inquiry-based thinking to build bridges out of only popsicle sticks and masking tape between tables. This launched divergent thinking, the bedrock for the next three weeks.

The second Wednesday students heard from two experts. The first being Stacy Klingbeil, a professor of Engineering Design and Innovation and Fellow for Design for America at Northwestern University. She coached us through the process of building a product. The example she displayed was the procedure of building a frame, which starts as simple as folding paper and leads to a more complex metal frame, with a great amount of trial and error. Our second expert was Craig Saenger, an architect who designed the remodel for St. James years ago! He discussed the responsibilities of an architect and presented blueprints, illustrating the array of structures he has designed and what architects have the ability to compose. After, each child was inspired to create their own blue print and supply list to plan individual building projects. This type of activity supports a child’s ability to plan and execute a project, as well as gain confidence in themselves and their abilities to build with the use trial and error.

The final weeks were spent tirelessly building. Students used a range of materials brought in by the St. James community to configure their projected designs. Not only did they learn about the technique of building, but they had the opportunity to meet experts with the hope of inspiring a few future engineers, architects and designers. In the end, the students’ creations ranged from a prison, to a dream home, to a rocket ship, even a robot; it is incredible to see inquiry-based learning in action!


Gerstein, J. (2015, August 13). STEM for Elementary School Students – How to Instill a Lifelong Love of Science.

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