July 26, 2016 Ari Hock

Rigamajig students become teachers in STEM classroom

Last fall, Byron Gilliland asked the janitor to help him move most of the furniture out of his classroom, leaving behind just a few tables and chairs, and a huge amount of empty floor space. He was thrilled to have extra room for educational adventures. The janitor was happy to help (it would make the classroom easier to clean).

Byron is a 1st grade teacher at Jefferson STEM Elementary School in Winona, Minnesota. But sometimes he feels more like his students are teaching him.

"At least once a week, I point out to my students something I've learned from them. They figure out things that I wouldn't have thought of. As a student they absolutely love that. How often do you hear as a first-grader that you're smarter than your teacher? It gives them more drive to put in extra effort."

Byron is always looking for new ways to challenge his students creatively. When he heard about Rigamajig, he had a hunch it would be exactly the learning tool that he was looking for; something that could help his students cultivate enthusiasm for scientific inquiry. On its surface, Rigamajig is a collection of wooden planks, nuts, bolts, and loose parts. However, when mixed with the passion of a caring, motivated teacher, it becomes an infectious means to encourage free play and inquiry-based learning in the classroom.

Jefferson STEM Elementary School class with Rigamajig

Can you spot Byron? He's the big kid in the back.

Byron's been focusing on science and engineering because it helps his students with higher-level thinking skills. They're encouraged to think outside of the box to develop practical solutions to real-world problems.

Recently, the class did a joint effort with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to develop new ideas for uprooting invasive species. The students had a brainstorming session to determine what kind of machine would have this capability. Eventually, they settled on a pulley and sketched out different possible designs. Using the Rigamajig, the students were able to bring their ideas to life. They negotiated different pulley systems and voted on the one they thought would work best. Afterwards, the class went into the field to see the machines that were actually in use by the USFWS. The students relished the opportunity to relate the work they were doing to the real world.

Byron's approach to project-based learning with the Rigamajig encourages inclusiveness in the classroom. Students of varying academic and social competencies find themselves working together, suggesting ideas, and learning from each other.

The students are becoming seasoned Rigamajineers

The class has had a bunch of adventures with the Rigamajig. From performing operations in base 10 to creating leprechaun traps, Byron has found endless uses for the learning tool, and the outcome has validated his approach:

"It's amazing how much you can get away with when the results show up. As our test scores go up, it seems like I can try a lot more things in my classroom."

Now, when the janitor passes by Byron's room during the school day, he often stops to watch and smile – and not just because of his lighter workload!

Learn more about Rigamajig. We have grants available for qualifying schools and organizations. See what Byron's been up to on his class's Facebook page.

rigamajig, stem, education