Film festival shows students STEM in action

Gwinnett County's M.H. Mason Elementary School recently tried a new way to show students the real-life value of STEM  (Science, technology, education and math) learning: a film festival.

“I wanted to show the students how they can incorporate what they learn in the classroom with some of their own creativity and come up with something unique and entertaining,” said Amanda Ray, a substitute teacher at the school who is founder of the Multicultural Sci-fi Organization, which advocates for science fiction and technology. Ray also presents the Atlanta Science Fiction Film Festival each year.

She came up with the concept of the Kids with STEAM Film Festival, (the A is for arts) and the school welcomed it.

“Even though we have STEM days throughout the year, we focus on STEM learning all year long,” said Principal David Jones. “We have invited educators and members of the community on various STEM days to help us improve and learn.”

Ray solicited short films with kid-friendly themes. A panel of educators and administrators screened her final selections, and once she was given the green light, the film festival was born.

As a woman and a person of color, Ray wanted kids who may not see themselves as filmmakers or in other careers in film to discover the possibilities.

"It's imperative for students to know the skill sets involved in the careers they're interested in," she said. "They see teachers and firefighters and police and doctors and those types of careers all the time and know what it takes to do that for a living. If they don't see other careers they won't necessarily aspire to them."

Amanda Ray, founder and CEO of the Multicultural Sc-fi Organization, speaks with fifth-graders during the first Kids with STEAM Film Festival at Mason Elementary in Duluth, Thursday, May 4, 2018. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

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Education experts across the county have pointed out that practical applications are the bridge from school to the workforce.

Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation, has said on many occasions that STEM education must start with real-world situations to spark students’ interests.

“Far too often, we simply don’t capture students’ imagination and help them connect what they do in the classroom with the world around them,” said Sanford, writing at the Huffington Post. “To use a non-science metaphor, we give students nouns in the classroom when they’re looking for verbs.”

Fifth-graders at Mason Elementary school react while watching a short sci-fi film during the Kids with STEAM Film Festival. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

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According to Sanford, students must understand the practical application of their classroom lessons to be competitive in college and in their careers.

The inaugural film festival took place on May 4 at the school. Two classsesof fourth- and fifth-graders sat through six screenings that lasted about 45 minutes each. With the two films taking up less than 20 minutes combined, there was lots of time for discussion and reflection.

Part of the festival was to get kids to critique the films.

Ray said she was pleasantly surprised at how insightful and articulate many of the students were.

“It shows that they’re using language arts and science and other lessons in this exercise.”

Many of the students enjoyed a film by Mads Jakobsen, a student senior for The Animation Workshop school in Denmark, called “Girl & Robot.” As the title implies, it shows a young girl’s successes and failures in trying to make a robot. One student, Chassity Duong, liked that it demonstrated STEAM learning. “She has to be good at all of the subjects because the robot is made with all the subjects,” she wrote.

A fifth-grader at Mason Elementary answers questions after watching a short sci-fi film during the first Kids with STEAM Film Festival at the school in Duluth, on Thursday, May 4, 2018. Amanda Ray, founder and CEO of the Multicultural Sc-fi organization, hosted the Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics film festival to encourage students to explore these fields for their future. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

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Another student, Caroline Kwon appreciated the life lessons. “I liked the lesson that this film taught. The robot was able to act on its own and even the girl got frustrated and blew up the robot,” she wrote. “It still saved her life and helped her realize that she should have stepped back and looked at what was going on instead of getting frustrated.”

The other film, “Children of Perserverance Valley,” by Samantha Ifill, Africa- American filmmaker in New York City who has a 4th grade child, also taught valuable lessons.

“I like this story because the kids were trying to work together and went to Mars and plant vegetables,” wrote Aaron Hui: “It was so cool. Thank you for showing this movie to us.”

Jones would like to see more members of the community lend their time and talents to the school.

“We’re preparing our kids for the next step,” he said. “We want to take them further and prepare them for jobs that don’t exist right now. We’re growing problem solvers and people who will create change. They’ll have to know how to collaborate and come up with creative solutions. I think we’re setting them on the right track.”