Patagonia Elementary School teacher Catherine Parker demonstrates spatial concepts during The Universe Within program.

A STEM and creativity program that began several years ago at Patagonia Elementary School is expanding as teachers develop and pilot a second module this year. ‘The Universe Within’ is homegrown, developed by the nonprofit Mat Bevel Company and the University of Arizona School of Mathematical Sciences. 

It is being tested first in the Patagonia schools. Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) are taught through a creative process in which students in third, fourth and fifth grades develop their own characters and build unique worlds for them to inhabit.  

The creativity that the teachers inspire in their students is matched by their own enthusiasm and innovation, as the staff works with the original designers to develop the second, and soon, a third module, Electrical Energy. Catherine Parker, Middle School Math teacher, and Elvia Gallaher and David Clovesko-Wharton (Mr. CW), fourth- and  fifth-grade teachers, have contributed their expertise along the way.

In Module 1, students develop superhero characters who solve important social and environmental issues, as they learn about the basic sciences, two- and three- dimensional shape attributes, area, circumference, patterns, and surface area. 

Analucia, a fourth-grader, said, “I liked that in The Universe Within we worked together and imagined how we could fix what’s happening in the world. I liked that we made creations with our hands, especially the headdresses made from cardboard.”

In Module 2, hand-on projects teaching concepts such as principles of matter, energy, time, space, forces, and Newton’s Laws of Motion continues the students’ exploration of the unique world they create for their character.  

Parker likes the way the program taps into different learning styles. “With a strong emphasis on test scores and achievement, often we find we don’t have time for more engaging programs. This program blends the standards we are teaching with exploratory and creative tasks.”

Mr. CW observed, “I have great memories from teaching Module 2, including making a human sundial, the creation of the solar system, and engaging multiple pulley systems as part of the time-space machines. Taking the kids outside and making a sundial with the students’ shadows various times during the day created a physical manifestation of their learning about time. Additionally, the kinesthetic modeling of the planets (students) rotating and revolving around a stationary sun in the middle embedded the applied scientific principles of rotation and revolution. The real engineering work involved in the time-space machine utilized important skills that the students will take away with them forever, such as creating smoothly turning axles, finding the perfect tension of the pulley systems, and designing the entire operational system.”

Patagonia Schools Superintendent Kenny Hayes has observed that students in the Stem Club are very engaged. “They are having fun and they don’t realize all that they are learning,” he commented. According to Nancy McCoy, Patagonia Elementary School Board Member, there is a lot of research showing that creativity developed early on pays off in a child’s later educational endeavors. “It’s a wonderful program that we are lucky to be piloting. It aligns with the state standards but introduces and develops concepts that are part of the CORE in higher grades.” 

The program has been supported by an A for Arizona Expansion and Innovation grant and grants from the Patagonia Regional Fund, among others. Hayes appreciates the assistance from these organizations. “We could never have begun or continued this project without their support, as well as the collaboration the University of Arizona,” he said. 

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