United Way Award Helps Children in STEAM Classes

Teacher Jake Biernacki demonstrates the equipment he purchased with the $1,000 awarded by United Way for his classroom.

By Sue Moore

“It’s hard not to have a smile on your face all the time when teaching art and robotics to Vicksburg elementary students,” said Jake Biernacki, who received an extra $1,000 United Way challenge award for materials to use in his classrooms.

Biernacki is the lead teacher in a new Vicksburg program that stresses the visual arts together with mechanics that incorporates robotics. It’s an unusual combination, but Biernacki clearly sees how it fits together for the youngsters he teaches from kindergarten through fifth grade.

The program is called STEAM, an acronym for science, technology, engineering, art and math. It is derived from the much more recognizable STEM programs of Project Lead the Way offered through the Kalamazoo Regional Education Service Agency (KRESA) that the school has been involved in for many years. The difference is that extra letter, A for art. That’s where Biernacki’s strength in teaching lies; he has taught art in the Vicksburg elementary school system for 17 years.

Although an art teacher by training at WMU and Lawrence Tech, he has spent many summers working for his father who owns a construction company in New Buffalo. “The STEAM program engages children in learning differently,” Biernacki said. “They must use problem solving while working through an assignment following a step-by-step formula. They use the design process to solve everyday problems. Every student has a different level of learning. Some are mechanically minded and as a teacher you can see that right away. Others may be very social or artistic. I like to draw out these strengths in each child through the teaching methods I learned in the training to teach the STEAM classes.”

Vicksburg sent him to a five-day class to learn to teach the STEAM concept. Schoolcraft schools had adopted the same program a year before, so Biernacki was aware of Schoolcraft teacher Cindy Cole’s enthusiasm for this method.

Enter the $1,000 United Way award. Superintendent Charlie Glaes was assigned to determine a specific program that would have an impact on the largest number of students. Jake’s program was broad, touching all of the students at a building – now two buildings – and which enhanced the five STEAM fields in a fun and engaging way. “We figured lots of people could get behind that, and they did!”

Biernacki used the money for classroom consumables that apply most directly to the children in his K through fourth grade classes. The money was awarded in the fall of 2016. The two United Way campaigns in Gull Lake and Vicksburg had challenged each other to improve the year’s donations by a percentage of those giving and the amount of money donated. The losing community agreed that a separate $1,000 fund would be created to give to the winning community’s school system. When the accounting was finalized it was determined that Vicksburg had won hands down, especially because the staff in the school system had upped its pledges exponentially.

“Ruth Hook, the principal at Indian Lake, knows that I’m always looking for a new challenge so she chose me to teach the newly created STEAM program,” he said. “There are nine weeks of each module which include print making, ceramics, sculpture in the first module. Another module will deal with industrial design objects, then math and science as we go forward.”

Biernacki hosted a distinguished visitor recently in his classroom. Larry Slack, the retired head of KRESA and husband of Marilyn Slack, the president of Kalamazoo Valley Community College, has visited three or four times, playing with the kids, asking questions as they complete their lessons in Biernacki’s third and fourth grade classes at Tobey elementary.

“He told me he heard something he had never heard before in a classroom. When it came time to stop what the students were doing and put their gadgets away, they all said no. They didn’t want to because they were so passionate about what they were learning,” Biernacki said.

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