Sherman Elementary School


​​​​​​​​Project-based learning raises student interest, infuses Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math  ​

Second-grade student Olivia Jordan peers through the eyehole of a microscope in her classroom, zooming in on a bug that looks as tiny as a pinhead to the naked eye. ​

“What are you seeing?” teacher Laura Hoffard asks. Olivia and classmates debate whether they’re gazing at the milkweed bug’s hairy black leg or antennae. After deciding antennae—since it’s attached to the bug’s head— the students complete their best s​cientific drawings labeling the bug’s head, thorax, abdomen and antenna. 

Second-grade student Jadrian Juan peers at a milkweed bug as part of
his​ hands-on insect project at Sherman.
Microscopes and hands-on projects appear frequently now at Sherman. This year the elementary school transitioned to a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) focused school. It becomes the district’s 16th innovative school, a designation for schools that fuse a unique learning approach into the total school environment.  

“STEAM provides a meaningful way to reach kids,” said Principal Anne Tsuneishi. “It’s fun, interesting and much more interactive.”

Olivia marveled at how close she could zoom in on the bug with the microscope, a tool she’d never used before. “It’s like a magnifying glass, but bigger and you don’t need to hold on to it,” she said. “I feel good about learning about insects. I want to learn which ones are poisonous.” 

Hands-on projects

A major part of STEAM at Sherman involves project-based learning. Teachers assign at least three long-term projects for the school year. The hands-on projects combine different subjects, such as reading, science and math—creating interdisciplinary learning.

For example, fifth grade classes study the human impacts on biomes—distinct climate regions with their own unique plants and animals—around the world. As part of their project, students create a game showing the environmental challenges facing biomes like tundra, grasslands and rainforests. In art class, students make collages for each biome.

“My students have a lot of independence and creativity and a good deal of freedom in how they design their projects,” fifth-grade teacher Sarah Berkley said. “I think the level of understanding goes deeper.” 

​.Third-grade students use Arc-GIS mapping software and a Smart Board to 
work on a project exploring how students can make healthy choices.
​ ​​​​​​​​​​In a third-grade classroom Netra Williams uses Arc-GIS mapping to teach a project-based lesson about healthy choices. Her students use the mapping software and a Smart Board to map which counties in Washington State have the highest levels of juvenile diabetes. Students label the counties on the board and add additional layers to see how many hospitals exist in each county. 

“We’re seeing how technology changes the possibilities of classroom instruction,” Tsuneishi said. “Our driving questions are, ‘What do kids need to learn, and how do they learn now?’ It’s very different from 10, 20 years ago.”


STEAM develops well-rounded students able to think analytically and creatively—skills crucial for middle and high school and beyond. 

Professionals such as scientists, engineers and innovators in STEM hold some of the country’s most crucial jobs—yet a relatively small number of students plan to pursue those careers. 

​Fifth-grade students Clara Bauman and Josie Stanley tackle an
engineering project as part of their STEAM learning.
​In Washington, studies show increasing demand for STEM jobs, but not enough workers qualify for the high-skilled, high-paying positions. The state has at least 25,000 unfilled STEM and health care jobs due to a lack of skilled workers. Analysts predict the number will rise, according to the Office of the Governor. Nationally, President Obama set a priority of increasing the number of students and teachers who are proficient in these key fields. 

Adding art to STEM enriches the curriculum and draws upon Sherman’s rich artistic tradition. Since 2012, the school hosts an annual artist-in-residence program where a professional artist works with students.

Coding, Rain Gardens

STEAM weaves its way into the entire school day at Sherman. In addition to in-class instruction, after-school clubs offer related activities. Options include MinecraftEDU​, art, dancing and STEM club, as well as clubs run by businesses, such as Coding with Kids for beginning computer coding, Smart with Art computer art and Bricks4Kids robotics. Scholarships are available for some clubs requiring additional payment. 

The school also partnered with the Pierce Conservation District to install a rain garden, set to open in December 2015. Students and community members will learn about water conservation and how to install rain gardens at their own homes. 

Other STEAM offerings include annual arts and science fairs and a student musical theater production in the Foss High School auditorium. 

Fifth-grade student Ben Kennedy says his favorite project this year involved building a binder carrier for his table. His classmates asked their teacher if they could create a solution to a problem after realizing that the binders they use for class took too much space and caused people to trip. The teacher gave the class some parameters and students took off—calculating height and volume, designing blueprints, and building and decorating the boxes.

“I’m learning problem-solving and getting better working as team. My group learned how we could all work on the project, not just a few people,” Ben said. “It also helped with math because at the beginning of the year math was confusing. But this project helped.”


To learn more about STEAM at Sherman visit their website or call the main office at 253-571-5488. 


Get to know Sherman

Innovation Model: Sherman uses hands-on, project-based learning to infuse STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math), throughout all classes and grade levels. Teachers create projects encouraging collaboration, teamwork and interdisciplinary learning.

Students best served: Students who enjoy hands-on projects, teamwork and collaborating with classmates.

Grades: Kindergarten through fifth grade.

Students: 411

Teacher training: Multiple teachers trained by WA State LASER Institute, and STEM-trained by Tacoma School District.

School report card

School Web site

Special and after-school programs: • Accelerated Reader • Arc-GIS • Artist in Residence • Arts EnviroChallenger • Bricks4Kids (legos & robotics) • Coding with Kids • Communities in Schools • Counselor Corner • Glee Club • Little Free Library • Musical Theater • Ready! Set, Read •Smart with Art • STEM Club • Unicycling

Related links:

•  Gaining STEAM: Teaching Science through Art

• WA State Laser Institute

Designated Innovative School - Washington State