You've never seen focus until you've watched a 7-year-old's eyes follow the exact trajectory of a marshmallow floating through the air.
Hodge Elementary School first-grade teacher Paul Barnes has managed to capture the short attention spans of his class in the final hour of the school week with marshmallow catapults. But he's not the only one.
Livier Alcala and her second-graders launched paper rockets across the classroom with the help of plastic straws. Sarah Cruz rolled out yoga mats and helped third-graders perfect their "downward dog." Some students choose to spend their Friday afternoons learning new card games, while others decide to shake it out with a new dance.
The classes are all part of Hodge's new STEAM club, a weekly enrichment class that allows kids to explore activities related to science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics. Because Denton ISD elementary schools let out at 3 p.m. this year instead of 2:40 p.m., Principal Patty Jensen shifted the schedule and set aside a half hour on Fridays solely dedicated to the clubs.
"Instead of just absorbing all that extra time, we wanted to do something that the kids wouldn't normally get to do in class," Jensen said. "The kids leave so excited on Fridays and are ready to come back on Monday."
The clubs also function as a motivator for good behavior. If kids make good choices all week (listen to their teacher, turn in assignments on time, pay attention in class), they get to choose their club on Friday. For the kids who have trouble throughout the week, their teachers will choose a club for them.
Barnes is in charge of the first-grade engineering class. On Friday, they made catapults out of rubber bands and Popsicle sticks. In previous weeks, they've built paper columns and made counter-balance structures out of wooden blocks.
"Whenever engineers do something, they take something that already exists and try to make it better," Barnes told his class as he wrapped a rubber band around his catapult example. "This is just one way to build this. If you find a better way to do it, go for it."
First-grader Riley Olson and his best friend Teagan Matheson went straight to work. This was their first time in the engineering club, and their motivations were clear.
"We came because of the marshmallows!" Riley screamed.
Marshmallows or not, they're in the beginning stages of the engineering process: making models. They'll have the chance in the coming weeks (if they're good) to explore other clubs as well, like cooking, science, technology or dance.
"We try to tell them to do as many things as they can and not just focus on one thing," Barnes said.
An emphasis on hands-on activities in science and math departments is nothing new in elementary schools, but Hodge is following a nationwide push to include art in its STEM learning.
According to research from the University of Florida, kids who study the arts are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievements and three times more likely to be rewarded for good school attendance. If students take that interest in fine arts further and study music or art for four years in high school, they typically score 98 points higher on their SATs than their peers who took one or fewer semesters of fine arts classes.
"If we had science without art, there would be some ugly buildings out there," Jensen said. "You need that design aspect of it. Science without art creates an imbalanced society."
The enrichment clubs might have an extra impact for Hodge students as opposed to other schools in the district.
Data from the Texas Education Agency shows 80 percent of Hodge students qualify for free or reduced lunch, 72 percent are considered "at-risk" of dropping out of school and more than half are English language learners. Traditionally, each of those populations have struggled in school.
"Some students come to Hodge with pretty horrible experiences," Jensen said. "We acknowledge their history and help them work through it, but we will not let it be an excuse for their future. We take a lot of pride in providing a solid foundation so that they can achieve at high levels when they leave us."
CAITLYN JONES can be reached at 940-566-6862.