Future scientists, engineers
and astronauts gather on the second floor of Big
Piney Elementary School on a cold January
evening to design spacecraft, map constellations
and explore the frontiers of outer space. They
are all part of an after-school group called the
Fifth-grader Aurora Rees puts the finishing
touches on her rocket. She explains how the
launch pad will send the rocket high into space
to travel to “a new planet no one has discovered.”
Rees points out dark-green windows that
she added to shield the astronaut’s eyes from the
harsh sun above the earth’s atmosphere.
Fourth-graders Joce Wilson and Jayden Castillo
collaborate on the design of their rocket
ship. Castillo explains where the sleeping quarters
and a “food place” are for the astronauts.
Wilson demonstrates how the launch pad balances
the rocket before shooting it into space.
She also mentions an autopilot button designed
to give the astronauts some much needed
rest during the long journey to faraway planets.
Castillo adds that the rocket has a self-destruct
button just in case “aliens try to take over” the
“We already went to the moon,” he said.
“Now we want to go to Neptune or Saturn or
Fifth-grader Willow Lucero maps out a
distant, undiscovered constellation. She places
stars in an intricate pattern on darkened construction
paper. Then she uses parchment paper
to trace the design of the constellation. A heartshape
The constellation doesn’t have a name yet
and Lucero still has to determine the details of
its origin. But the shape is meant to “show the
world love and kindness.”
The students are participating in a new
STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art
and math) program launched at the elementary
school in November. The program is funded
through the federal 21st Century Community
Learning Centers grant. The grant is administered
by Karen Bierhaus, 21st CCLC program
consultant at the Wyoming Department of Education.
District Superintendent Steve Loyd learned
about the grant while working at another district,
said Amy Bell, Big Piney and LaBarge Elementary
principal. Loyd applied for the grant
last spring, and the district succeeded in getting
the federal money to fund an after-school
STEAM program for the next five years, Bell
After five years, if the district wants to continue
the program, they will have to find their
own funding, she said. In addition to learning
programs, the students are provided with snacks
donated by the Bank of Pinedale.
Big Piney Elementary grant and site coordinator
Keyth Ann Palmer explained that the after-
school program focuses on four core areas of
learning: cyber science; engineering and design;
energy, forces and matter and human variation.
The program is offered from 3:20 p.m. to
6:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday, Palmer
said. When students first arrive, they work on
homework and get a snack.
If the weather is warm, they go outside for
a few minutes before receiving a lesson in one
of the core areas from the program’s teachers,
Debbie Moline, Matt Guenthner and Bobbi
Guenthner. Two students from Big Piney High
School, senior Kendra Jones and sophomore
Jazmin Castillo, were hired as aides to help out.
After the lesson, the students get down and
dirty with hands-on learning. Palmer talked
about the different projects currently underway
at workstations around the room.
The STEAM-busters are starting construction
on rovers that will be sent to explore Mars.
This week, they will design the body of the
rover before engineering different parts that will
aid in sending data back to earth.
Students are also mapping out constellations
and will write a story about how their constellation
ended up in the night sky. Several STEAMbusters
are finishing a cyber project where they
take an object through a complex Lego maze
with a set of coding instructions.
Then there are the rocket ships and launch
pads engineered with Legos to take astronauts
where no human has gone before.
The school district collaborates with the Big
Piney Recreation Department to provide additional
programming after 5:15 for students.
Rec Center employees Misty Reed and Lainie
Troughton offer activities like a game where
students get to play a real-world version of
“Battleship” on mats.
Bell said that the STEAM program is “tied
to student improvement goals” in the district.
The school obtains data from district and statewide
assessments at the beginning and end of
the program to determine areas of strength and
Palmer added that the program “increases
student excitement” by inviting special visitors
like dog mushers to talk about the upcoming
dog-sled race and employees from the Forest
Service to teach students about tree rings.
“The program has really improved student
behavior and engagement,” said Bell. “We offer
enrichment in a safe, after-school environment
that is nice for working parents.”