Young children are typically filled with wonder at the way the world works. They are curious; they want to know how things fit together. Some even start to wonder what they can build, or how they are going to become a part of the world around them.

In the Jackson Township school district in Ocean County, administrators and teachers worked together to see how they could keep that spirit of wonder alive. They built their own science curriculum, which is aligned with state standards and is designed to nourish the natural curiosity of children.

“We wanted to get away from students memorizing formulas, and more to a place where kids are doing, where they are learning something in a practical way,” said Robert Rotante, Jackson’s director of curriculum for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects. “We didn’t need a textbook, per se. It’s more of a philosophy.”

Why have students memorize facts and formulas when they can look up the information on their cell phones in a few seconds? Rotante reasoned.

“We want them to learn values that they will keep forever, not just memorize something they will forget as soon as summer vacation rolls around,” he said.

At the same time, while the internet can provide instant answers, Jackson’s educators felt that students were losing the ability to listen to and learn from each other.

Teaching students to collaborate, and respect each other’s ideas, is an important part of what she tries to achieve in the classroom, said Lori Rudenjak, a fourth- grade teacher at Elms Elementary School.

“The ability to listen to each other has almost completely gone away,” she said. “We’re bringing that back to the classroom.” Students are “taking turns explaining why their ideas might work. They are so excited about every single science challenge we can give them.”

That’s why the Jackson Elementary School district won an NJSBA School Leader Award last year for its elementary science curriculum. Instead of multiple choice exams and vocabulary quizzes, students engage in problem-solving sessions that result in answers limited only by their imagination.  Every design challenge is constructed to allow groups of students to synthesize ideas and determine the best possible solution.  Students are given projects to match their differing abilities.

How does this impact students in the classroom?

Elms Elementary School Assistant Principal Shawn Levinson says the district is trying to prepare students to solve “challenges and problems we don’t have answers for yet.”

In the classroom, says Rudenjak, students create projects together and see if their theories actually work. For example, earlier this year, students built a vehicle that didn’t rely on fossil fuels.

They used cardboard, tape, straws, toothpicks, marshmallows and glue. Balloons, batteries and rubber bands were employed.

The vehicles had to travel a meter in distance (about 3.3 feet), Rudenjak said.

“Some couldn’t get their vehicles to go straight. They turned in circles,” she said. “There was science involved, but it was really about problem solving and collaboration.”

Students also learned how to cope with, and learn from, failure. Levinson said that students “always have a chance to redesign” their projects.

The School Leader Awards, which are presented each year, showcase creative programs from New Jersey schools. Entries are judged on the level of innovation, how well the program addresses specific needs of the students, the relationship of the program to the state’s New Jersey Student Learning standards and results.

Alan Guenther is the assistant editor for the New Jersey School Boards Association.