| By Maureen Kenney |

A Wednesday morning in January meant it was too cold for four-year-old Ben Sonderman and his classmates at Shelby County Catholic School in Harlan, Iowa to venture out to the playground. But Sonderman did not seem to mind.

Little Angels Preschooler, Ben Sonderman, plays with pyramid stackers on a LED light table at Shelby County Catholic School in Harlan, Iowa.

“My favorite thing to do is play at this table,” said Sonderman.

“We build towers but Kenny always wrecks them,” added Sonderman in reference to his playmate at the same table.

Besides learning the nuances having a playmate, the school hopes that Sonderman will use the table to develop skills associated with the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics or STEM.

“STEM has been initiative across the state of Iowa and across the nation for a few years now. We started doing some STEM initiatives a few years ago with our upper-level students… But we really felt like the creative thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and experimentation we could start at a younger age,” said Ann Andersen, Principal of Shelby County Catholic School.

A $3,000 grant from the Catholic Foundation of Southwest Iowa allowed the school to purchase a LED light table and sand/water center with accessories such as geometric shapes, translucent letters, and animal x-rays to enhance the STEM curriculum in the school’s Little Angels Preschool.

“…This table is something you can do in the classroom and it doesn’t take up a lot of space but it’s innovative, it’s new, and the kids enjoy it,” said Andersen.

And while the preschoolers do not necessarily understand STEM when playing with pyramid stackers or writing their names in the sand, Preschool Teacher, Joy Petersen, is focused on how the table activities will transfer beyond her classroom.

“Pre-school lays the foundation. If you think of building the house, we are the foundation so we have to make sure it’s a solid foundation for all the other grades to build upon,” said Petersen.

Enhancements in STEM contributed to the preschool’s recent ascent to the highest level on the Quality Rating System assessed by Iowa State University – a five-star program.

Any number of achievements however, will not distract Principal Andersen from the ultimate mission of the school.

“I think our mission statement, ‘growing in faith with Jesus, a family-oriented school committed to academic excellence’ pretty much says it all. Faith comes first,” said Andersen.