STEAM class engages students in new way

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Students like Eyon Pergande are enjoying the middle school’s new STEAM class. Available to both seventh and eighth graders, STEAM includes hands-on activities and real-world applications based largely around the students’ interests. (Submitted photo)

Eighth graders Landon Johnson (left) and Cayden Pester work on snap circuits in their STEAM class. (Submitted photo)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

A STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) class offered at MFL MarMac Middle School has proved successful in its first year, largely by allowing students to follow their own interests.

Available to both seventh and eighth graders, STEAM developed from the “Day in the Life” activities held at the school the past few years, which gave kids a hands-on way to learn more about potential career fields.

“The ‘Day in the Life’ activities were really great,” said teacher Dawn Colsch, during a presentation to the school board May 13, “but we wanted to incorporate a class that did some of the same things with real-world applications and hands-on activities, and pull in those interests that normally they don’t get in the regular classes.”

Colsch has taught the eighth-grade STEAM class, while Brandon Burke works with the seventh graders. Natalie Campbell, the school’s talented and gifted (TAG) adviser, helps out in both classrooms.

Campbell said the younger TAG participants typically leave their regular classes to work on special STEAM-centered projects in her classroom, but it was harder for the older students to make that work with their schedules. Staff decided a separate class would be helpful, while also allowing others to join.

“I’ve done a lot of research on it,” Campbell explained, “and a lot of schools do STEAM and actually have it for all their kids because it’s something they can all strive at. We incorporated these classes so everyone got a taste of it.”

“I would like to see TAG be more for everyone because you do miss kids,” added principal Denise Mueller. “You have this kid over here who’s thinking outside the box and can come up with all these ideas.” 

Guest speakers were a large part of the eighth-grade STEAM class, Colsch said. Wetlands Centre Director Alicia Mullarkey introduced citizen science through a ladybug field count and also showed students a GIS program. Phil Burgess and Emily Rocksvold shared information about meteorites and local geology. Electrician Pat Mullarkey spoke about electricity and even took some students on a tour around the school, showing them some of the work he’s completed. 

Students learned more about technology in agriculture thanks to Kyle Keehner, from Three Rivers. The Schuttes, from Jo-Lane Dairy, discussed their robotics set-up, and Travis Johnson and Brent Mohs touched on the crop side.

“They brought a drone in and flew it around and talked about the applications there and GPS,” Colsch said.

Chad Bettmann, with 3M, spoke about engineering and manufacturing, while Keystone AEA’s Jason Martin-Hiner focused on 3D wax printing. 

“He brought a printer in and, oh my gosh, the things happening in 3D printing are just unreal,” Colsch noted. “They are printing cars and they can even print organs.”

Eighth graders also took a field trip to Luther College, where they viewed a program in the planetarium and enjoyed hands-on STEAM activities.

Students completed their own projects too. One involved painting inspirational or content-themed murals around the school—in the hallway, math room, science rooms, social studies room and bathroom. 

“Those took a longer period of time than some of the others, so then we had some fillers for those who got done early. We had a little electricity kit, snap circuits and a box of wires and light bulbs for them to finagle on their own. We had some plaster of Paris tracks, so they studied the animal that made the tracks,” Colsch shared. “Everybody was doing their own thing. Sometimes you were with a partner, sometimes you’re on your own.”

 Some projects were student choice, based around their interests. They could pick from a list or bring in their own.

“Kids were bringing in carburetors to work on and leaf blowers,” Colsch said, while other projects ranged from raising quails and pheasants to video game creation and coding.

In seventh grade, Burke took a different approach, focusing on engineering and the creative aspect. One fun project involved building toothpick bridges using thousands of toothpicks and wood glue, to discover how much weight the structures could hold. Now, students are constructing roller coasters.

“The kids are taking foam insulation like you’d see on pipes in your house and they are creating tracks where the marble has to do various tasks. There are kids who’ve got stuff taped to the wall, taped to the door, and it’s all over my room. It’s kind of a disaster,” he said. “The kids really seem to enjoy it.”

 With the seventh graders, Campbell said it’s fun to give them just enough information, but not too much, so they can do the problem-solving themselves.

“Whatever you do in life, you’re going to have to problem solve. They’re not going to tell you everything you need to do,” she remarked. “Those are the skills we want to make sure they have, as much as possible, for whatever they’re going to end up doing in life.”

The STEAM class has become one of the students’ favorites, said Campbell, because they can focus on topics they’re interested in. Even the speakers were brought in based on student suggestions.

Burke said it’s especially rewarding to see kids who sometimes struggle in other classes find their niche in STEAM.

“I have a couple kids who really struggle in my social studies class, but are A students in STEAM because they’re creating, working hands-on and are using things that are, in their mind, very useful, where learning about ancient Africa isn’t as fun for them,” he shared.

The students are happily sharing their experiences with parents and friends.

“I actually had a conversation with some of the juniors and seniors on the baseball team, and they were very jealous of some of the things we were talking about in STEAM,” Burke said. “It just shows you right there the kids are talking about it and they do enjoy it.”

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