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Hands-on approach to science and engineering is part of Pathways model at One91 middle schools

Hands-on approach to science and engineering is part of Pathways model at One91 middle schools

Students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades are excited to try new things, begin to explore what is important to them and dive deep into subjects. Exploratory classes at Eagle Ridge and Nicollet middle schools allow students to do just that in areas like family and consumer sciences, art, health, computer technology, and Project Lead the Way engineering. By providing a meaningful early introduction to the world of computer science and engineering, District 191 is teaching important skills and concepts through technology, hands-on learning, and exploration that goes beyond the textbook. 

middle school students working in STEM class

The district has been working with curriculum from Project Lead the Way (PLTW) for a decade. This innovative approach is focused on providing transformative learning experiences by offering an engaging, hands-on classroom environment that empowers students to develop skills and knowledge that are increasingly important in the modern world. Every student gets the opportunity to explore this curriculum with sixth and seventh grade students rotating through courses quarterly and eighth graders taking semester-long electives that prepare them to transition into Pathways options at Burnsville High School. 

Emily Beckmann is the PLTW teacher at Eagle Ridge and has been teaching middle school students all about the world of engineering, robotics, and more for the past four years. A former science teacher, she was excited about the curriculum because it puts a big focus on hands-on learning with trial and error, measurement, and making adjustments to find the right solution. 

“The STEM piece was exciting for me because it is more hands-on and not just based in books,” said Beckmann. “This pulls in a lot of disciplines and really allows for kids to get used to getting messy, making mistakes, and trying again, which is incredibly important. We are trying to instill in them the need to have patience and resilience and keep trying until it works.”

Students in each grade level have slightly different approaches to what they do. In sixth grade, students are more focused on designing and modeling, using 3D printers to design and create keychains based on templates with the ability to get creative. Seventh graders expand to electrical work including making circuits, electromagnets, creating a motor, and using snap circuits to power a light bulb or motor. 

“I let the students start with the snap circuits without a lot of instruction,” said Beckmann. “Most of the time they put too many things on the board and start to figure out how to apply what they have learned about electrons and paths through trial and error, and eventually really get into the design process.”

three middle school students flying a drone

A recent project combined components of art and science as students were able to design a card, create a drawing on the front, and use a circuit with copper tape, a watch battery, and LED lights to create a functioning light-up design. The students created some amazing projects and had to work through various challenges to make sure the electrical system and lights worked properly. 

Another project found seventh graders using household items to create an electromagnet and a machine that could be used to transmit morse code. Using what they learned in the classroom, students transformed a wood block, a nail, some rubber bands, magnetic wire, paper clips, and a D battery into something that used those components for a whole new function. Students enjoy the lessons and materials, but really get excited to put their learning into action with their hands.

“We do a survey every year and the students always say that they love the hands-on days the best,” said Beckmann. “I love seeing students who maybe don’t thrive in more book-focused core classes really come to life and just love what they are learning and doing with engineering. I had a student who doesn’t always get excited about school who completely lit up at the opportunity to use a drone, and that was really cool to see.”

A recent donation from engineering firm Campos EPC allowed for the purchase of new equipment for the Flight and Space class including drones, rockets, and flight simulation tools. The class takes a deep dive into the history of flight from da Vinci to now as well as the science behind it. The class culminates in a Mars Rover project where students have to navigate movement on Mars, know what the atmosphere is like, and how the human body would be impacted during the flight. Students also use a straw rocket launcher to be able to experiment with different flight paths, levels of intensity for launch, and how to maximize distance. 

four middle school students working on science project

There is also new equipment planned from VEX Robotics that will allow students to build, code, and control robots with new software and build on different coding languages like Block, Python, and C++, which are becoming essential in a variety of career paths. 

“When I was in school, they taught everyone cursive, but they don’t really do that anymore since it is no longer widely used,” said Beckmann. “I think coding is like the new cursive in that it's a huge tool that is being used more and more and will be an important part of these kids’ lives. Students who have a solid understanding of coding will have a huge advantage in the next ten years!”

Electives are a big part of the Pathways program at District 191, allowing students to experience things that they otherwise wouldn't have the opportunity to explore. Whether it is getting to use real kitchen equipment, playing an instrument, or programming a robot, middle school students are benefitting from hands-on learning experiences that go beyond the textbook.