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New school, new ideas: Dickinson Middle School to put a focus on STEM classes while making learning engaging and fun

Dickinson Middle School teacher Kyle Christensen shows off his STEM classroom at the new Dickinson Middle School on Thursday. (Sydney Mook / The Dickinson Press)1 / 2
Students will have the chance to use various types of machinery and technology in the STEM classes this year at Dickinson Middle School. (Sydney Mook / The Dickinson Press)2 / 2

For some students, walking into a math or science class can be nerve-wracking or even a little intimidating. It can be equally difficult to make science, technology, engineering and mathematics, better known as STEM, classes fun and interesting, but that's exactly what Dickinson Middle School is trying to accomplish.

The school began meeting with members of the local manufacturer's roundtable, such as Dickinson Ready Mix, Baker Boy and many others, last year to see what aspects of STEM could be relatable to students now and how they could be integrated into the curriculum, Principal Marcus Lewton said. He said a group of retired teachers have been working for the past two years to help develop the curriculum.

"Every seventh- and eighth-grade student that comes into this school will have an entire year, every day of STEM," Lewton said. "Which is really cool, and that's probably not the norm, but we felt that was really important."

Additionally, he said employers told him they need employees that can communicate well, collaborate, think critically and are creative.

Erwin VanVeldhuizen, who worked with the various companies, said the companies were eager to help and be involved in the project.

"They just want to help in whatever way they can," he said. "We just really appreciate their input. It's valuable, it's real-world and it will connect students to what's in their future."

VanVeldhuizen said there are many types of jobs that are included under STEM and they want to introduce the students to as many of those areas as possible.

"We want to connect students with what's happening in the world of work," he said. "You go to any of these businesses ㅡ science, technology, engineering and math, it's all a big part of what they do in their day-to-day work."

Lewton noted that students may sometimes ask their parents questions like "When am I going to use this?" or "Why do I have to learn this?" However, if the parent or teacher can connect what the student is learning to a real job or a family member in the industry, it can help the student be more engaged.

"That is huge for the adolescent mind in making meaning of what they're learning," he said. "When kids know that something is important because it's real and it's not just in school, they're more likely to be engaged."

Learning and creating

STEM education at Dickinson Middle School, which will host its grand opening next week, consists of four instructors—two for seventh grade and two for eighth grade—teaching a semester-long class, twice a year. The classes are a part of the standard curriculum for all students for the upcoming year. Each teacher will focus on a different part of STEM.

For example, Mary Jane Jeske, a seventh-grade teacher, will be focusing on STEM in nature. Students will have the chance to do a deep-sea challenge where they will investigate the suit technology needed for deep-sea exploration. They will also have the opportunity to engineer prosthetic tails using clay and a 3-D printer or explore basic biomedical skills, from heart rate to injections in a mechanical arm.

Dixie Dennis, another seventh-grade teacher, will look at exploring solutions to scenarios or problems she gives to the students. Students will explore food production in her class, from grinding wheat to designing a recipe with certain material constraints. They'll even have the chance to use a robotic pancake maker, which will involve them calculating measurements and programming the machine to design pancakes. They'll also get to make a new product and pitch it to potential "investors" in a "Shark Tank"-style setting.

Kyle Christensen teaches eighth grade at Dickinson Middle School. His class will focus on engineering design, letting students engineer a clay model, re-create it on a 3-D printer and then put it into an animation. They'll learn how to use and program a drone to survey land use and inspect structures. In another module, students can learn about constructing metal and wood projects with real-world constraints.

Eighth-grade students in Todd Selle's class will learn about engineering solutions. They'll compete against their classmates to make a load-efficient tower and use software that can be with an electronic invention tool to connect everyday objects to computer programs. Also, students will get to shoot and edit their own short movie, something Selle has said has been a crowd favorite in the past.

Some of the classrooms will have a modular setup, allowing students to pair up and choose what they learn about for a certain length of time, while others will have a combination of general instruction and modular learning.

Dennis, who has been teaching for the past six years, said they want to modernize the curriculum so students will be able to take what they learn in school and apply it to the real world one day.

"A big, new school needs big, new ideas," she said. "I'm trying to push the STEM department towards the future. That's not easy, but giving kids the chance to explore their own ideas is really important. If you give them a chance to do that when they're young, they're going to be better at it when they're adults."

Dennis said oil and fracking companies deal with ph a lot, something students will be learning a little bit about in her class. She hopes the STEM classes get students more comfortable with things like that. Additionally, she hopes that the classes help girls realize that they can have jobs in STEM too.

"It's really for everybody," she said. "There's so many careers out there that relate back to science, technology, engineering and math and to have that all wrapped up into one class that every student takes, I really hope it'll help them in their future."

Sydney Mook

Sydney Mook started working as the multimedia editor for The Press in January 2016.  She graduated from the University of South Dakota with a bachelor's degree in journalism and political science in three and half years in December 2015. While at the USD, she worked for the campus newspaper, The Volante, as well as the television news show, Coyote News. She also interned at South Dakota Public Broadcasting and spent the summer before her senior year interning in Fort Knox for the ROTC Cadet Summer Training program. In her spare time, Sydney enjoys cheering on the New York Yankees and the Kentucky Wildcats, as well as playing golf. If you've got an idea for a video be sure to give her a call!

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